You’d think Gene Bishop of Ridgeland was an avid turkey hunter, as much as he’s been looking forward to March of 2016.
But Bishop’s choice of outdoor recreation is chasing bass instead of gobblers, and he’s had this month on his mind since, well, since March a year ago when he put together an amazing two-day charge on Barnett Reservoir to win the Bassmaster Central Open, earning a berth in the 2016 Bassmaster Classic.
Now that the event is less than a month away — March 4-6 at Grand Lake of the Cherokees near Tulsa, Okla., Bishop is trying to stay focused on the task ahead.
“Honestly, I’m trying not to be overwhelmed and getting caught up in the spectacle,” said Bishop. “I’m trying to be level-headed about it because I don’t want to go up there and embarrass myself, and that’s what can happen when you let it get to your head. I’m going up there to win, and I know I am a long shot.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Bishop beat the odds. He did that on Barnett Reservoir last March when he was the only local angler to read the water correctly, realizing it had reached a magic number — 58 degrees — that changed the entire pattern.
After catching just 8 pounds on Day 1 of the three-day event, Bishop caught 26 pounds on Day 2 and 21 more in the final round to win $48,000 and the automatic trip to the Classic.
His winning method, swimming a lizard in pad stems when the big fish first commit to the shallows, is probably Mississippi’s No. 1 pre-spawn pattern for big bass.
Missing from the Classic will be Cliff Pace of Petal, who failed to qualify through the Elite Series. Pace won the 2013 Classic championship on Grand Lake. That a Mississippian won on the tournament waters is encouraging to Bishop.
“It’s not like a Mississippian can’t catch fish there, we know that,” Bishop said, referring to Pace. “He showed it can be done, no matter how different the lake is from what we have down here. And it is a lot different.
“I only went up there one time before the cutoff (competitors couldn’t be on the tournament waters after Jan. 1), and I bet I didn’t fish more than an hour over four days. There was no reason to, since it will be so different in early March than it was in November. I get four days before the tournament to find them.”
Bishop opted to spend the time learning the massive lake (42,000 acres) and eliminating water.
“Man, there’s boat docks everywhere, in every cove, so many of them,” he said. “I went to learn structure and that’s primarily what I found. You go back in any cove and you run into boat docks, one right after another. Some are in amazingly deep water, too. It ain’t nothing like Barnett Reservoir, that’s for sure.
“The other thing about Grand Lake is the number of no-wake zones. They are everywhere. That and channel markers.”
The $500,000 top prize in the Classic is something Bishop has tried to keep from getting in his head.
“It’s hard enough to compete against that kind of talent without letting that get in the way,” he said, less than a month before his trip. “I’m getting nervous, nervous and excited. I want to do good. I have to stay focused, do what I’m supposed to do, go up there and catch fish. I don’t want to be a fan.”
Bishop will be fishing from his new boat, a 19½-feet Triton that was part of his prize package for winning at Barnett. It will be easy to spot in Tulsa.
“It’s not wrapped like all those other guys,” he said. “I’m a newcomer, a weekend tournament guy. I have a few sponsors, mostly since I won, but nothing like a boat-wrap deal. That seemed such a big cash expense for just one tournament.”
No matter how big that tournament is …