Gene Bishop is going to the 2016 Bassmaster Classic.

“Man, I’m just starting to realize what a big deal this is — I am going to the Classic,” he said, shortly after clinching the B.A.S.S. Central Open on Barnett Reservoir Saturday. “I can’t believe it.

Bishop, who lives about half a mile from the daily launching site in Ridgeland, posted a three-day total of 55 pounds, 14 ounces to win a boat/cash package worth $48,000 in only his second-ever B.A.S.S. event. (See the leaderboard here.)

He closed with a 21-pound five-fish limit that was harder than it sounds.

“At 11 a.m., after fishing in the same spot where I hammered them Friday (for a 26-2 limit), I was struggling,” Bishop said. “I had caught a 4-pounder right off the bat this morning but only had two more little buck bass (12 inch males) and I was worried. But I never gave up on my lure, swimming a Texas-rigged, 8-inch Zoom Magnum June Bug Lizard. It’s the old Barnett special for the pre-spawn.”

“Just before noon, I noticed that there were a few boats fishing further down the lake south of me and I decided to move around this point. It wasn’t far, maybe 100 or 200 yards. Man, it was on like Donkey Kong after that. I caught a 5-pounder right after moving around the point, then I caught a 4 and another 4. It was like a dream. It was just an area that nobody had fished. The big ones were in there in 2 to 3 feet of water.”

The bites never stopped and he finished off the limit, and closed the door on the 11th B.A.S.S. tournament held on the 50-year-old lake near Jackson.

He needed every last bite, too, to hold off the week’s most consistent fisherman Jay Brainard of Oklahoma. Brainard, who was in the top five all week, caught a 21-6 limit Saturday to finish second at 54-8. 

“I have to tell you this about this lake, it is full of fish and you don’t have to fish pad stems to catch them,” said the rookie Open fisherman and former free-style bull fighter. “I spent the whole week, except for about 30 minutes on Friday, in (Main Harbor) that one big cove, skipping boat docks. It was incredible. I can’t believe I didn’t have a lot of competition in there.

“I threw two baits, a Sweet Beaver and a spinner bait. When they slowed today I tried a jerkbait, but around boat docks that wasn’t going to work that good. I went back to the spinner bait and got them.”

Hard-charging Elite Series angler Tommy Biffle of Oklahoma caught Saturday’s biggest bag, 21-10 to finish third at 52-9.

“I love this lake, a lot,” Biffle said. “I had a slow first day but when the water started warming, the big fish started moving up. I caught them in 3 and 4 feet of water the first two days, but today I went to the bank and I found 65-degree water and I never left it.”

Behind them were Elite Series pros and former B.A.S.S. winners Jason Christie in fourth with 45-12, Stephen Browning in fifth with 42-13 and Fred Roumbanis sixth with 41-3.

It was Roumbanis who got the second biggest cheer, only behind Bishop, at the final weigh-in at the Bass Pro Shop in Pearl. He got it for his raves about Barnett Reservoir.

“You guys have a great fishery here, and I sure would like to see B.A.S.S. bring an Elite Series here this time of year,” the Oklahoma angler said, bringing roars from hundreds of fans who were enjoying the first rays of sunshine in Central Mississippi all week. “That would be fun.”

Bishop’s win was a popular one. B.A.S.S., which was born in the mind of Ray Scott during a visit to Jackson and Barnett Reservoir in 1967, has held 11 tournaments on the 33,000-acre lake beginning in 1968. Never before has a Mississippian won.

Most people say the problem is applying too much local knowledge instead of fishing the current conditions, a problem that almost cost Bishop. He caught only four fish and weighed in only 8 pounds, 15 ounces Thursday, barely making the top 100.

“I fished history, going to specific spots I’ve known about for years,” he said. “I went to a stump here, a log there and that kind of stuff all day and that didn’t work.

“When I woke up Friday, went to the ramp and launched my boat, I decided to forget about that and just go fish the conditions. Here, on Barnett that means going to the pad stems to look for fish staging for the spawn.”

He didn’t forget history entirely, falling back on the pattern than is almost as old as the lake itself. Bishop went to the Rankin County side of the main lake, not far from an area known as “Pine Island” and “Behind 10” and never left.

“I tied on a lizard and told myself that was it, that I was going to win or lose on a lizard,” Bishop said. “Friday, I saw everybody up in the shallows but they weren’t catching big fish. There must have been 24 other boats in that area but I stayed out further, in 3 to 4 feet of water where I figured the big females would be. They were.”

His 26-2 bag was the biggest of the week and pushed him all the way to the lead. After a long, mostly sleepless night, Bishop went right back to the same area.

“After I got that big one early, I decided to move up and I found warmer water but no fish,” he said. “Then I made that move and they went nuts.

 “And, so did I.”

***

On the co-angler side, Bill McCoun of Texas won with a three-day catch of 25-7, closing with the final day’s three-fish limit of 10-3.

“I won it on opening day,” McCoun said. “I have to credit my pro partner that day, Christopher Wooten. He gave me a bag of Baby Brush Hogs and told me to Texas-rig it. That’s the only bait I threw all three days, and luckily I fished with three pros who all fished pad stems and reeds. I fished different areas, but it was all shallow vegetation.”