The Classic Jinx

Much fuss has been made about anglers fishing tournaments on their home waters.

 This guy knows every nook and cranny of the fishery. He knows how to read the water conditions. He knows the right lures to throw and the right times to throw them.

 In other words, he's got to be the favorite. Right?

 It sounds logical, but more often the not, the fuss is much ado about nothing. And in the Bassmaster Classic, an angler fishing familiar territory has been like the kiss of death — so much so that in the Classic's 36-year history, not one angler has ever claimed a championship on his home water.

 George Cochran and Ricky Green had their chances on the Arkansas River in 1984 and 1985, but they could only watch as Rick Clunn and Jack Chancellor claimed Classic titles.

 David Fritts was the biggest favorite of all in 1994 on High Rock Lake. According to legend, he had never lost a tournament on the lake. But he fell hard to the most unlikely competitor of all when Bryan Kerchal, an amateur representing the Federation, won.

 And in 1999, Rodney Wagley, a hometown hero in the Louisiana Marsh, figured to be a force, but never got in the game. Just minutes after the takeoff of the first morning, Wagley's boat collided with a surfacing garfish that sent his boat careening into the woods and out of the contest.

 Jason Quinn had his shot on Lake Wylie in 2004, but Takahiro Omori was victorious.

 Terry Scroggins and Preston Clark came close last year on Lake Tohopekaliga, but Luke Clausen beat both of the Florida natives for the trophy.

 Whether from abnormal pressure or some paranormal jinx, this hometown thing isn't all it's cracked up to be. Alabama is the ultimate example. There have been nine Classics within the state, none won by an Alabama angler. To date, Jack Chancellor is the only Alabama champion and that came in Arkansas.

 Perhaps no one knows the pressure of fishing Classics on his home water better than Woo Daves, who had three consecutive chances to win on the James River between 1988 and 1990.

 Daves finished in the top five at each of those events, but had to wait another decade before he won his one and only Classic — beating out Kevin Van Dam on his home water of Lake Michigan.

 The list goes on and on.

 So what does all this mean? Well for starters, it means that the hype is already beginning to swirl around the Alabama-born anglers entered in the 2007 Bassmaster Classic, which begins Feb. 23 on Lay Lake near Birmingham.

 It also means that the Alabamans are being asked this inevitable question: "So, can one of you guys win this thing?"

 Of course, they think they can, even if history isn't necessarily on their side.

 Take Russ Lane, a Prattville, Ala., resident who has fished approximately 15 tournaments a year on Lay Lake for more than a decade.

 "I'm not worried about jinxes or curses," Lane said. "I've fished the whole Coosa River chain. The key is you can't make adjustments based on memories. You make adjustments based on the conditions, the water clarity, the weather, the time of year. And that's the same wherever you fish. It doesn't matter which body of water we're on. I'm still fishing against the best anglers in the world. I may have a small advantage because I know the area, but these guys will know to make adjustments too."

 Lane probably knows Lay Lake better than any angler in the field. He and his fishing partner Chris Rutland have teamed to win more than 100 tournaments there in the past eight years.

 While they weren't facing the kind of competition Lane will see in the Classic, Alabama's tournament trails are among the most challenging in the U.S., so he is battle tested on Lay Lake.

 Lay Lake is also the place where Lane's professional angling career was jump-started.

 "It was a Federation qualifier during the last week of February," he said. "I won that one over nearly 500 guys and it got me into the 2004 Classic on Wylie. It's ironic that we're coming back to the same lake during the same week. Hopefully, I'll have the same results."

 Tim Horton, who lives in Muscle Shoals, Ala., grew up fishing the Coosa River chain and said being familiar with the area could help the Alabama anglers. He said he doesn't feel extra pressure trying to win a Classic in his home state.

 "Every Classic is such a big stage, so being close to home doesn't really matter," Horton said. "The pressure is already high."

 Like Horton, Gerald Swindle has fished the area for most of his life. The Hayden, Ala. resident said he tries not to focus on the pundits who wonder aloud if this could be his year to win a Classic championship.

 "Some people will predict you'll do well and others will predict you'll bomb," Swindle said. "You can't worry about all that. I take it all with a grain of salt. You read the conditions, what's going on that day. If you let all the talk get inside your head, you'll mess up."

 Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., and Boyd Duckett of Demopolis, Ala., are the other two Alabama natives entered in the Classic. Four others live in Alabama, but are not natives (Aaron Martens, Randy Howell, Lee Bailey and Derek Remitz.).

 Lane said he's had recent conversations with Quinn and Scroggins, who know firsthand the scrutiny their Alabama friends will face during Classic week.

 Quinn offered this advice to Lane.

 "I tell him to enjoy the press and publicity he's getting right now," Quinn said. "The Classic at Wylie is what put me where I am today (he finished sixth). But I also tell him to remember you're out there to do your job. You don't want to fall on your face and have people say you let the pressure get to you. You just have to do what you do well and let things take care of themselves."

 Quinn knows that's easier said than done.

 "Everyone says put it all in the back of your mind," he said. "But you can't tune it out altogether. You just can't. There are people out there rooting for you, which is nice, but it kind of takes you out of your game at the same time. People don't understand the boat wakes, the electronics that go into what we do. You have to fish more thoroughly. It's distracting, no doubt."

 Quinn also knows this.

 "This is a winter tournament," he said. "Maybe there won't be as much boat traffic as there would be in the summer when there's more recreational fishing and the kids are out of school. So it could play right into Russ' hands."

 Regardless of the weather, Scroggins said Lane and company are sure to encounter more boat traffic than what he faced last winter on Lake Toho.

 "Russ may have 50 or 60 boats following him," Scroggins said. "That's why I think the location of the tournament has such an effect. In Florida, we have guys that follow us, but it's nothing like you'll see in Alabama. They love their bass fishing over there."

 Daves has already been in the same position as the Alabama anglers. He said it can be a challenging situation.

 "You're not just expected to be among the favorites," Daves said. "You're expected to win."

 His advice to the Alabamans?

 "I'd fish new stuff," he said. "Find new patterns. Just go fishing. If the conditions are right, you may get lucky. But the conditions are typically different than you would expect. The chances they'll be the same are slim to none. So don't get stuck in your old honey hole. Read the conditions and go find a new one."

 Whatever happens, Lane said he relishes the opportunity to fish the Classic on Lay Lake.

 "I was at a boat show in Birmingham and I can't tell you how many people came up to me, shook my hand and told me they expect me to win," Lane said. "So I've got those fans pulling for me, and I'm going to try extra hard to win it, even if it's just for those fans."

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