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St. Jude Bass Classic returning to Sardis Lake

By Larry Rea

When COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 St. Jude Bass Classic, one of the nation’s oldest charity bass tournaments, Steve Cook admits the decision was a heart-breaker for him.

Being the tournament director, it was up to him to make the decision.

“It was tough,” Cook says. “It broke my heart because we had to cancel it. Me and my wife (Lane) have been involved in the tournament for so many years. It means so much to us.”

Well, there’s good news for 2021.

The St. Jude Bass Classic is back. It will roll out its 48th edition on May 30 at Sardis Lake. The tournament has raised more than 4.5 million dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital since its birth in 1971.

There’s better news.

Not only will the SJBC return, but so will its Fishin’ for the Kids at St. Jude, a free event for youth 5 through 13. Under the direction of Gary Conklin of Arlington, Fishing for the Kids has raised $1.8 million in 10 years, and, according to Conklin, has already raised $100,000 for this year’s event.

If anyone knows how important the SJBC has been it is Conklin.

In 1983, his daughter, Cammie, was admitted to St. Jude with dysgerminoma cancer. In 2016, his granddaughter Madison was admitted to St. Jude with non-Hoskins lymphoma.

“My daughter is doing fine; she fishes with me,” Conklin says. “When they opened the hospital in 1962, a patient had a 20 percent cure rate. When Madison went to St. Jude doctors told her they’d have her cured in four months. Well, they did. Now, they have an 80 percent or better cure rate.”

His participation in the St. Jude Bass Classic led Cook and his wife to start their own non-profit Children for Life Corporation, which has led them to travel all over the nation raising money for St. Jude. Their efforts led to the start of the St. Jude Bass Tournament Trail.

Thousands of anglers from all over the nation have competed in the St. Jude Bass Classic since it was started by a group of volunteers from the Memphis Bass Club.

“After competing in over 30 St. Jude Bass Classics, and fortunate enough to have won twice (the only two-time SJBC winner), I’ll always continue to participate in other ways to help St. Jude,” says Mid-South fishing guru Ron Wong of Memphis, who’ll be taking photos for the hospital and tournament staff this year at this year’s tournament.

Pro angler Jimmy Washam Jr., of Covington, who will be one of this year’s tournament emcees, calls the SJBC “one of the iconic and charitable outdoor events in the Mid-South, with a long-standing history of bringing the fishing community together to support the greatest children’s hospital in the world.”

Roger Stegall of Iuka, Mississippi, a long-time SJBC supporter who will share emcee duties with Washam in 2021, agrees.

“The St. Jude Bass Classic is always a big deal in the Mid-South,” says Stegall, who has been a fishing guide for more than three decades. “I fished my first St. Jude tournament in 1978 and a few years later (1982) I won it. Back then it was a draw tournament, not a pick-your-partner like it is now.”

Keith Meals, a fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, says the SJBC has a positive impact on the local economy, but also reveals the “ups and downs” of Sardis Lake’s bass fishery.

“Sometimes catches are down because of weather or water fluctuations,” Meals says. “But tournament results usually reflect how the bass population is doing at Sardis.”

When there was a slot limit at Sardis, Meals says, the SJBC helped show the MDWFP that post-tournament survival rates of smaller bass were three times higher than larger bass. Since nearly all bass fishing is catch-and-release now, a size limit isn’t needed.

“Sardis’ bass population rises and falls with water levels,” Meals says. “With high water four of the last five springs, bass numbers are up. I expect this year’s tournament to be above average barring weather and other things.”

Meals has seen the St. Jude Bass Classic remain at Sardis through droughts, floods, the Largemouth Bass Virus and $4-plus a gallon gas prices.

“I appreciate that loyalty,” Meals says. “It’s also a time for me to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. If I counted my fingers correctly, 2021 will be my 35th St. Jude tournament.”

In other words, the SJBC is a memory maker.

“It’s like a family reunion,” Cook said. “We have people who plan their vacation around this tournament. It is a social gathering as much as a tournament.”

All of which brings us back to Conklin and Fishin’ for the Kids at St. Jude.

“I have the support of 20 teams that go out of their way each year to raise money for St. Jude,” Conklin said. “Greg Reaves was boat No. 1 in our last tournament. You get to be boat No. 1 by how much money you raise for St. Jude. He raised just over $21,000. That’s what the St. Jude Bass Classic means – raising money for the kids at St. Jude.”

For additional information go to stjudebassclassics.com. The early deadline is April 30 and the entry fee is $230. After that, it increases to $250.