Credit: James Overstreet/BASS
For Jones, the win represented one of the goals he says he’s always had for his professional fishing career. The other, an Angler of the Year title has eluded him to this point, but Jones says he’s confident the Classic will set the tone for what he hopes will be a resurgence of a career he says has been struggling for the past two seasons.
As he held the Classic trophy over his head to the cheers of a capacity crowd at Greenvile, South Carolina’s Bi-Lo Center, he looked like anything but a man whose career has been in a two-year slump. Afterwards, the deeply religious Jones told reporters that while his confidence had been shaken over this difficult patch, his faith had kept him going. “This is important to me,” he said, “but my faith is my cornerstone, and I’ve believed that everything happens in the appropriate timing- and that timing is God’s, not mine.”
To keep himself focused Jones said he used a three-step procedure while fishing on the final day. “I focused on three basics,” Jones said, “kept telling myself ‘catch the next bass, make ever cast count, and go back to the basics.’” Those basics, however, were helped along by technology, as Jones used prototype baits and the latest Hummingbird Model 1197 widescreen sidescan imagining system to help him find the timber he was fishing out of some thirty to thirty-five feet deep. “It might sound strange,” he said, “but I was fishing the inside edge of the timber left on the bottom of the lake at thirty to thirty-five feet. With the sidescan imaging, I felt like I was looking at a black and white digital photo of the bottom. Those images helped me get to the structure I was fishing and hit it with the first cast every time. That’s how I was able to make every cast count.”
Jones, who caught his five-fish limit, said it was a good thing he was able to be so focused and efficient, since he only had seven decent bites during the final day’s fishing. Even then, he said, he was almost certain his Sunday bag wouldn’t be enough to win the title. It was more than enough, giving the man who hadn’t won since 2004 a five pound-plus cushion, good enough to take the $500,000 first prize.
Every angler in the Classic was quick to applaud the BASS decision to allow them to fish out of their own boats. To a man, every angler said the ability to use the same boat that they fished all season long made it possible for them to concentrate on fishing, rather than “tinkering with someone else’s equipment”.
Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss., who entered the day in third place, finished second with 44-5. "I fished one of the cleanest tournaments of my life," said Pace. "But if I had to lose to anybody, it would be Alton, for a lot of reasons."
"I look up to a lot of these guys. Alton is one of the guys I look up to because he's paid his dues,” Pace said, “He's fished 11 Classics. To see someone like Alton win, it means something from a fisherman's standpoint. I know what it means to him."
Kevin VanDam entered the day in fourth place, 3-15 behind Jones, and moved up one spot to third, with 43-8. VanDam said he made a mistake by going back to the area near the dam where he'd caught a 20-3 bag on the first day of the tournament.
"I spent three hours where the fish were biting," VanDam said. "The rest of the day I went where I couldn't get a bite. But I felt like I needed to be where those big fish bit the first day. It was a really bad decision."
Charlie Hartley, the surprise leader of Day One, trailed Jones by only 19 ounces going into today’s final round. His surprise run ended when he weighed in only two fish, dropping him from second to fifteenth place. Despite that disappointment, Hartley said he owed one dock owner on Lake Hartwell a big thanks, “I caught sixteen to eighteen pounds off that one dock.” For Hartley, it was a bitter disappointment, and some of the decisions he’d made on Sunday were ones that he’d regret having made. “I thought I’d gotten rid of my nickname,” he told me in the media center, “My wife’s called me D.C. for ‘disappearing Charlie’ because I’d slide down a leaderboard after starting strong. This year two days without Disappearing Charlie, maybe next year, it will be three.”
Looking back on three days of completely different conditions on Lake Hartwell, most of the forty-nine Elite anglers who qualified for this year’s Classic only to see their dreams die in the brutal mix of cold, clouds, sunshine and overcast skies, will be hoping to shake their own versions of “D.C.” in a Bassmaster Classic if they have the opportunity again.