I love this time of year. It's the end of the tournament season and the final spots in the upcoming Bassmaster Classic are getting gobbled up faster than cornbread dressing at a Thanksgiving Day table. It's a time when I pull out my calculator, update my record book and bask in the fun of the numbers.
Here's what I've gleaned after the recent Cabela's Bassmaster Federation Nation Championship on Wheeler Lake in Alabama.
With the newest six, the BFN has now qualified 181 anglers for the Bassmaster Classic since the program started in 1973. They've represented 44 different states (Maine joined the ranks this year; now all but Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming have been represented) and three foreign countries (Japan, South Africa and Zimbabwe).
Indiana has sent the most BFN qualifiers to the Classic — 10. That's interesting, but what's amazing to me is that California has never sent a BFN angler to the Classic — not ever! How is that even possible?
I thought California was finally going to break through this year after Jason Hemminger grabbed the overall lead in the Championship on Day 2 and had a nearly 5 pound lead in the Western Division with one round to go. But Hemminger fizzled in the finals (just two bass weighing 4-11) and opened the door for Arizona's Andy Bravence.
Fifteen anglers have qualified for the Classic through the BFN more than once. Mark Dove is the latest to join that group. He made it this year and also qualified for the 1997 Classic, when he finished 26th. Of course, qualifying for the Classic through the BFN got a lot easier in 1981 when B.A.S.S. started qualifying multiple BFN anglers. Between 1973 and 1980, only one BFN angler went to the Classic. In 1981 it was expanded to five, and in 2006 it went to six.
The only angler to qualify for multiple Classics through the BFN when only one such amateur made it each year was Tennessee's Billy Phillips. I rank his accomplishment among the greatest in B.A.S.S. history, though he earned his Classic berths not by winning the old BFN championships but by being the top angler on the state that won the titles. Nevertheless, his two qualifications from that era are even more impressive than multiple qualifications today. Phillips was known as "the King of Kentucky Lake" and made some terrific spinnerbaits and buzzbaits.
It's great that so many BFN anglers remember Bryan Kerchal and his Classic victory, but a shame that so few remember Phillips, who died in 2008. He was a stick.
And while we're handing out kudos, how about a big one for Zimbabwe's Gerry Jooste, who just qualified for his fifth Bassmaster Classic through the BFN. That's an amazing accomplishment that might be best summed up as follows:
Classic appearances through the BFN
Gerry Jooste - 5
California - 0
When I write these kinds of stories, I invariably irritate a few BFN anglers because of stats like that ... and the next one. They think I'm taking shots. Relax — I'm not. I'm just pointing out a few facts that I find interesting and that you won't see anywhere else because I'm the only one keeping track of this stuff.
Of all the BFN anglers who had a great finish (let's say top 10) in their first Classic, all but one struggled mightily or bombed outright the next time they got there. Here's the list:
Angler Classic #1 Classic #2
Charlie Campbell 5th in 1974 12th in 1976 (out of 25 anglers)
Danny Correia 2nd in 1986 31st in 2002 (out of 52 anglers)
Larry Lazoen 5th in 1984 24th in 1986 (out of 41 anglers)
Brandon Palaniuk 4th in 2011 48th in 2012 (out of 49 anglers)
Billy Phillips 4th in 1976 38th in 1980 (out of 41 anglers)
Bryan Schmidt 6th in 2009 30th in 2010 (out of 51 anglers)
The only BFN qualifier who did well in his first Classic and followed it up with another strong performance was Michael Iaconelli, who was 6th in his 1999 debut and 10th a year later when he made it as a pro. The rest didn't come close to backing up their early success.
Were they flukes? Maybe, but it's also true that an angler's focus changes the second time around at the Bassmaster Classic. In the debut they were excited to be there, found themselves on some fish and did well. When they make it again, they realize there's no second place in the championship, so they take a few chances, look for an obscure pattern or isolated group of fish and wake up to find themselves out of the cut. It happens.
Looking ahead to the 2013 Classic on Grand Lake, Okla., Feb. 22-24, the six newest BFN qualifiers have their work cut out for them. As you probably know, Bryan Kerchal is the only BFN qualifier ever to win the Classic. He did it in 1994 in his second try. Five months later he was killed in a North Carolina plane crash.
Kerchal led that Classic on both Day 2 and (obviously) Day 3. The only other BFN angler ever to lead a Classic was Gerry Jooste. Jooste was on top after the first day of the 1997 Classic on Lake Logan Martin in Alabama.
Day 1 of the 1997 Classic (when Jooste took the early lead) was also the last time a BFN qualifier had the heaviest daily catch at a Bassmaster Classic. It's happened just three times. Phil Hunt did it in 1983 (Day 3) and Brent Riley did it in 1994 (Day 2). Despite his win, Kerchal didn't have the heaviest bag on any individual day of the 1994 Classic.