As Friday morning approaches, I can't help but think back to my own Classic appearance in 2008 on Lake Hartwell. Honestly, it was the experience of a lifetime.
I'll never forget that first morning when we launched. The pride I felt was overwhelming. I, Charlie Hartley from Columbus, Ohio, was a part of the biggest show in all of professional bass fishing. I know there will be a lot of other guys feeling the same way as they depart the launch on Friday morning. It's only natural.
I guess the thing I remember most about my Classic is the decision I made early the first morning. I caught several fish right off the bat. But I knew they weren't big enough to win a Classic, so I left to find bigger ones — before I had a limit. I still can't believe I had the courage to do that. It's not like me. I'm as proud of that move as I am of almost anything I've ever done.
Frankly, the weigh-in is something of a blur in my mind. I knew I had a good sack and that I was in contention. I didn't know that I was leading, however. When I looked up and saw my name at the top of the board, it was mind numbing.
As I left the stage and headed to my room, all I could think about was whether or not this was real. I mean really, it was like a dream. Surreal would be another way to describe it. If a rookie is leading this week, I suspect he'll feel much the same way. Let's face it — it's one thing to lead when you expect it. It's another thing altogether to lead when it comes out of the blue.
Predicting the Classic winner this year is tough. In my humble opinion, this is the most wide open Bassmaster Classic in a long time. There are at least a half-dozen guys in a position to win. Like I said last week, it'll be all about location.
If you pushed me into a corner and made me make a choice, I'd have to go with Kevin VanDam. I know that's a bland and ordinary pick — almost the chicken's way out — but he's the best right now at figuring out how to win under pressure. He has flawless execution and makes very few costly mistakes. Until he stops winning, you can't bet against him. You just can't.
But — pay attention, now — don't count Greg Hackney out. He knows the water, so he should be able to pick a productive location, and he knows how to win. He won the Forrest Wood Cup on the Ohio River in 2009. If he's in a position to win on Sunday, he won't break or crack from the pressure. He's almost equal to VanDam in my mind when on the Louisiana Delta.
We'll know next week.