Keith Combs, a native of Huntington, Texas, has a bit more on the line this year than normal at the 2017 Bassmaster Classic.
This Classic, which will be hosted by the city of Houston for the first time in the tournament’s 46-year history, is set up to be one of the largest and most exciting tournaments yet.
Combs said he was “ecstatic” to be able to go fish in front of all the people he’s grown up watching and fishing against competitively, as well as his friends and family. He also has another reason to be ecstatic: the Texan won two Toyota Texas Bass Classics on the same lake — Lake Conroe — that he’ll be fishing on March 24-26 at the Classic. The earnings for his wins, which came in 2011 and 2014, totaled $300,000.
“The thing that sets Conroe kind of in a class by itself is that it’s not always easy to go out and put fish in a boat, but anytime you’re out there, regardless of how you’re fishing, you’ve got a chance of catching an eight- or nine- or 10-pound fish just because that’s what lives there.
“That’s going to make it exciting, because I don’t think anybody’s going to run away with the thing, and if you make it to the final day — I don’t care how far you are behind, you’re going to have a chance. Conroe can put out a 30- or 35-pound limit of fish, and that’s pretty cool. We’ve never been to a place like that for a Classic.”
In 2011, Combs experienced firsthand exactly how important each fish is on Conroe. Just after finishing up his rookie season on the Elite Series, Combs sat tied at the weigh-in with 2003 Classic winner Mike Iaconelli — with both anglers hauling in massive three-day totals of 76 pounds, 12 ounces. To settle the draw, Combs and Iaconelli competed in a “first legal fish” sudden death fishoff. Combs connected on a 15-inch bass with 15 minutes remaining before the 6:45 p.m. deadline to secure the victory.
Iaconelli, coincidentally, also had a remarkably close loss the year before at the TTBC, losing by just 1 pound, 4 ounces to Brian Snowden.
“Uhh, we’ve never talked about it,” Combs laughed. “If I hadn’t won, I would have probably never wanted to talk about that again, because it was exciting and it was cool but I’d hate to be on the losing end of that thing. You’re right there —either one of us should have won because we both were like 20 pounds over third place and we’re sitting there with a tie, so we had this crazy fishoff. But nah, we ain’t ever really talked about it, but I mean it was cool. For me, it’ll be one I never forget because it was so dramatic.”
“In fishing, it’s always a struggle to kind of break into it from a financial standpoint because fishing doesn’t pay that much,” Combs said. “You kind of have to align yourself with some good companies. I feel like the tie and the dramatic tournament and the big weights and stuff in that tournament really did help me a bunch.”
In 2014, Combs came back to Conroe and won the TTBC again in dominating fashion, putting up 62 pounds, 12 ounces of fish to best John Murray by more than 12 pounds. His largest bag of the tournament weighed 24 pounds, 8 ounces, to earn him the Leer Heavyweight Bag award.
“That’s what makes a good weigh-in, when you can come in with some giant fish,” Combs said.
Because of his level of success on Lake Conroe, many fans and commentators speculate Combs will be the guy to beat at this year’s Classic. However, Combs pointed out several differences between the tournaments he won in 2011 and 2014 and the Classic.
“Really, I think it’s not setting up to be similar as far as techniques or locations go,” Combs said. “Those TTBC wins were in the fall. They were in September and October. I’ll definitely consider some of the same stuff that I did in those tournaments, but this tournament here is right in the middle of the spawn so most fish are going to be a lot shallower than what I caught them in, they’re gonna be probably less out to bite reaction-type baits, which is what I won on using a crankbait.”
He said he would basically be “starting from scratch,” though he hoped that some of the experience he had gained on the lake would pay off for him.
“There’s definitely a lot of added pressure,” he said. “The main thing you don’t want to do is go out there and let that influence the way you fish, because the Classic is different than the rest of the season. If you flop in that regular-season event, it costs you a lot of points. But in the Classic, it’s just like those TTBCs. It’s a one-tournament shot. You’re not going to fall on your face in the points if you don’t do well.
“I think when you feel like you’ve got everybody looking at you, you don’t want to do bad. But in the Classic, you may have to take gambles to win. You may fish a pattern that is not getting you a lot of bites, but when you do get one it’s a big fish. I’m gonna do my best to not let the fact that I’m supposed to do good there influence any decision-making. I want to go out and fish to win.”
He said he was comfortable taking some of those gambles, however, knowing that he was fishing a strategy that made sense for the conditions and not overthinking things because of peoples’ expectations for him to do well.
“If I lose or I don’t do as good as I should have, I can tell myself, ‘Well, you did what you thought you needed to win the Classic on Conroe,’ ” Combs said. “Then I’m not going to have anything to regret.”