LAKE FORK — When the Toyota Texas Bass Classic was first held on Lake Fork in 2007 no one really knew what to expect.
Because of its slot limit, tournaments had always avoided the lake. Some asked for a tournament exemption that would allow them to bring bass to a weigh-in, but the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department dug in and said no. It might have been good for a few, but the lake was an economic powerhouse for the region and a license seller for the department. It couldn't risk a screw up.
A number of pro fishermen were drawn to the lake because of its big fish reputation, but that only whetted their appetite for competitive fishing.
There needed to be a creative option, and that is where then-Lake Fork resident and BASS pro Kelly Jordon stepped in. Working as the go-between between TPWD and the Professional Anglers Association, Jordon came up with the idea of a tournament featuring professional fishermen. He worked with TPWD biologists until a workable plan was developed for a catch-and-release event.
In the early years it featured a four-man team format that had two of the fishermen fishing a morning round and then their teammates going out in the afternoon.
Onboard each time was a tournament official with a belly board to measure each catch and a set of Boga Grips to weigh the fish. This made it a typical five-fish tournament, but only those above the slot limit were destined for the weigh-in.
Paper tournaments were nothing new, but they were something many thought would never be brought to pro bass fishing. Holding up fish, it was believed, was too important in drawing a crowd to the weigh-in.
Those organizing the TTBC had a different idea to draw in the public. They added an outdoor expo and entertainment, and the crowds did show. Maybe an even more important crowd because for some it was their introduction to fishing and outdoors activities.
Since its beginning the tournament has evolved. After moving it to Lake Conroe for a five-year run the team format gave way to an individual event. This year it is pitting the top anglers from BASS' Elite Series, the Walmart FLW Tour and PAA's own tournaments for an unofficial world championship with a total prize payout of more than $400,000.
Jordon said the team format was fun for the fishermen because it allowed them to get to know other competitors they might otherwise never meet. And they were competitive. The individual format with entries based on tour standings gives the event a different championship feel.
"I had no idea it would get this big, but I certainly hoped so," Jordon said last week while pre-fishing for the tournament. "It shows what can happen when you get the right folks that can bring it to bear."
Jordon, whose team won the second Classic, said the tournament is more than a gimmick to touring pros.
"It is awesome. It is a big deal to win this because all of the tours are there. You are going to be fishing against some of the hottest guys out there. It is kind of like a unified belt," Jordon said.
In fact, Virginia fisherman Jacob Powroznik, winner of last weekend's BASS Elite Series tournament on Toledo Bend Reservoir announced from the podium that he was headed to the TTBC, his favorite tournament of the year.
Jordon said one of the attractions is that the tournament is like the Bassmaster Classic or FLW Forrest Wood Cup because the fishermen are fishing for nothing but the title.
"The pressure is off, whether you fish good or bad, so you go out there and fish as hard as you can," he explained.
Lessons learned from the TTBC have had an impact on professional fishing. It has made catch-and-release a more viable option. It is already being used on the made-for-television Major League Fishing, and Jordon believes it could someday be used by the two major circuits as well as other organizations.
"The important thing is that it gives you credit for every fish you catch," he explained.
Since the beginning the Texas Parks and Wildlife has also benefitted from the tournament. A good part of that comes from the fact Gulf States Toyota, the tournament's title sponsor, is owned by Houston's Friedkin family. Company Chairman and Chief Executive Office is Dan Friedkin, who has been on the Parks and Wildlife Commission since 2005.
The most obvious gain for the department has been a $250,000 annual donation that has funded its Neighborhood Fishin' Program and the State-Fish Art Contest.
"We have raised $1.75 million to support our youth outreach programs related to fishing," said Dave Terre, the department's liaison to the tournament since it began. "Our Neighborhood Fishin' program has doubled in size from eight to 16 lakes. The money has not only helped us purchase catfish for stocking, but also in marketing the project."
Terre added that Texas' State-Fish Art Contest attracted 1,100 entries last year, more than any other state with a similar program.
Beyond the financial rewards, the tournament has also allowed TPWD to talk about its fisheries management and habitat improvement programs. That includes air time each year on the tournaments television replay as well as to the thousands that come to the event each year.
While there are no written agreements, both Jordon and Terre believe the TTBC has a long future on Texas lakes.
"I fully expect it to go on. Come on, this is the Toyota Texas Bass Classic," Jordon said.
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