by darren reese
The 2013 Bassmaster Classic begins Friday at the Grand Lake O' the Cherokees in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the world-class field of 53 won't be without an East Tennessee flavor.
Ott DeFoe, a 2003 graduate of Jefferson County High School, and David Walker, a resident of Sevier County, both will be among those vying to win the tournament known as the Super Bowl of professional bass fishing.
"Nothing compares to fishing in the Bassmaster Classic," said Walker last week as he set out on his trek west. "This isn't a regular (Bassmaster) Elite Series event, so you aren't fishing for points or anything like that."
"It's basically all or nothing. If you win a Classic, you are pretty much set when it comes to fishing professionally. You can do it for as long as you want after that."
DeFoe finished fifth in the 2012 Classic – the first of his career – while Walker placed 13th.
DeFoe won $25,000 for his showing, but it was a far cry from the $500,000 paycheck that last year's Classic winner, Chris Lane, received.
"For my first time, yeah, I was really happy with fifth," DeFoe said Wednesday. "But now I want to win one. That's all people remember. They don't remember who finished fifth in the Bassmaster Classic. They remember who won it."
Anglers qualify for Classic bids via their finish on the Bassmaster Elite Series the previous year. There are also a limited number of special berths available, such as for former Classic winners, the winners of the nine Bassmaster Open events the previous year, the reigning College Bass Champion, and Federation Nation qualifiers.
Making the Classic field last season was the culmination of two different journeys for DeFoe and Walker.
DeFoe grew up fishing locally on Douglas and Cherokee lakes. His first tournament experience came on the area trails along side his brother and dad.
By the age of 16, DeFoe was fishing on the Bass Fishing League (BFL), followed by the semi-pro EverStart Series.
Toward the end of 2006, he won a $30,000 paycheck in a tournament and his career took off from there. He soon moved up to the FLW Tour.
“My first tournament on the FLW, I finished in the top 10,” DeFoe remembered. “I got better and better each year. Then after my fourth year, I decided I wanted to fish the Bassmaster.”
DeFoe fished on the Bassmaster Open Circuit – considered the minor leagues to the Elite Series – in 2010 and qualified for the Elites his first time around.
“That was a really big deal to me,” he said. “There have been good fisherman who try four or five ears before they make it. To qualify for the Elite in the first year of fishing Opens, that was awesome.”
Since making the Elite Series, DeFoe has quickly become one of the hottest names in professional fishing.
He ran away with the 2011 Rookie of the Year race, while also winning the season-ending Toyota Trucks All-Star competition, which netted him a check for $100,000.
He backed up his stellar rookie season last year by finishing a close second to Brent Chapman for the coveted Angler of the Year trophy.
DeFoe’s fifth-place finish in the season-opening Classic helped him go on to have the consistency most anglers only dream of.
His 41st-place finish in the first Elite Series event of the year was his worst showing all season. He finished in the top 15 in four of the final five events on the schedule.
“I told my wife after the St. Johns (River tournament) that this 41st had to be my worst tournament of the year if I wanted to have a shot at Angler of the Year,” DeFoe explained. “And it was. It was an amazing year. It just wasn’t meant to be, as far as winning that last year.”
For Walker, the 2012 Classic marked the completion of his path back to the Bassmaster brand.
He finished third in both the 2001 and 2002 Classics, but walked away from the Bassmaster circuit in 2006 to follow his sponsors to the competing FLW Tour.
Walker fished FLW over the next couple of seasons, but still attended such events as the Bassmaster Classic to fulfill appearance obligations.
After a few years of being away from Bassmaster, Walker started to miss it to the point that he knew he had to make a change.
"Being around it and (not being able to compete), it's a miserable experience," Walker said. "It's like taking an alcoholic to a bar to watch people drink."
"I knew so many of the guys that were fishing, and to not even have a chance at it, I was ready for a change."
Walker, too, spent the 2010 season fishing in the Bassmaster Opens and finished high enough in the points standings to move up to the top level for 2011.
His return to the Elite Series was highlighted by a win in the Dixie Duel on Wheeler Lake in June of that season. It earned him an automatic berth in last year’s Classic, and he went on to place 13th in his return to the crown jewel event.
“There is just something about being at the classic,” Walker said. “It’s the most fun I have in any tournament I’ve fished.”
“There are so many fans there. There will be 10, 15, 20 thousand there for weigh-ins. There is so much going on. There is just nothing like it when it comes to the energy and excitement.”
Fast forward to this year and both DeFoe and Walker are back looking for fishing glory with a Classic title.
They spent the past week preparing on Grand Lake, batting not only the fish, but the weather as well.
Tulsa was blanketed with snow Wednesday for the final day of practice leading up to the event.
“We’ve been out there on the lake four days now,” DeFoe explained. “One day it was 50 degrees, sunny and windy. One day it was 45 and cloudy. The next it was 65 degrees. Today, it was 35 with about an inch of snow.”
“The weather here is about what you would find back in East Tennessee this time of year. This lake isn’t difficult to get around, but it will be a challenge to find the fish.”
Fans can find complete coverage of the Classic at Bassmaster.com. The television broadcast will be aired on ESPN2 in March.