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For the avid bass angler, there are few bigger dreams than that of standing front and center on the Championship Sunday stage, hoisting the Bassmaster Classic Trophy for all to see. For many, the thought of this moment will remain but a dream out of reach. However, on March 17th, 2019, Ott Defoe found himself living out this exact scenario, as an angling career that started years earlier came full circle.
For The Love Of Fishing
Like many professional bass anglers, especially those competing on the sport’s biggest stage, Ott Defoe’s fishing career began years before his famed Classic Win. In fact, Defoe found himself fishing competitively around the same time that most youngsters his age were learning to swim or throw a baseball.
“My dad was not a tournament fisherman, but he enjoyed being outdoors. I also have a brother that is a couple of years older than I am, and we always enjoyed being outside and fishing in general. We watched the Bassmasters on TNN and looked at Bassmaster magazine. We even went to Florida where we hired a guide a couple of times and caught a bunch of fish. From that point on, I just wanted to be a bass fisherman,” said Defoe.
This love of being on the water, and watching as his favorite pros took to the weigh-in stage week after week, soon lit a fire within Defoe to do the same. At an age far younger than most anglers, Defoe began to compete whenever possible, fishing against those in his local area.
“I was nine-years old, getting ready to turn ten the next month, when I fished my first tournament. It was an Anglers Choice tournament on Cherokee Lake, in what I think would have been August of 1995,” Defoe continued.
From this point, Defoe’s interest in competitive angling only grew, as he never relinquished his dream of one-day fishing as a pro. In a matter of a few years, this dream slowly started to come more and more into focus, as Defoe began fishing tournaments on a larger scale.
“My first professional tournament was kind of a AAA level pro event. It was an Everstart Series event on Lake Okeechobee in 2003,” said Defoe. As time passed, Defoe immersed himself deeper and deeper into his competitive angling ambitions, stacking up a number of high ranking finishes on both the B.A.S.S. circuit and FLW tour.
One Last Chance
By the time that 2019 rolled around, Defoe had fished in the Classic a total of seven times and had built quite the reputation for always finishing toward the top of the 50 plus angler field, even finishing in the top-five on four different occasions. However, the 2019 Bassmaster Classic was different for a couple of reasons.
For one, Defoe had the home-field advantage, as the tournament was set to be held on the Tennessee River, which Defoe, as a Knoxville native, was all too familiar with. “Being there in an area I had fished so much, I had a lot of experience on that body of water,” said Defoe. “I knew a lot of the areas that I wanted to fish before the tournament even got there.”
Another fact that differentiated the 2019 Classic from those prior was Defoe’s recognition that it would probably be his last run at the championship of which he had dreamed of since his youth. “It was kind of unique because I had already signed up to switch to the MLF Bass Pro Tour. So I knew I would not be qualifying for any more Classics for the foreseeable future. So it was kind of the mentality that it was my last chance to win a Classic,” said Defoe.
Despite all the thoughts and emotions running through Defoe’s mind before launching on day one of the 2019 Classic, one principle above all continued to take precedence above the rest. “I just wanted God’s will to be done, and him to be glorified,” Defoe said. “Obviously, I wanted to win. But, I wanted it to be bigger than myself.”
Chasing Down a Championship
As the field launched their boats for day one of the Classic, Defoe knew he needed to put together a hefty first-day bag. He targeted shallow points and chunk rock, surrounded by gravel and interspersed vegetation, fishing mainly with a lipless crankbait. This was a strategy that paid dividends, as he was able to claim his spot atop the leaderboard at the end of day one, having weighed-in a 20-pound limit.
On the second day of the Classic, Defoe struck out to pick up where he left off at the conclusion of his stellar day one performance. Almost immediately, he began putting bass in the livewell, and all looked to be coming together nicely. By mid-morning, Defoe was well on his way to having his five-fish limit, though he soon ran into trouble.
After boating his third keeper of the day, action ground to a halt. Defoe experienced difficulty getting on the bite, and frustration set in. After doubling back on some of the areas that he previously fished, and covering other familiar territories, Defoe scrapped his plan, opting instead to fish along docks using a ⅜-ounce bladed jig.
Luckily, this change of plans breathed new life into Defoe’s day two endeavors, and he was able to round out his daily bag in time to hit the weigh-in stage. However, when the stage lights went dark that evening, he found himself in fourth place, two-pounds behind the tournament leader, Jacob Wheeler.
Knowing a big push would be required to regain the lead and take home the Classic Championship, Defoe set out on day-three with a level of resolve like none other. He initially planned to fish off of past history, focusing his efforts on those locations where success had been found in the past.
However, fishing remained slow. By mid-morning, Defoe had only two keepers in the boat, though everything soon began to fall into place. Defoe returned to a spot where he had boated a 6 ½ pound bass on day one. It was there that he ultimately got back on the bite, and day three began to turn around.
Then, Defoe remembered a comment made by a fellow angler in regards to a nearby marina the day before. With one last push needed to round out his limit, Defoe made a quick jog to the marina and began pitching along structure in the area. Within minutes, Defoe boated a 2 ½ and 4-pound bass, allowing him to secure a limit and cull a few of his smaller fish.
Defoe returned to the ramp hopeful, yet skeptical, at the prospect that he would be able to best the field and take home the championship that he had longed for since childhood. One by one, limits were weighed and numbers were posted, until finally the last competitor of the day took the stage. Upon the realization that Jacob Wheeler’s weight had failed to top that which Defoe had posted, a new Bassmaster Champion was crowned, and unmistakable joy spread across Defoe’s face.
What Does A Classic Championship Mean?
The Bassmaster Classics is cited on almost a yearly basis as “the Superbowl of bass fishing.” For those that lay claim to the illustrious title of being crowned a Bassmaster Classic Champion, few moments can be as special, if not life-changing. This was much the case for Ott Defoe, who achieved a lifelong dream as he hoisted the Classic trophy high above his head.
“It was a surreal experience. I just don’t know any other way to put it. It was everything that I ever thought it would be. I guess the best way to describe it would be like an out of body experience I guess. Then a month later, when you finally calm down, you have to look back and watch the video to realize that it really did happen,” said Defoe.
One truth that seems to be universal for every angler that wins the Bassmaster Classic Championship is the amount of publicity that follows. Defoe has also become well accustomed to this fact in the year since his win.
“It definitely makes you a lot busier. Anywhere you go, if you are around anyone that fishes at all, they recognize you, and know who you are. It kind of puts your name in the rafters, and people always remember that experience. It does make your life a lot more busy, and you have to juggle that, along with everything else,” said Defoe.
Dreams Do Come True
For Defoe, the 2019 Bassmaster Championship was much more than just another highlight on his professional angling resume. It was the realization of a boyhood dream, no different than that of those who grow up longing to pitch their way to a Baseball World Series Championship. For some, these dreams get lost in the sea of daily life. For Ott Defoe, and others with the same endless drive and determination, a dream is just a goal which has not yet been achieved.
On March 17th, 2019, Ott Defoe’s Dream became a reality, solidifying years of hard work and continual growth toward what only 50 anglers in the history of competitive fishing have ever achieved.