The first Bass Champs event was held in 1977 and brought together the top 10 from the 1976 Bassmaster Classic and 10 of the top anglers (2nd through 11th) from the B.A.S.S. Federation Championship. The 1st-place angler automatically got a birth into the Bassmaster Classic and wasn’t invited to the B.A.S.S. Champs event.
As an event, B.A.S.S. Champs didn’t count for much. There were no points towards AOY or Classic qualification – just a decent pay day for the winner through 10th place and the thrill provided the amateurs fishing against the toughest pros in competitive bass fishing.
The first Bass Champs event, held on Tennessee’s Percy Priest Reservoir, was won by then two-time Classic winner, Rick Clunn. Contestants fished out of identical 16-foot Duracraft aluminum bass boats, rigged with 35-horse Johnson outboards and two 6-gallon fuel tanks. The event was designed to get back to the roots of bass fishing – away from the high-powered bass boats that were becoming the definition of competitive bass fishing.
The event was such a success, B.A.S.S. decided to make it an annual event (it lasted through 1982).
The second annual Bass Champs event would hold onto the main theme, show anglers they didn’t need the high-dollar glass wonders to compete in tournaments. But the 1978 Bass Champs event would take on another campaign – bring attention to the venue in which it was held, Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Swamp.
In typical Ray Scott fashion, Bass Champs 1978 became the pulpit for Scott’s environmental concerns – this time the dredging of the basin. At the time, the Atchafalaya Basin was the largest remaining hardwood swamp in the U.S. Unfortunately, dredging of the river had created a silt problem. Corps of Engineers wanted to dredge the river to get rid of the silt, the problem was, it would drain the swamp. The ecological concern was right up Scott’s alley.
The competition consisted of the following Bassmaster Trail anglers and Federation anglers:
- Rick Clunn
- Larry Nixon
- Sonny Viola
- Bill Stephens
- Bobby Murray
- Roland Martin
- Doug Odom
- Bill Ward
- Bo Dowden
- John Powell
B.A.S.S. Federation Amateurs
- Russ Bringger
- Billy Phillips
- Mike Heard
- Tom Kaufman
- W. Cheatham
- Jerry Elder
- Jim Lent
- Don Pepper
- Bill Horne
- Connie Peterson
The list of pros looked daunting for any angler to go up against. The list contained all former Classic qualifiers as well as two previous Classic winners (Rick Clunn – 1976 and 77, Bobby Murray – 1971). On top of that there was four-time Angler of the Year winner Roland Martin to contend with.
The only known amateur angler in the mix was Billy Phillips of Tennessee who had double qualified for the 1977 BASS Champs event as a pro and a Federation angler. Phillips would wind up placing 9th in the 1977 event.
As with the inaugural event in 1977, the pros had all the media attention at the start. Not many gave credence to the Federation anglers, and possibly rightly so considering only one Federation angler made the top-10 in 1977. That would change in 1978.
What promised to be another great mystery event, though, turned into one of the toughest tournaments in Bassmaster history – even with only 20 anglers. The one-day practice round could be considered even worse than sparse, with most anglers blanking. The event was truly one that anyone could win.
The first day only produced nine bass for the field of anglers. And, again, it would look like Clunn would win it. His three fish (30% of the fish weighed that day) tipped the scales to 7-08. Pro Bill Stephens weighed in two fish for 3-13 and held down the second spot.
On the second day of competition, the tables turned, though. Clunn, who had been fishing Lost Lake, had been talking with Larry Nixon about their day-two plans. Nixon said he was planning on going to Cow Island – an area that Clunn had wanted to fish on day one but couldn’t find it. Clunn relented the small body of water to Nixon because he thought he could continue to catch fish from Lost Lake and he “didn’t want to crowd his fellow Texan.”
The move paid off for Nixon as he weighed in six bass for 16-13 and took the lead. Clunn weighed one fish and fell to third place behind Federation angler Mike Heard who had a two-day total of 11-05. Bill Stephens weighed two fish and dropped to fourth place with 10-06. Stephens evidently spent too much time watching the Atchafalaya Big Foot.
By the end of the second day, only nine anglers had managed to weigh a fish.
Nearly everyone in the competition knew where Nixon was fishing and gave him free reign of the small oxbow. On the last day, he would only be able to manage two more fish to bring his total to a paltry 22-13. Federation angler Russ Bringger, who fished Cow Island all three days, made a valiant comeback on the final day and almost won the event. He ended up weighing four fish on the final day, including a four-pounder. He also lost two fish in the three-pound class which may have been enough to win the event.
Billy Phillips, who had only weighed in roughly three pounds through the first two rounds, brought in an 11-pound bag for a total of 14-02 for third place. Sonny Viola, who had had a run-in with a water moccasin the first day, blanked the first two days of competition but brought in five bass the last day for a total weight of 11-13 – good enough for fourth place. Mike Heard, who blanked the final day, fell to the fifth spot.
Nixon relied on fishing cypress trees in five feet of water with a worm to win his first Bassmaster event. He reported that he had to make multiple casts to each target in order to get the fish to eat. Bringger relied on a Heddon Tiny Torpedo and a 20-year-old silver Dalton Special for the second spot.
The Federation anglers this year proved they could compete with the pros with four amateurs making the top-10. Including 2nd-, 3rd- and 5th-place finishes. That’s stout considering the tough conditions.
Some crazy things happened during the event that we alluded to previously. Yes, it was reported that Bill Stephens had a Big Foot sighting and that Sonny Viola almost got the bad end of a snake. Other crazy incidents included John Powell getting lost in the swamp the final day and breaking his motor, having to be towed home by a commercial crawfish fisherman. Rick Clunn’s boat came un-hitched from the tow vehicle on the way back to the weigh-in stage on day two, crossing four lanes of traffic and a median without getting hit.
One of the most amazing things to happen, though, was the number of fish caught overall. A total of 58 fish were caught for the 20 anglers over three days. There were no limits and four anglers, including Bo Dowden and John Powell, blanked all three days. For taking first place, Nixon got $6,000 (boat and cash), Bringger received $4,600 (boat and cash) and Billy Phillips received $1,000. Fourth through 10th place received $500 each.
The final standings are presented below.
|Larry Nixon, TX|
|* Russ Bringger, FL|
|* Billy Phillips, TN|
|Sonny Viola, LA|
|* Mike Heard, MS|
|Rick Clunn, TX|
|Bill Stephens, AL|
|Bobby Murray, TN|
|* Tom Kaufman, IL|
|Roland Martin, OK|
|* J. W. Cheatham, AR|
|Doug Odom, SC|
|Bill Ward, MO|
|* Jerry Elder, VA|
|* Jim Lent, IA|
|* Don Pepper, WVA|
|Bo Dowden, LA|
|* Bill Horne, VA|
|* Connie Peterson, MN|
|John Powell, AL|
|Rick Clunn, TX|
|Larry Nixon, TX|
|* J. W. Cheatham, AR|
1st Place received $2,400 cash and a $3,600 BASS Champ rig. 2nd Place received $1,000 cash and a $3,600 BASS Champ rig.
Editor’s note: This is Part Two of a four-part series on the 1978 Bassmaster Trail. Over the course of the next two weeks we’ll cover the 1978 season, the Classic qualifiers and the 1978 Bassmaster Classic. To read Part One, click here.