When the 45th annual Geico Bassmaster Classic unfolds a tapestry of talent across Lake Hartwell near Greenville, South Carolina, February 20-22, the cadre of competitive competence will contain a common cord of Arkansan affinity. Five standouts of Natural State heritage will bring their experience and ability to Greenville with hopes of bringing home the Classic trophy.
Mark Davis, Scott Rook, Kevin Short, Mike McClelland and Stephen Browning each cut their teeth on Arkansas waters and all agree that what they've come to love about their home state has had a huge impact not only on their tactical development, but also the preparation needed to face a broad spectrum of fisheries on the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Classic veterans all, Arkansas's native sons have their go-to baits, their stylistic preferences, their favorite waters, but all share a deep appreciation for the state that has helped ready them for a shot at the title of titles. Here's a look at who's representing Arkansas.
Hometown: Little Rock
Classic Appearance: 9th
Signature Technique: Fishing with jigs and worms
Favorite Arkansas Waters: Arkansas River
Scott Rook came close to claiming another Classic title for Arkansas with his second-place finish on the Louisiana Delta in 2001. A decade later, he posted another strong finish at the same venue with a seventh-place effort on this famed fishery. The Louisiana Delta is a very different scenario than what he'll face on Hartwell, but Rook echoes his fellow Arkansans' appreciation for what his home state has meant to his development as a professional angler. "I feel like I'm a very versatile angler," Rook said. "I can put down my rod with 20-pound line and pick up a spinning rod with six and not miss a beat." "We have shallow, muddy lakes, we have deep, clear lakes, we have lakes with grass, we have the Arkansas River. I think that's why you see so many great anglers come out of the state of Arkansas. It's because of the diverse fisheries we have. Arkansas is the only state that has had a Classic qualifier every single year." Growing up, Rook was one of those kids that basically taught themselves the ways of the lakes and rivers. His family had marginal interest and, like most Southern homes, the basics were handily available.
"My dad wasn't into fishing, but as long as I can remember I liked to fish," Rook recalled. ìWe had an old tackle box and a couple of rod and reels, and I used those at a pretty early age, like when I was 5 or 6 years old. "I was in my early 20s before I fished my first tournament. I've always said that fishing picked me–I didn't pick fishing." Of course, ever since his career tapped him on the shoulder, Rook has dropped his trolling motor in just about every freshwater scenario the nation has to offer. In each case, his Arkansas-born angling acumen has provided the mental waypoints he's needed to chart a course to success. "I have applied a lot of what I've learned here nationwide," Rook said. "I've learned how to fish in gin-clear water and I've learned to fish in really muddy water and that's helped me a lot along the way. A bass is a bass anywhere you go, and I can apply something Iíve learned in Arkansas to any lake we fish anywhere."
Having seen Hartwell at the 2008 Classic, Rook knows what to expect and he's eager to take another shot at the lake. When he gets there, he'll no doubt refer to his experience back home. "If I had to pick one lake that Hartwell is similar to, I'd say Lake Ouachita with no grass in it," Rook said. "It's a great big lake that's spread out with lots of creeks and it has a couple of big river arms like Lake Ouachita. It's really similar, but it doesnít have grass like Ouachita occasionally does." Heading into this year's Classic, Rook said meteorological matters would be of utmost concern. This time of year, weather can play a significant role in tournament outcomes, so staying on top of current and forthcoming trends will be his focus.
"In late February, if we have a warming spell, it will be shallow-water fishing; if we have a cold spell between now and then it will be more deep-water fishing," he said. "More than likely, it will be won deep, but if it continues to warm, you can continue to fish shallow. The weather is going to be the biggest factor in what you can do. And you might have to mix it up some."
As Arkansas's quintet of angling ambassadors heads to Lake Hartwell, Davis, Browning, Short, McClelland and Rook will entrust their fate to the piscatorial pedigrees founded in the waters of their youth. And while itís been three decades since B.A.S.S. brought the Classic to Pine Bluff in 1985, the state has five solid shots at seeing the trophy in 2015.
Hometown: Hot Springs
Classic Appearance: 10th
Signature Technique: Pitching/flipping shallow wood
Favorite Arkansas Waters: Lake Millwood
Outdoor activities were a big part of Stephen Browning's youth, as he spent many mornings fishing with his dad and grandfather on the Arkansas River near his boyhood home in Pine Bluff. Much of their time was spent on the river's lower reaches from Pine Bluff to Pendleton; and while Browning enjoyed the company, he quickly realized where his interest was taking root. "My dad and my grandfather were big crappie fishermen, but as a kid you have to be doing something and I couldn't let a cork sit very long," Browning said. "I'd sit in the back of the boat and cast worms or spinnerbaits. That intrigued me more than looking at a cork and waiting on it to go under."
Over the years, Browning has had ample opportunity to hone his bass skills on Arkansas waters. And, like Davis also noted, the state is no one-trick pony. "I think it's the sheer diversity of the whole state," Browning said of his development as a professional bass angler. "I grew up in south Arkansas fishing the river, but that's why I moved to Hot Springs–to learn how to catch fish out of these highland reservoirs." Making his home near a trio of very different lakes–DeGray, Hamilton and Ouachita–Browning has the ideal practice range for wherever his professional schedule takes him. "These lakes give me a great amount of diversity to [prepare for] a particular type of lake that we'll be fishing on the [Bassmaster Elite Series] or in the Classic," Browning said. "Arkansans have had lots of success as tournament anglers because of this diversity."
Balancing the assortment, Browning said his home state waters have taught him to fish with an abundance of patience. The opportunity is there, but "easy" days teach you very little. Conversely, Browning said his experience in Arkansas waters has instilled in him a meticulous nature that serves him well on challenging waters elsewhere. "Our lakes get a tremendous amount of pressure," he said. "We donít have the true super heavy stringers that win tournaments, so being super-patient and thorough in the water Iím fishing has really helped me in my 18, 19 years of doing this."
Browning said he's been spending a lot of time on two of his local lakes with specific scenarios in mind. Two possible Hartwell scenarios also play out on his home waters, so Browning has been practicing on what could be considered a simulation field. "My game plan for preparing for the Bassmaster Classic has been to spend a lot of time on Hamilton and DeGray - mostly DeGray because it sets up like Hartwell with offshore humps and shallow structure but no grass," Browning said. "I think in the Classic, a lot of anglers will be fishing these scenarios. Also, Hamilton has many docks, so that allows me to hone my dock pitching skills prior to the Classic as well. If I need to fish docks on Hartwell, I'll be ready for that, too."
Regarding his Classic game plan, Browning again referenced the similarities between the tournament site and his home waters. "I think [my strength] will be a pretty good knowledge of what phase the fish should be in," he said. "I can pretty much gauge the water temperature and determine what they should be doing this time of year. Everything that happens at Hartwell happens right here around my house. When I show up [in Greenville], I should have a pretty good handle on it."
Hometown: Mt. Ida
Classic Appearance: 18th
Signature Technique: Cranking deep structure
Favorite Arkansas Waters: Lake Ouachita
Short has seen a pair of Classic takeoffs, but notably his first was the eventís last Hartwell visit in 2008, when he finished above mid-pack at 22nd. In preparation for this year's Classic, as well as his broader competitive travels, he too lauds the array of angling opportunities his home state offers.
"Probably the best thing we have is variety in the different types of water," he said. "We have everything from muddy backwaters off the Arkansas River, to gin-clear highland reservoirs like Bull Shoals and Norfork, and we also have a few lakes in between them like Ouachita. We have a little bit of everything." Somewhat of a late-bloomer on the tournament side, Short fished his first competitive event in his mid-20s and didn't start seriously pursuing this course until his early 30s. Nevertheless, he spent plenty of his youth enjoying Arkansas's vast natural resources with his family. Even as a young angler, these early years brought valuable lessons that have stuck with him and provided the foundational concepts for his professional level performance. One in particular: Be prepared for multiple scenarios. "We fished everywhere from border to border in the state," Short said. "From going to a lot of different lakes as a kid, I learned that you couldn't go to different bodies of water and do the same thing. It taught me early on that you need to have more than one bait in your box."
Short also points out that a lifetime observing prominent fisheries provides insight and understanding that you simply cannot otherwise acquire. Lakes go through life cycles, and seeing the highs and lows–not just in terms of water level, but also productivity–builds a big-picture awareness that helps an angler recognize the patterns and make more informed decisions on the water. Extending this wisdom to similar fisheries throughout the nation has proven strategically beneficial for Short. "One of the things that has helped tremendously is fishing these fisheries over long periods of time and seeing when they've been really good and seeing them when it's been very hard to get a bite," he said. "So I've been able to do well as a pro fisherman when we go somewhere with lots of big fish or places where it's hard to catch five a day."
He's hopeful that the Classic won't prove so perplexing, but Short is confident that his Arkansas background will help him dial in the daily deals. "Hartwell is one of those lakes that are pretty diverse," he said. "You can catch fish shallow on a crankbait or deep on a jig in dead of winter,or you can go to the opposite end where the water is clear and fish a jerkbait. There's just a whole lot of things to do there. You could pick up on one technique and do that all three days and do well, or you can get a couple of different things going. You might throw a shallow crankbait bite part of the day, or a deep jig bite or a jerkbait part of the day."
Short said he would feel comfortable with either option and if he can get around the right quality of fish, he believes he can do well. Familiarity is good, but despite having fished a Classic on this year's host lake, Short is arriving with a clean slate. "My thought process going in will be to work very hard at paying attention to what's [happening] on the water," he said. "The last thing I want to do is work off of anything from my past experience. I really want to work off of what's going on. What do I have to do to get the next bite? I want to pay attention to detail. I won't take anything for granted."
Hometown: Bella Vista
Classic Appearance: 10th
Signature Technique: Stick Baits
Favorite Arkansas Waters: Bull Shoals Lake
With seven career victories, including an impressive four Elite Series wins in four different states (Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma), Mike McClelland never tires of his home state waters. Rich with rod-bending potential, Arkansas lakes have also captivated him with their aesthetic appeal. "Probably the biggest thing is the natural appearance that a lot of our lakes have," he said. "The state has always done a good job of maintaining the natural beauty."
Favoring Bull Shoals when the pre-spawn finds a little color in the water, McClelland considers himself a versatile angler capable of adjusting to any situation he faces on the Elite Series. This advantage, he said, has served him well throughout his career and he owes his development to his home state waters. "Arkansas does offer a broad range of different types of fisheries," McClelland said. "Growing up fishing Bull Shoals and Beaver Lake, I really had to learn to be very versatile and use a lot of different techniques to catch fish. As time went on and I was able to travel and fish different areas of the state, I was exposed to vegetation fishing and river fishing. The variety of lakes and rivers that we have in Arkansas has conditioned me to be a very versatile angler across the board." McClelland further noted that the waters on which he learned his craft also taught him a key attribute with deep impact on his professional fishing performance: patience.
"A lot of anglers from other states are exposed to fisheries where it's not uncommon to catch a lot of fish; it's not uncommon to have 15- to 30-fish days during the course of a year," he said. "With some of the fisheries I grew up on, I had to learn to be really patient and grind. That's made me stronger as a tournament angler." In his nine previous Classic appearances, McClelland has notched a pair of top-five finishes: fourth place at the Red River (2009) and fifth on Grand Lake (2013). When the Classic visited Hartwell in 2008, he placed 42nd; but with a better understanding of this Palmetto State fishery, he's mapped out a game plan for taking on the big lake and a key dynamic that contrasts with similar Arkansas lakes.
"By looks and structure, Lake Hartwell compares very similarly to some of our Arkansas lakes," McClelland observed. "The biggest difference is the blueback herring. That baitfish can dictate the fishing a lot more than the structure. Itís definitely going to affect it in terms of not fishing only the kinds of places where I would normally fish in a similar situation in Arkansas. The bass will move around more as they follow the blueback, so I may have to adjust for that."
McClelland said he's planning on putting his signature series Spro stickbaits to work on Hartwell–very likely splitting his time between the jerking discipline and a deeper presentation. "I think my Spro stickbaits are definitely going to be a player at the Classic," McClelland said. "I'm not sure if you can win it on one bait only, but the stickbait will definitely play at the Classic. "I've also made a lot of money with a football jig. It's no secret that when Alton Jones won the Classic in 2008 [Lake Hartwell], a football jig was a big part of that win for him. So, I'll definitely be using my strength, throwing a football jig offshore. Hopefully, that in conjunction with the stickbait will be all I need to win this thing."
Hometown: Mt. Ida
Classic Appearance: 18th
Signature Technique: Cranking deep structure
Favorite Arkansas Waters: Lake Ouachita
The most tenured of this yearís Arkansan qualifiers, Mark Davis won the 1995 Classic on High Rock Lake in Greensboro, North Carolina. The thrill of the big event never fades, but Davis said that experiencing the associated hype and pressure several times has allowed him to cut through the distractions and just focus on the job at hand. "For one thing, you know how high the hurdle is you're trying to jump," Davis said of his Classic perspective. ìThat can help you or hurt you. You know what it takes to win an event like this, but the Classic is an event where everything just has to fall in place for you perfectly. "There's no way to plan for it, and at the end of the day you have to go out there and get on the fish and have them to yourself. If you have to share an area, that's one of the many things that can keep you from winning a Classic. Having been there and done that is an advantage."
Davis said he'll rely on his diverse angling aptitude, and for that he credits his state of residence. "Arkansas offers such a diversity of different types of water," Davis said. "You have everything from clear, upland reservoirs to rivers and lowland reservoirs. You have grass, you have structure, you have every possible scenario within this state to hone your bass fishing skills. Not every state has this [level of diversity]. You have the Delta country and you've got the rivers and you've got the mountain region. So you have all different types of water to fish."
Along with the fishing resources, Davis credits fellow anglers for invaluable lessons early in his career. "Without a doubt, Arkansas has a wealth of not only great fishing, but also great anglers," Davis said. "When I was 16, I joined the Ozark Bass Club, and at a young age I was exposed to all these great anglers. You can learn so much so quickly at that age. "Even beyond that, I'd fish a lot of tournaments and you'd draw a guy and he'd teach you something and you'd teach him something. So fishing with great anglers in the state of Arkansas helped me as much as anything."
Growing up in Hot Springs, Davis learned the fishing basics in his youth while fishing with his dad. He so loved the sport that he started running guide trips on Lake Hamilton at age 15. He fished his first tournament at age 13 and won the jackpot team event on Lake Hamilton. Notably, Davis partnered with his crosstown pal Allan Ranson, now the CFO/COO of Strike King–one of Davis' longtime sponsors.
"Fishing became a way of life," Davis said of the early onset of his fishing addiction. "I was one of those kids who knew at an early age what I wanted to do. It was always my goal to be a professional fisherman and I've been able to make a living at it." Davis' Classic snapshot: "Hartwell's a lot like Lake Ouachita or Bull Shoals. It has a lot of deep timber and it has largemouth bass and spots. These lakes are very similar in what the fish do. I'm really looking forward to fishing this one because it really suits my style of fishing. It will be a deep tournament unless we really have an early spring. I think it will be won deep."