KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The bright lights, the television cameras and the thousands of fishing fans weren't around when the 51 anglers in the CITGO Bassmaster Classic launched into Lake Tohopekaliga this morning at 6:30 a.m.But the anglers didn't need any hype to realize the importance of the day — the last practice session before the 36th annual Classic begins in earnest on Friday.
They know that if they are going to capture the Classic title, their chances to build momentum begin now. So finding fish today is paramount for each of the anglers looking for not only the prestige of winning the Classic, but also the $500,000 first prize that comes with it.
Today's practice round was made even more relevant by the fact that last week's three-day practice run was greeted with a strong cold front that altered the routine patterns of Florida bass in mid February. Consequently, many pros said the bite was off last week.
The weather has returned to normal here, however, with temperatures expected to climb into the low 80s by midday. That has the anglers excited about the possibility of locating lunkers that could lead to impressive stringers this weekend.
Searching for momentum
"I think what the guys found a week ago is irrelevant," said Gary Klein, the Texas pro who will be fishing in his 24th Classic, but is still seeking his first title. "I think the guys that put a little something together today are going to be the ones to carry the momentum. So I'm taking this practice day a lot more serious than I have other practice days in the past — a lot more serious."
Klein said he found a couple of productive areas last week that he plans on fishing during the Classic. He'll return to those spots today to see if the action remains or, hopefully in his case, has gotten even better.
"I was flipping the heavy aquatic vegetation," Klein said. "I had a couple of days when I was doing really well. I was shaking them off. And I know that when the water warms, they come out from underneath that stuff."
Kevin VanDam, the world's top-ranked bass angler and the defending Classic champion, said he didn't have good practices last week, but suspects that could change today.
Warmer weather, hotter fishing
"(The weather) is a lot different today," VanDam said. "I was practicing then for the future. So I'm not too concerned. Today is the day that's real important to me."
Joe Conway, a Colorado angler who fished his way into the Classic via the Federation Championship, said his practices got better last week as the temperatures gradually climbed. He said he doesn't plan on changing his approach because of warming weather.
"I have 10 rods and I'll probably use seven or eight of them," Conway said. "The fish are in every kind of condition, every stage you can think of right now. So you can just about do whatever you want to do."
Virginia pro Rick Morris, fishing in his third Classic, alluded to the fact he may have to try various strategies today, as well. "(The warmer weather) changes everything," he said.
The anglers are scheduled to return to shore shortly after 2:30 p.m. this afternoon.