SHREVEPORT/BOSSIER CITY, La. — Every year on Feb. 2, Punxsutawney Phil might or might not cast his groundhog shadow. But it’s a sure bet that by Groundhog Day, the pundits will be casting their predictions for the winner of the world championship of bass fishing, this year Feb. 24-26 on the Red River out of Shreveport-Bossier City, La.
Who is most likely to succeed in the 2012 Bassmaster Classic? Qualifier Michael Iaconelli addressed that question in a recent Bassmaster.com blog: “Everyone who qualified knows how to bass fish. Any angler can jump up and win.”
While Iaconelli’s been eyeing up his competition, he’s been tapped as a serious contender for the $500,000 crown by many of the success prognosticators. The reasons are many: The Bassmaster Elite Series pro from Pittsgrove, N.J., ranked 18th in points by the end of the 2011 Elite season. He’s fresh off a second-place finish in a Professional Anglers Association event. He was the 2003 Classic champ on the Louisiana Delta.
But the most-cited reason for Iaconelli being a threat is his runner-up finish in the 2009 Classic, when the championship first came to the Red River. Skeet Reese beat Iaconelli by 11 ounces. Any red-blooded competitor would be out to erase such a painful memory with a victory.
Reese didn’t qualify for 2012, but as Iaconelli himself noted, he has 48 other anglers to take on.
Like Edwin Evers from Talala, Okla., for example. If anyone is sharp and ready to notch a big win into his career record, it’s Evers. He has had two strong seasons in a row — so strong, in fact, that he’s been runner-up for the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year title. His recent Classic record is formidable: 11th place in 2006 and 2008; sixth in 2005; and fifth in 2009.
He knows exactly why he did not win on the Red in 2009, insight that could help him close on victory this year.
“I had the bites to win, I just didn’t get them in the boat,” he said. “They simply weren’t hooked well enough.”
Another big plus for Evers is that he’s been on rest for several weeks. He said he has picked up a rod and reel, but strictly for fun, including pond fishing with his 3-year-old son (who, related Evers, just the other day made a very passable cast with an adult-sized spinning outfit — good genes?).
He has not been back to the Red since 2009. He passed on making a scouting trip before the off-limits period began in December. The official practice days of Feb. 17-19 will work for him, he said.
“Three days is plenty enough time, with the knowledge I have of that place,” he said.
Evers plans to warm up for the Classic by competing in the Feb . 9-11 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open in Texas.
“I’m going to fish Lake Lewisville to get moving, get in shape, get everything on my new boat tested in a tournament,” said Evers. “But if the Classic were tomorrow, I’d be ready to go.”
Todd Faircloth says he, too, is ready. He’s from eastern Texas — Jasper, Texas, to be exact. That’s a fact that keeps the Elite pro’s name off most home-state-advantage lists. But for him, a trip to the Red River feels like going home. The river was a frequent destination when he was growing up. Early in his career, local tournaments on the river were a natural choice.
“I feel that knowing the lay of the river, how to best navigate in and out of backwaters, and the areas that produce time after time, helps me a lot,” Faircloth said. A scouting trip before the cutoff date refreshed his Red River knowledge, he added.
The Texan warrants watching also because in the past two Classic competitions, he was a direct challenger: third in 2010, and eighth in 2011. But in Classic 2009 he did not fare well — 35th place. He traces the poor showing back to one tactical error.
“In 2009, I started the tournament in the area it was won in — probably 150 yards from the spot — but with all the boat traffic that was in the area, I made the decision the first day that it would not hold up for three days, with as many guys who were in there,” Faircloth said.
“I made a bad decision,” he said. “This time around, if I feel I’m in an area that holds the potential for me to win, I’m going to lock down and sweat it out there.”
Many forecasters have Kevin VanDam at or near the top of their most-likely lists. One obvious reason is his momentum. His 2011 Classic title was his second consecutive and fourth of his career. He’s also the 2011 Angler of the Year, his fourth consecutive and seventh crown.
VanDam also has shown his Classic prowess again and again on rivers. It could be said that all his Classic wins were on river systems: his 2011 victory on the Louisiana Delta; his 2010 win on a Coosa River lake in Alabama; 2005’s crown from the three rivers that converge at Pittsburgh, Pa.; and his first Classic win, in 2001, on the Louisiana Delta.
With momentum like that, his threat to other competitors stems as much from the KVD legend as from any other factor.
No one, including himself, is forgetting that VanDam did not do well in the 2009 Classic on the Red — 30th in a field of 51. In an interview published in the February issue of B.A.S.S. Times magazine, he said he made a wrong decision about where to begin the tournament.
This time around, he said in the same interview, “I’m gonna be smarter with my game plan.”