February 24, 2015
While grabbing a bite to eat on a frigid Saturday afternoon last month, I spotted a familiar face in the airport crowd.
As it turned out, Hank Parker, the Outdoor Channel television show host, hall of fame bass pro and owner of both the Swhacker Broadheads and C'Mere Deer whitetail attractant companies, was doing the same thing that I was as we both fled the ATA archery trade show in Indianapolis ahead of an approaching winter storm.
But unlike the previous times when I had encountered Parker in my writing career, we both had a few minutes to kill, something that seemed tailor made in providing an opportunity to visit with the North Carolina native about a subject I had always wanted to inquire about.
And that was his first major triumph, the winning of the 1979 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Texoma, the Texas/Oklahoma border reservoir that sits a few miles away from my backyard as I write this.
When I asked if I could visit with him about his win on Texoma, the big smile on Parker's face gave me my answer.
What did winning the Classic, launched out of Highport Marina each day, mean to Parker, a then South Carolina resident who would go on to win the 1983 B.A.S.S. Angler-of-the-Year award and the 1989 Classic title?
"It meant everything to me," said Parker, who was inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2003. "Financially, it put me in a position where I didn't have all of those struggles and worries financially. So it was a really big, big, big deal."
When I asked if he would mind telling me his recollections about how the Sept. 26-28, 1979 tournament unfolded, he was more than happy to oblige.
"The water was low and it was in the fall of the year," said Parker. "Back in those days, we had the Classic around (the start of) October. It (should have been) a typical fall pattern, you would think, to read and catch those fish out on the flats on the breaks where the creek would turn into the deepest river channel, cranking and that sort of stuff. And none of that worked. I had gone through that process of elimination (and just couldn't find any willing fish)."
Which meant that it was time to move on to Plan B.
"I didn't catch or find those fish in practice," said Parker. "I just decided that after they weren't where they were supposed to be, I started thinking about where they were going to be."
As it turned out, on an 89,000-acre reservoir better known for its striped bass numbers than its black bass possibilities, that was in Big Mineral Creek. After motoring into the absolute back end of the feeder creek, Parker began to slowly and methodically work his way back out towards the main lake, hoping to find a few largemouths along the way.
"It was a process of elimination and I (married) Big Mineral Creek because Texoma was too big in a three-day event to try and discern (too many spots). So that was my game plan."
On the first day of the tournament however, the fish all but ignored what Parker had started the day throwing.
"When I went back there, I didn't catch them at first," said Parker. "I was throwing a spinnerbait and I felt like that was a good bait of choice, the water color was good for it. But there was a lot of bait there and I knew the fish had to be there."
So the then Clover, S.C., resident put his spinnerbait down and picked up a flipping rod, a decision that would be among the most important of his career.
"(It) wasn't probably five flips after I set my spinnerbait down that I caught one flipping and the rest was history," said Parker, who would qualify for 14 Classics before retiring from the sport at the age of 37. "I ended up staying in the back of that creek and really, what I was doing was eliminating water until I could find the fish. And I found them in the back and (eventually) won the tournament."
But not without a hiccup or two along the way.
"I was not really a big flipper and that was still pretty early in the flipping era," recalled Parker. "I had a prototype flipping stick that we were designing and I broke it. (I actually) broke that rod about the middle of the day and I used a six-foot Fenwick casting rod to finish the day flipping. It's amazing that I caught anything with it." That's where a key assist by fellow 1979 Classic competitor Gary Klein, then of Oroville, Calif., and now of Weatherford, Texas, entered the picture.
"Gary loaned me one of his (flipping) rods after the weigh-in on the first day," said Parker. "I ended up winning the tournament on the rod that he loaned me."
After leading on Day One with 16 pounds, 10 ounces (a figure that included a bonus of 12 ounces for all of his fish being alive), Parker would build on that lead on Day Two by posting nearly 12 pounds to the spring scales. That would boost his two-day tally at the ninth edition of the Classic to 28 pounds, 9 ounces.
That figure would give Parker what appeared to be an insurmountable lead, nearly a dozen-pounds in front of his nearest competitor.
But what Parker didn't figure on was boating only one fish on the Classic's final day, a keeper that weighed a little more than 2 pounds.
n the end, it didn't matter because Parker's Day One and Day Two heroics were more than enough to push him to the top of the field of 25 anglers competing on Texoma. With a big grin on his face, Parker would shake the hand of cowboy-hat-wearing Ray Scott, the tournament emcee and the founder of B.A.S.S., and claim the tournament's $25,000 first-place prize.
Even though it was on a body of water that he admittedly knew nothing about previously.
"I had never heard of Texoma," said Parker. "I didn't think anything about it and I had no opinion of the lake at all (one way or the other)."
Being a middle school student when the Classic visited my home water, I didn't attend the event and have only seen some video of the weigh-in ceremonies held at Texoma. So I was eager to find out from Parker what those daily weigh-ins were like in the parking lot of Tanglewood Resort.
"We sat in our Classic boats and they pulled us up out of the water and took us to the hotel parking lot that was right there," he smiled. "If I had to guess, I'd say there was 600 or 700 people there."
A decade later, when Parker won his second Classic title – becoming one of only four anglers to ever win multiple Classics – things had changed considerably.
"There were, I think, around 29,000 people in that arena in Richmond, plus the overflow crowd watching on a big screen television in the Outdoor Expo center," said Parker.
"I don't know that there's ever been a better Classic than the one I won in Richmond, at least in terms of crowd attendance, enthusiasm, loud noise and pageantry," he added. "It was all there, just as much as it is today."
So does that mean that his Classic triumph in 1979 was any less meaningful?
"I had won some other tournaments," smiled Parker. "But not with the kind of notoriety (that came with that one). I was thinking 'Now I've got my toe in the water and I'm fixing to jump in (and get going).' I was pretty much looking at that as a springboard (to my career)."
And a decade later when he won in Virginia?
"I was looking at it, 'Hey, I've done everything that I've wanted to do and this is kind of the exclamation point on where I'm at and I'm done.’"
Done as in retiring so he could spend more time with his family and build on his budding television career.
And putting a wrap on one of the shortest and yet most successful angling careers that the bass fishing world has ever seen.
One that really got started in the early fall of 1979 when the Bassmaster Classic made its one and only visit to the state of Texas.
Meaning that the Classic then was as the Classic is now, one of the defining moments in the life of a winning angler, a triumph that forever changes the trajectory of a fishing career.
"I was really trying to make it, scrambling to get enough sponsorships to stay out there and do what I loved to do," said Parker. "Winning that Classic on Texoma changed everything for me."