BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Despite the fact that he was able to sleep in his own bed for all of last year’s pre-Classic festivities and obligations, Oklahoma pro Jason Christie recalls that time as one of the most hectic periods of his life.
“At my first Classic, I must’ve given 30 or 40 interviews leading up to it,” he recalled. By contrast, this week the media has by and large left him alone. He didn’t even need a second hand to count the number of one-on-ones he’s conducted. “It’s kind of nice when everyone leaves you alone to focus.”
That’s the rub of fishing a championship close to home. You’re likely to be pulled in a hundred different directions at once, but at the same time it’s only because you’re typically favored to contend for the win. That too is a double-edged sword, Christie added. “At Grand, if I’d won, it was because I was supposed to win and anything below that was not good.”
Despite those pressures, he said he’d give anything for another shot at the title close to home. Much of the field in this week’s Bassmaster Classic presented by Diet Mountain Dew and GoPro will get to experience the push-pull of a home state championship. Unlike last year when Christie, Edwin Evers and Tommy Biffle were the only Oklahomans in the field, this year’s list of competitors is littered with anglers with legitimate Alabama street cred. Some have lived here all of their lives, while others have either left for sunnier places or come here from elsewhere. The state’s central location with respect to Elite Series venues has led the likes of Aaron Martens, Chris Lane and Randy Howell to leave California, Florida and North Carolina, respectively, to set down roots in the birthplace of B.A.S.S.
Of the entire field, Lane lives closest to the tournament blast-off site – “not even a half mile by water,” by his reckoning – having moved to the shores of Lake Guntersville in April of 2009. The “home pillow advantage” would seem to benefit him greatly, but he downplayed its value. “There’s no advantage,” he said. “This lake has been fished by so many of the anglers, lots of them much more than by me. It can be won by anybody. Unlike any other lake, this tournament could be won north, south, east or west, or in the middle. That’s what makes it so good.”
Despite the historically large numbers of Alabama residents up the upper levels of B.A.S.S. competition, only two residents of the state have won the Classic title – Jack Chancellor and Boyd Duckett. The latter angler was also the only Classic champ to earn the title in his home state, winning on Lay Lake in 2007. Alas, while he has recently moved to Guntersville, he did not qualify for this event, and will have to be content to watch the blast-offs from his waterfront porch.
The Martens family moved here 11 years ago, but the reigning Angler of the Year protested that despite having spent considerable time on Guntersville, he has no real leg up on the rest of the field. “No, absolutely not,” he said. “This lake fishes too big. When I come here, I want to catch fish, so there are whole areas of the lake I’ve never fished, mainly up the river.”
Despite the beliefs of Lane and Martens that under normal circumstances the lake “fishes big,” the general consensus among the field is that this week certain productive areas will be parking lots. Randy Howell, with 16 years of Alabama residency under his belt the longest-termed transplant, said that the cold winter has killed off much of the traditionally-productive grass. “I’ve never seen so much just die and disappear,” he said. “I had to scramble just like somebody who doesn’t know the lake at all to find some grass. With the warm up in the temperatures, the fish are moving shallow and the local advantage won’t be as much as a factor as if it had stayed a little colder.”
While the relative merits of being close to home for this tournament are still being debated, it’s indisputable that spectator traffic and local fishing pressure will play a role in the event’s outcome. While Martens, Mike Iaconelli, Skeet Reese and Kevin VanDam would have floating galleries anywhere, as the winners of the four most recent Elite Series events on Guntersville they’re likely to get even more scrutiny than normal. So will local sticks and fan favorites like Gerald Swindle and former Alabama resident Randall Tharp. Thus, to the extent that any home state advantage remains, the perfect combination might be to be from Alabama, but otherwise low-profile.
“Spectators could be a train wreck, so not having a gallery will be an advantage,” said David Kilgore, who has years of experience on Guntersville and was named by many members of the field as one to watch. Nevertheless, he said that the changing nature of the bite forces him both to rely on local experience and to shun it. “I wish I hadn’t pre-practiced in December. I found some good areas but now they don’t have any grass. I wasted a day (of the official practice) checking stuff from December that is useless now. I’ll fish some history and try some hometown tricks (on Wednesday). If it works, I’ll catch them in the tournament that way, but if it doesn’t it won’t take long to figure that out.”
In addition to the expected shallow migration of the bass, the other factor leveling the playing field this week is the fact that so many of the competitors have spent substantial time on Guntersville – and up and down the Tennessee River – over the course of their careers. There are few who hadn’t been here prior to qualifying. One who hadn’t, though, is Classic rookie Josh Bertrand of Arizona. In fact, prior to last year he’d never set foot or launched a boat in the state of Alabama. While his rookie season on the Elite Series went exceptionally well, his trip from home to this week’s tournament did not. He got caught in an ice storm that delayed his travels substantially, eventually requiring five days of driving to get across the country, and along the way he picked up a nasty illness that persisted into the official practice. Despite being slowed down, though, he took those experiences in stride. “That’s the way this sport goes,” he said. “You never know what to expect. Coming from Arizona, I think that’s given me a certain amount of mental toughness. At home, we fish for five to eight bites a day. When you hear people saying here that they’re only getting five or eight bites a day, they think that’s terrible, but it’s normal back home.”
Fellow Elite Series pro Cliff Pirch, like Bertrand a native of the southwestern desert, said that had it been a cold weather Classic, there might’ve been some advantage granted to those who know the lake the best. “Back home, we don’t even have that season,” he laughed. “But it’s just fishing. Everybody made it here, everybody is capable of doing well. I’m thankful for the warming weather. I don’t do well in the icy conditions.”
Notably, Pirch won a major title on Lake Chickamauga, just up the Tennessee River, a body of water that resembles the lakes of his home region only insofar as that it has bass and that it’s wet. He’s also done well in Florida.
“Nobody cares that I’m here and that’s fine with me,” he said. “Nobody will be paying attention to where my boat is sitting.”
That would change, however, if he fished his wish and got to place the Classic at a waterway of his choice.
“I’d like it if we went back to the original Bassmaster Classic location at Lake Mead,” he said. “I hope someday they do that. It might require a change in strategy, because people would be paying attention to where my boat was sitting, but I’d just roll with the conditions.”