Mississippi will have three fishermen in the 2015 Bassmasters Classic in February, two past champions and ...

“A rookie, and an old one at that,” said Teb Jones, who, at 53, fished his way into the sport’s most prestigious event through the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship last weekend on the Ouachita River in Monroe, La.

He will join 1982 Classic winner Paul Elias of Laurel and 2013 champ Cliff Pace of Petal in the tournament Feb. 20-22 at Lake Hartwell on the Georgia-South Carolina border.

Jones, of Hattiesburg, represents the Petal Bass Club, the very same club where Pace honed his craft, and is the state’s B.A.S.S. Nation president. He punched his Classic ticket as the top finisher in the Central Division at the National Championship. Under the unique format, the leading angler from the six divisions — Central, Southern, Mid-Atlantic, Eastern, Northern and Western — earn a berth in the Classic.

Jones finished fourth overall with a three-day catch of 25 pounds, and was 1½ pounds clear of his nearest Central challenger. As he celebrated, word spread quickly. Within an hour, he had nearly 50 text messages, including one that really got his attention.

“One of the first ones I got was from Cliff Pace,” he said. “I remember, it was one word, ‘Congratulations.’ I immediately shot him one back asking about the cutoff dates for practice on Lake Hartwell. Really, that’s how it was, I went from qualifying to entering preparation mode in a matter of seconds.

“You know you get into club fishing, and you join B.A.S.S. Nation and your like 20 years old with a couple of rods, and you realize that you could get to the Classic. That’s what the BASS Nation is all about, a chance for club-level fishermen to reach the Classic.”

But Jones is more than just a club level fisherman.

He has fished the Bassmaster Central Opens as a pro since 2006.

“I was a co-angler in 2005 and finished in the top five and they paid my entry fees to the pro level in 2006, so that’s when I started,” he said. “I’ve had three top 10s and 3 more top 20s.”

Jones also has a long history with B.A.S.S. and will be a popular guy in the Classic. In addition to serving as Mississippi’s B.A.S.S. Nation president for 10 years, he has served on B.A.S.S.’s national conservation committee for many years.

Now, he’s a Classic qualifier.

“A lot of hard work and time,” Jones said, about earning his way. “I started club fishing 30 years ago. I was fortunate to be in the Petal Bass Club, which is the same one that Cliff fished with. We actually fished a few events together. We’ve known each other a long time.”

Jones has built friendships throughout B.A.S.S. and its following, and he immediately began working that network to prepare for Hartwell.

“My sponsors have been great, setting me up a network of people to talk to and get an understanding of the lake, and deep water late winter patterns,” he said. “I’ve already gotten four good leads this week about launching, navigation and fishermen to teach me how to get around the lake.”

The cutoff day is Jan. 1. After that, the lake is off limits to Classic fishermen until the week of the event. Jones, who works in the Bancorp South Insurance Division, will make as many trips as possible the remainder of this year.

“I have a little time off left and my family is behind me 100 percent, which is important because we have a few four-day holiday weekends coming up when I’m just going to hit the road and go to Hartwell,” he said. “I have already hooked up with somebody over there who will store my boat so all I have to do is drive back and forth.

“First thing, I’ve got to learn the lake and how to run it, where the good docks are ... that kind of thing. I’ve already learned that the lake is at full pool now, but could fluctuate as much as 15 or 20 feet by the Classic.”

He will do some fishing, too.

“Sure, and I think this early winter weather we’ve having will be a benefit to me,” he said. “It will create an early start to bass migration and start pushing fish toward where they will winter. I’ve got a lot to learn, starting from scratch so to speak.”

Pace has a history with Hartwell and will be among the favorites. He finished second in the only other previous Classic held at Hartwell, in 2008. Pace won the 2014 Classic at Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees in Tulsa, Okla., pushing him to the top level of the sport.

But, he fell from that perch, when he fell from a deer stand last winter, breaking his lower leg in two places. The surgery and months-long recovery caused him to miss the entire 2014 Elite Series schedule, including his automatic defending champion’s berth in the 2014 Classic. B.A.S.S. officials extended that exemption to the 2015 event.

Elias, who won his Classic in 1982 on the Alabama River at Montgomery, will be making his 16th Classic appearance. A winner of six B.A.S.S. events during his long career, Elias holds the record for the heaviest four-day total weight in the five-bass limit era for his amazing 132.8 pounds at Falcon Lake in Texas in 2008.