CHARLOTTE, N.C. — They were eight of the most precious hours of the year for pros competing in the 34th annual CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer, yet none of the casts made during Wednesday's practice round even counted.
The 53 Classic contenders got their first look at Lake Wylie (where the three-day world-championship event kicks off Friday) since the 12,000-acre Charlotte lake went off limits 30 days ago. All were looking to set the foundation for a run at the $200,000 winner's purse and the most important crown in professional fishing.
Catching the lake's largemouth bass was not particularly important. Locating them — and then figuring out how to make them bite — was.
Predictably, the day yielded a wide variety of results. Some pros could barely conceal their excitement about their success Wednesday. Others did poorly enough that they were ready to abandon the game plans that had been conceived during the official five-day pre-practice period a month ago. And some anglers were satisfied, but not thrilled with their practice round.
The contrast can be seen in the practice results of the two local pre-Classic favorites — Jason Quinn and Chris Baumgardner.
"I'm jacked. I'm ready to get this thing going," said Quinn, a 32-year-old pro who guides on Lake Wylie and is making his second Classic appearance. "My practice day was real good. It went extremely well and I'm looking forward to getting it started.
"Actually it went a little better than I expected. I fished enough stuff and tried to hit each spot quick to check on things. I caught a few fish just to see what size they were. I had eight or nine bites
"I stopped fishing to do four or five media interviews on the docks today. I did as many interviews on docks as I did fishing them."
Contrast that with the experience of the other local favorite.
"It was a little slow — a lot slower than I expected," said Baumgardner, a 43-year-old pro from Gastonia, N.C., competing in his third Classic. "I caught a few fish. I could have had a limit that would have gone 12 or 13 pounds.
"I ran some shallow water mostly today, places where I caught them in pre-practice. The fish were still there, but they wouldn't take a bait. I don't know what to think about that. It was real hard to catch fish. I only had eight or nine bites.
"I did pinpoint fish in a few areas where maybe I can go catch some and then go to my deep-water spots. Today kind of hurt my confidence. I was kind of counting on that shallow-water bite."
Texan Jay Yelas, the 2002 Classic champion, admitted that he struggled to find bass on Wednesday.
"I thought it was pretty tough," he said. "I had six bites and shook off three of them.
The year I won it I found the fish on the one practice day and I knew I had something special. I can't say that this time."
Former Kentucky Derby jockey and five-time Classic qualifier Kevin Wirth was rather secretive about his practice round, but hinted of big things to come starting Friday.
"It was kind of slow, but I think it's going to get better," the Kentucky pro said "What I tried to do today would have turned out to be pretty good if I could have connected better with the fish. I missed too many fish.
"It was a whole lot better than I expected. I was kind of down in the dumps after my pre-practice. But I made some adjustments today and it worked. I think it's something that I can pick back up with on Friday and it could get better and better as the week goes on. I think it's something that I can really expand on."
Three-time CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year and 1995 Classic winner Mark Davis could muster up little enthusiasm for his chances after the struggle he endured on Wednesday.
"It was real slow. It was a lot worse than I expected," the Arkansas angler said. "The conditions were somewhat different from pre-practice. The water was lower and clearer. Some guys found fish in the places they found them in pre-practice, but I didn't. I think the conditions are just different. It's been 30 days and things have changed.
"I'm probably going to have abandon my game plan and try something different if I'm going to do any good in this tournament."
Another former Classic champion and Angler of the Year admitted being baffled after his eight practice hours on Lake Wylie.
"I didn't do any good. I didn't do much. I expected better," said Davy Hite of Prosperity, S.C. "I didn't fish a couple of my best spots, but I fished some spots where there should have been some fish.
"The water jumped back up in the last few days and there is a lot of muddy water up on the upper end of the lake. Maybe it will settle down the next couple of days. Or maybe I'll have to make some adjustments.
"I saw guys doing some things to catch fish, but not catching any good fish. I'm going to stick with my game plan at least through the first day and do the things that I caught some big fish doing in pre-practice."
The casts start counting for real at 6:45 a.m. on Friday when the Classic boats are launched at the Buster Boyd Access Area on Highway 49 near Lake Wylie.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.
Local Sponsors include the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission, Visit Charlotte, the Auditorium-Coliseum-Convention Center Authority, the Rock Hill Sports and Tourism Council and Time Warner Cable.