Much has been made of the current field of Bassmaster Classic qualifiers. They're a stout group — talented, experienced, focused and driven. But are they the best field ever assembled to fish the championship?
Let's take a look at the factors that make a Classic field tough and see how the current crop stacks up.
#1 - Experience
The 2012 Classic field is the second most experienced in history. The average angler has already fished 5.67 Classics, so tournament jitters aren't going to be an issue for most of them. Only the 2006 Classic on the Kissimmee Chain in Florida had a more experienced group. Those anglers had fished an average of 5.92 championships.
There are 11 anglers who will be fishing their first Classic in 2012. It might seem like a lot, but it's about average. The record low for rookies was 2006, when there were only four.
How important is Classic experience? That's hard to say, but only one rookie has won the Classic since 1993 — Boyd Duckett in 2007, and he did it in his home state where familiarity with the venue and fishery must have given him at least a little extra confidence.
And while we're on experience, did you know that 22 of the 49 anglers in this year's Classic also fished the 2009 Classic on the same waterway? That's not quite a record, but it means almost half the field has not only fished the Classic before, but fished it on the same waters, at the same time of year and under the same pressures and constraints.
#2 - Ex-champs
Only a handful of anglers have won more than one Classic, and there's a pretty good argument to be made that winning a Classic fulfills so many dreams and satisfies so much professional hunger that it's tougher to get up for the next big game. Nevertheless, the number of former Classic champs in the field says something about its star power and the ability of the anglers there.
The 2012 Classic field has six former Classic champs with nine Classic titles to their credit (Kevin VanDam with 4 and Denny Brauer, Davy Hite, Alton Jones, Michael Iaconelli and Takahiro Omori with one each). Again, that's not the record, but it's not too shabby, either. In 1989 there were 10 former Classic champs in the field, and between them they had 12 titles.
#3 - AOYs
Nothing screams bass fishing talent quite like a Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award. Among the 49 competitors in the 2012 Bassmaster Classic are seven anglers who have earned a total of 14 AOYs (Van Dam has seven, Hite has two, and Brauer, Iaconelli, Tim Horton, Aaron Martens and Gerald Swindle each have one).
The record for most individual AOYs in a Classic is 10 in 2006, while the record for most AOY titles in a Classic is 22 set in 2002, one of the last years Roland Martin (and his 9 AOYs) made it.
#4 - Size of the field
There will be 49 anglers fishing this year's Classic, but there could have been as many as 54 if every Opens winner had qualified. Historically, the size of the field has jumped all over the place, even from year to year. In fact, the number of Classic competitors has never been the same for any three year stretch in the 42-year history of the event. Basically, the number stayed in the 20s for the first decade, jumped to the 40s for the next 20 years and has averaged better than 50 since 2002.
Forty-nine is actually the lowest number of qualifiers since 2005. The all-time low was 24 in the first two championships. The all-time high is 61 in 2003. Obviously, more qualifiers make it easier to get to the big dance, but harder to win it. Fewer qualifiers make getting there tough, but winning easier.
#5 - Home cooking
Forget what you've heard about local favorites never winning the Classic. Yes, it's true that only one (Boyd Duckett in 2007) actually did it, but what's more true is that lots of anglers who hail from the host state means that one or more is going to break through and finish near the top. Home state heroes may not often win, but they've frequently made things interesting.
This year, only Greg Hackney will be fishing in his home state, and he should be a factor, if only because of his prowess on rivers and when fishing shallow water.
Back in 2007 when Duckett won in Alabama, there were nine qualifiers in the field from the Heart of Dixie and five of them made the cut to the top 25. Not dazzling by any stretch, but not bad.
#6 - All-time greats
In 2005, ESPN conducted what they called "The Greatest Angler Debate," and a panel of experts selected the 10 greatest tournament bass fishermen of all-time. Rick Clunn won that title, with Roland Martin finishing second. The 10 finalists were undeniably the best in the business to that time, and I was interested to find out how many of them had competed in the same Classics.
Turns out that eight of the 10 greatest fished in the 1991 and 1996 Classics. That's Clunn, Martin, Brauer, VanDam, Larry Nixon, Jay Yelas, Gary Klein and Mark Davis all fishing for the same prize. Only Bill Dance and Hank Parker were absent. That's some serious star power.
In 2012, only KVD and Brauer are in the mix, though you could certainly argue that Hite, Iaconelli, Martens, Shaw Grigsby, Edwin Evers and a few others are legends or legends in the making.
#7 - No return of the king
One thing that really hurts the chemistry of the 2012 Classic field is the conspicuous absence of the man who won the championship the last time the event was here: Skeet Reese. After an unexpected and unprecedented bad season, Reese missed out on the chance to defend the title he claimed in 2009.
But what's bad for Skeet is good for the rest of the field. Reese made all the right moves three years ago and would certainly be on the short list of guys to beat if he was coming back. Now he's just one less worry for the rest of the qualifiers.
It looks like they'll have their hands full anyway.