Oklahomans are thinking big as the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro draws near. They want the Classic hat trick - a record-setting catch, record-setting attendance and, of course, a local champion.
The nation's grandest fishing event, along with the Bassmaster Classic Expo returns to Tulsa and Grand Lake O' the Cherokees, March 4-6.
The first Tulsa event still stands as the second-largest draw in the Classic's 45-year history with 106,850 fans generating an economic impact of $22.7 million. Only Shreveport, La., has drawn more - a record 137,000 in 2009.
Shreveport's claim on the attendance record might easily have fallen in 2013 had it not been for a massive winter storm that prevented many Midwesterners from attending.
"A lot of people who would have been able to enjoy Tulsa otherwise didn't get to, I mean a lot of people," said Ray Hoyt, president of VisitTulsa and the Tulsa Sports Commission. "We will beat 106,000 certainly this time and we want to break that attendance record absolutely."
The new economic impact prediction is $29 million, Hoyt said.
Free parking and a free shuttle service to the Expo at the Cox Business Center will be available, with daily weigh-ins right across the street at the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa. No traffic worries and no parking headaches.
As always, both venues are free of charge. The Expo is open 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. The BOK Center opens at 3:15 daily.
Nearby entertainment and dining options have grown in downtown Tulsa as well. Twenty-six new restaurants - including fine-dining options - have opened since the last Classic.
"It's an event that is about fishing, but it is as much about hospitality and entertainment," Hoyt said. "Our hope is people will come to Tulsa and enjoy the Classic experience so much, they will want to return for other opportunities."
Likewise, the Classic launch site at Wolf Creek Park and Boating Facility at Grove has doubled in size. The parking area near the ramps was raised in elevation to provide an ideal angle for launching boats and was expanded to cover more than 3 acres.
"If you build it, they will come - and they certainly did," said Michael Mulone, director of event and tourism partnerships at B.A.S.S. "Wolf Creek was a gorgeous facility, and they've made it even better."
Toyota will have free coffee and warm drinks for everyone at the 7 a.m. daily takeoffs. Mercury, Nitro, Skeeter, Triton & Yamaha will offer on-the-water demo rides off the Hard Rock Dock sponsored by local host Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
Anglers couldn't wait to get their boats back on Grand, consistently rated among the Top 20 bass lakes in the country, and 55 of the sport's best will hit the lake in this Classic. Grand can easily produce 25-pound bags in the right conditions. In fact, the lake-record 12-pound, 4-ounce bass was caught just days after the last Classic, on March 3, 2013.
Michigan's Kevin VanDam holds the 15-fish Classic record of 69 pounds, 11 ounces, set at New Orleans in 2011, but if the relatively warm, stable weather pattern forecast for late February continues into March, that record could be in danger. Fishing was relatively tough in 2013 when Mississippi pro Cliff Pace won with 54-12.
Four-time champ VanDam is a perennial favorite, but pundits and prognosticators are saying his name in tandem with three Oklahomans this time.
Edwin Evers of Talala is known as one of the most talented on tour yet to land a Classic title. Jason Christie of Park Hill swapped his FLW jersey for the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2013 and immediately was a force to be reckoned with. Then there is James Elam, the quiet young Tulsan who was on fire as he wrapped up the 2015 season.
Christie was a heavy favorite as a 2013 rookie, but he admits the Classic atmosphere was more than he bargained for. He is a rookie no more, starting his fourth Elite season with his fourth Classic. For Evers, this Classic is No. 15.
"You can never say who's going to win," Christie said. "But I know Edwin has worked hard, and I think he's going to be up there. We've got three from Oklahoma in this thing and just fishing against those two guys you've got a one-in-three chance - and then you add 52 more, and any one of them could win, too."