By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division was both enjoying the spotlight and working behind the curtains during last week’s 50th Bassmaster Classic weigh-in at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center (BJCC).
The Classic, with Academy Sports + Outdoors as its title sponsor, pitted the world’s best bass anglers on one of the nation’s top bass impoundments – Lake Guntersville in northeast Alabama.
After an opening round with an impressive 29-plus pounds of largemouth bass, Hank Cherry of North Carolina cruised to a wire-to-wire victory to win the top prize of $300,000.
During Saturday’s weigh-in ceremonies at BJCC’s Legacy Arena, one of WFF’s conservation enforcement officers, Sergeant Bill Freeman, was spotlighted in an oversized Academy chair as the honored first responder.
A veteran of the U.S. Army, Freeman transitioned recently from full-time patrol officer to head of WFF outreach. He was recognized by Academy for the following reasons:
“He consistently goes above and beyond his required duties and provided quality enforcement of game and fish regulations and is an asset to public safety to the residents of Bullock County, Alabama, and the surrounding areas. In 2019, Freeman received a promotion to sergeant for his exemplary service to the people of Alabama. In his new role as sergeant, Freeman’s duties were expanded to lead the effort to recruit youth, college and high school students into hunting and fishing. Sergeant Freeman’s methods and success in recruiting college and high school students across Alabama have garnered nationwide attention. His efforts have highlighted the Department as the leader in minority recruitment and retention by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for the past two years.”
A feature of the award was a $500 shopping spree at the Academy store in Hoover, where Freeman and two colleagues loaded up on fishing equipment to be used in the WFF outreach programs.
Freeman was able to share the oversized chair and spotlight with several youth that participate in his outreach programs. One group of youngsters were from Bullock County and the KAMO (Kids and Mentors Outdoors) program. A few of the kids were from the Barbour County Youth Hunt and Blue Springs Fishing Derby, which are held in cooperation with the Barbour County Lions Club. Other events on Freeman’s schedule include a large hunter education class at Auburn University with the Wildlife Society, the Bullock County Fishing Derby and Outdoor Alabama Experience events at Oak Mountain State Park and Lake Lurleen State Park.
“The kids absolutely loved it,” Freeman said. “It’s been all over Facebook. That was a great experience. I really appreciated being recognized for our Department (Conservation and Natural Resources). Anything I can do for the kids is just a great experience. They really had a ball.
“It’s just nice to know people support what we do.”
While Freeman and his youth were in the spotlight, a crew from WFF’s hatchery operations was steadily working backstage to ensure the bass weighed in each day at the Classic received the best care possible in order to return the fish to Lake Guntersville, the Classic site, and Lay Lake, where the high school and college tournaments were held.
After Bassmaster Tournament Director Trip Weldon weighed the fish, he handed a basket through a trap door in the stage floor to a runner, who hurriedly transported the fish to large holding tanks on WFF vehicles.
WFF Hatchery Supervisor Brian Rinehard, who oversees all three hatcheries in the state (Eastaboga, Marion and Carbon Hill), teamed up with Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. Conservation Director, to determine how many tanker trucks would be needed during the Classic to transport the bass from the arena. The fish eventually ended up in either Lake Guntersville or Lay Lake after a visit to the Eastaboga hatchery in Calhoun County.
“Gene gave me an estimate of how big and how many fish they expected to be weighed in each day of the Classic,” Rinehard said. “We made sure we had trucks to easily handle that capacity.”
The trucks from the different hatcheries went to Eastaboga and were filled with spring water and a specific amount of salt to ease the stress on the fish. The tanks are equipped with oxygen diffusers to keep the water at the desired saturation level. The trucks then travel to BJCC, where they are staged to receive the weighed fish.
Classic anglers transported the fish from Lake Guntersville to Legacy Arena in the livewells of the tournament boats. The fish were placed in bags before being brought onstage to be weighed. After weighing, the fish were quickly placed in the WFF hatchery tanks until the weigh-in was completed.