With the Bassmaster Team Championship Classic Fish-Off in the books, Collin Smith became the final qualifier for the 2023 Bassmaster Classic. Smith is a solid representative for the spot, a lifelong bass fisherman and avid grass-roots tournament competitor. Qualifying through the popular 5 Alive Team Trail, and fishing his home waters of Lake Hartwell, Smith snuck by friends and other hometown anglers to earn the last spot.
“You can’t put a price on a Classic berth,” Smith assured me when I interviewed him. Recognizing the difficulty in his feat, he was ecstatic about the invitation.
I’ve often wondered about the other big story behind this event – the one we seldom see reported in cheery press releases. The Team Championship and corresponding Fish-Off, you see, results in at least one angler going away a superstar. His partner, however, is left behind.
Many of you know the details. Prior to the fish-off that Collin Smith won, the Bassmaster Team Championship was held to determine the best B.A.S.S.-affiliated team in the nation. Smith won this, too, along with partner Brady Kimbrell. Immediately following that tournament, Smith, Kimbrell and four others (the second and third place two-man teams) squared off in the winner-take-all event to determine the Classic qualifier.
Kimbrell and Smith’s team win came with a substantial $25,000 purse. But that’s peanuts, as we all know, compared to a Classic berth, especially for the pro-angler hopefuls who make up the majority of the Team Championship field.
At the end of it all, Smith took home the crown and the slot, while Kimbrell and the five other anglers had a bullet point for their résumé.
Now I don’t make the rules, but I’ve often wondered how this concept came to be. B.A.S.S. determines the best team, then awards the individual. There’s only so many Classic spots to go around, I guess. Three are offered to individual amateurs of the B.A.S.S. Nation, but qualification there is more difficult than the team event.
So Smith ended up the winner, but not before what I assumed were some tense team discussions.
Let’s first look more at the tournament itself, and how the scenario set up to be a Hartwell shootout.
The 5 Alive Team Trail is one of the Carolinas' most popular circuits. Hosting three divisions with five tournaments each, all 15 derbies take place on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell.
“Ever since they put Green Pond Landing here, and the Classics were here, everything comes to Hartwell,” confirmed Kimbrell. Fans will recognize the publicized tourism push Anderson, South Carolina hoped to achieve by building the state-of-the-art tournament facility. It’s worked.
So guys like Kimbrell and Smith can stay close to the house, fish for five figures most weekends, and likely qualify for a championship event that awards an even larger purse, or boat, or trip to the biggest show in fishing.
As early as last February, “we settled in and set our eyes on making the Team Championship,” according to Smith. Kimbrell confirmed that was the plan and the two “talked about it all year.”
Both fished several divisions of events that could qualify for the Championship. Both came very close with other partners. But fate was determined that Smith and Kimbrell would be together to make a run at the B.A.S.S. event.
Day 1 went well. “We never even made it to our primary area,” Kimbrell confirmed. While tournament fishing is never like taking candy from a baby, the local team was off to a very good start. Day 2 resulted again in a strong limit after running a few favorite spots, anchored by a late-day cull that won the event. The team quickly found themselves $25,000 richer and the subject of more media attention than they had ever seen.
The work, however, was far from over.
Immediately following the festivities, with lines frayed and hooks to sharpen, Smith and Kimbrell found themselves turning from triumphant buddies to hardcore competitors. With everything now on the line, surely the gloves were off.
But maybe not. In yet another example of why our sport is unique, and how it’s played by some of the most genuine human beings around, Smith and Kimbrell avoided any conflict and came to a gentleman’s agreement.
“We’re best friend and we weren’t going to let anything come in the way of that, not even a Classic berth,” reflected Smith.
Would the two race to the winning spot?
“Never,” confirmed Kimbrell. The team talked it over, and each was honest with the other on where they’d like to start the fish-off. Having a wealth of local knowledge helped, but “everything was on the board (fair game) for the other,” Kimbrell added.
Throughout the two-day tournament, the team never split water, each trying their hardest to win, but sincerely rooting for the other.
“I wanted it for Brady as badly as for myself,” Smith offered. “We were going to keep the respect, and, at the same time, focus on the task ahead of us.”
In a surprise move, influenced a bit by a tight schedule, Kimbrell chose to operate a B.A.S.S-owned boat for the first day of the event, rather than return home overnight to retrieve his personal rig. The decision is one he somewhat regrets, as his comfort-level, and unfamiliar electronics, hampered his performance.
In any case, there’s certainly no bad blood between these two. “When it comes down to what the Classic means, you gotta earn it,” Kimbrell confirmed.
It’s doubtful this is the last we’ll hear of this dynamic duo. With numerous major events already slated for Hartwell next year, including a rumored ABA Championship with its multiple-boat grand prize, look for Smith and Kimbrell to again be prowling the remote offshore haunts that got them to this year’s dance.
And look for them to each to be rooting for the other.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)