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50th Bassmaster tourney with electric atmosphere, ending with Cherry on top

By Charles Waldorf

I've been attending the Greater Niagara Fishing & Outdoor Expo in Niagara Falls since its inception. It's wonderful being able to scratch the fishing itch in the dead of winter. The seminars are packed with information that is very useful to the outdoorsperson looking to get into and enjoy all the wonderful outdoor opportunities our area has to offer. Even seasoned veterans can pick up a tip or two from the excellent speakers who host the seminars. You also will have the opportunity to get some hands-on time with some products you might not otherwise find.

As a freelance photographer, I take the opportunity to attend the show to meet, and catch up with industry professionals. I also thoroughly enjoy the seminars, as I believe you can never really know too much on a topic.

This year, attending those seminars paid off in a way I had never imagined.

Full disclosure, I am a freelance photographer for Fishing League Worldwide (FLW). Over the course of the season, I cover 10-12 events for the fishing tournament organization. I photograph the tournament from start to finish, with the images being used on the website, social media and in FLW magazine. I've been a big fan, of both B.A.S.S. and FLW for as long as I can remember. I've even fished in a few events as a co-angler.

So, when I received an email from the Niagara Fishing Expo notifying me that I had won a trip to the 50th anniversary Bassmaster Classic, I was floored. I had attended about six seminars all pertaining to bass fishing, everything from catching trophy smallmouth on Lake Erie (Travis Manson), to largemouth bass on Cayuga Lake (Casey Smith). Both of those guys are excellent fishermen.

The trip included a flight, rental car, and hotel room for a friend and I. That friend was Jeff Stahl of Hamburg. We have been fishing together since we were kids. We flew into Atlanta, and drove to Gadsden, Ala. We arrived Thursday, the day before the Classic was to start. That night, Dan O'Sullivan from Advanced Angler, dropped off two passes for Jeff and I to sit in the same section as the anglers' families during the weigh-in. We had grabbed some really good BBQ on our way in, so instead of eating dinner we passed out early and set our alarms for 5 a.m.

Our plan: Drive 45 minutes to Civitan Park where the anglers would be taking off for Day 1. We set out around 5:30 a.m. and arrived in time to take in the morning festivities. I was in full fan mode; I also couldn't help but have my cameras in tow. The atmosphere was electric. We were surrounded by hundreds of other diehard fishing fanatics, and you could just tell something special was taking place. Having the opportunity to take this in as a fan, and not a worker, was very special and rekindled my obsession with the sport. After the 53 anglers had all blasted off, we made our way back to the hotel.

The first day of the Expo: I've always heard about the Expo. I attended in 2005, when I went to the Pittsburgh Classic, but didn't remember much nor did I know what to expect. It was amazing. It was bass fishing heaven. Six rooms full of the newest and hottest bass fishing gear on the market. Almost everyone from the industry was there. Friday was the least busy day of the three. After that, you could barely walk in the space, and it was still amazing. We would spend about 3-4 hours each day walking around the Expo and then find seats in the arena to take in the weigh-in.

The weigh-in: We were able to sit in the front row of the family section for the first two days. This, too, was also super special. I highly recommend taking the opportunity to experience a weigh-in. Dave Mercer, the emcee, brings a different kind of energy to the event. Mercer is the host of Facts of Fishing and often fishes Lake Erie on the show. The anglers' names are announced and then their intro music plays. Fans go wild when their favorite angler comes in; they ride in their boat while being pulled to the stage, a goal of any tournament angler. They then reach into their livewell to retrieve their day’s catch. Every once in a while an angler will hoist a giant large mouth bass, and the crowd will cheer in excitement. At the end of Day 1, Hank Cherry had the lead with a weight of 29 pounds, 3 ounces.

Jeff and I repeated this routine the next two days. On Day 2, we went to Academy Sports and Outdoors. Academy was the host of the classic and was running a promotion: if you made a purchase at one of its stores, and brought the receipt to the Expo, you had the chance to get access into the “Livewell” – the area in front of the stage reserved for fans with “Livewell” passes. Jeff and I got the last two passes for Sunday’s final weigh-in.

Championship Sunday: I remember watching the 2013 Grand Lake Classic on Bassmaster Live, the year Cherry nearly won the event. It was talked about a lot during this year’s live coverage. Seeing the replays over and over again of a heartbreaking giant bass coming off in 2013 (which probably would have cemented a win for the then-rookie) were tough to watch. It made it really easy to root for him. After attending the final take-off, we decided to watch the live coverage in the hotel room. We left around 1 p.m. and headed to the arena.

If at all possible, it seemed even more electric than first two days. Our seats in the “Livewell” were amazing. Now, when an angler would pull out a prized catch individually, you could see just how big a 6- or 7-pound largemouth bass truly is. Around 6:30 p.m., the super six were announced. Seth Feider and Micah Frazier were tied for first at the time. Anticipation was growing and only six anglers were left to weigh-in. The pair tied dodged their competitors until Stetson Blaylock bested them by 4 pounds. Blaylock was edged by Todd Auten. There was one angler left, Hank Cherry. He needed 13 pounds, 3 ounces to win. He caught 19 pounds, 8 ounces to bring his three-day total to 65 pounds, 5 ounces, beating Auten by 6 pounds, 5 ounces to be crowned the champion of the 50th Bassmaster Classic.

We drove more than 1,000 miles and made just about as many memories. Thank you to all of those involved in making this trip possible, especially Joe Yaeger and Melissa Gearhart with Niagara Fishing Expo and Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls; Hugh Stump with Greater Gadsden Area Tourism; Todd Ceisner with Bassfan.com; Dan O’Sullivan; and everyone else. It was truly an amazing experience.

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