UNION SPRINGS, N.Y. — There are careers on the line this week at the A.R.E. Truck Caps Bassmaster Elite Series tournament at Cayuga Lake. This 42,000-acre, 31-miles-long lake in upstate New York will be the make-or-break event for so many Elite Series anglers, it's hard to know where to start.
So here's a guide – five things to watch on Cayuga Lake this week:
1. The Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race
Only two events remain in the 2014 Elite Series season, and this will be the last one with a full field. Only the top 50 in the AOY points standings after this tournament will qualify for the Toyota AOY Championship on Lake Michigan's Little Bay de Noc Sept. 18-21.
If you're going to make a big move in the standings, this is your last chance. With only the top 50 qualifying for the ninth tournament of the year, a big swing in the points standings will be unlikely in September.
"It's really going to be hard to make up many points (at Little Bay de Noc)," said Mark Davis, who fell from the AOY lead that he'd held most of the season to 7th place after his 80th place finish on the Delaware River two weeks ago.
Greg Hackney leads by one point over Aaron Martens going into this event. Skeet Reese is 12 points behind Hackney, followed by Keith Combs and Todd Faircloth (both 18 points off the lead), Jason Christie (21 points behind) and Davis (now 31 points back).
"Anybody in the top five has got a chance (to win)," said Hackney, who noted it will be difficult for someone lower than fifth to make a run at the title. "Somebody out of that (top five) bunch will catch 'em. It could be top 10, but you'd think somebody in the top five will catch 'em."
Hackney has been involved in a tight AOY race before. He finished second by three points to Gerald Swindle in 2004.
"The big deal for me is that I'm in a good place," Hackney said. "If I don't catch one this week, I'm still going to the Classic."
2. Who is going to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic?
Only the top 29 in the AOY final standings qualify for the Classic, but usually the list extends into the mid-30s because of double qualifiers — Elite Series anglers who gain a Classic berth by virtue of a Bass Pro Shops Open title.
If you're anywhere near the top 40 or 50 in the AOY standings now, you've got to make sure you don't fall out of the top 50 after this week, since only the top 50 will fish at Lake Michigan's Little Bay de Noc in September. There will be a lot of fretting and number crunching among the Classic contenders this week. For instance, 32-time Classic qualifier Rick Clunn is currently 52nd in the AOY standings. Obviously, he needs to be at least in the top 50 after this week in order to have a chance to move up at Little Bay de Noc.
And there's one name in bass fishing even bigger than Clunn's. Kevin VanDam is on shaky ground as to Classic qualification, which leads us to the next item on the watch list.
3. Will Kevin VanDam qualify for the Bassmaster Classic?
In addition to winning four of them, Kevin VanDam has qualified for the Classic 24 years in a row. But he currently sits in 42nd place in the AOY standings. He needs a good week at Cayuga Lake and another good week at Little Bay de Noc to keep that Classic streak alive.
Rather than ask VanDam to state the obvious about his goals this week, a few other Elite Series anglers were polled.
"I will bet you $100 that he will make it," said Kelly Jordon. "I'd bet you more than that. No. 1, he's Kevin VanDam. No. 2, he's Kevin VanDam. And No. 3, the top 50 are going to fish in smallmouth waters in Michigan. That's something he knows how to do."
Chris Lane agreed, saying, "You're dealing with an angler that has been in trouble before and can recover pretty quickly. There's not a doubt in my mind he's going to make the Classic, just being the angler that he is."
But the voting wasn't unanimous. One Elite Series angler thought a long time about the question before finally saying, no, he didn't think KVD would make it 25 Classics in a row.
"I've been around him a lot during practice," said the angler, who shall remain anonymous. "I just don't think he's going to be able to slow down enough this week. You're going to have to slow down to catch 'em here this week."
Which leads us to the next item on the list.
4. How tough (and how small) is Cayuga Lake going to fish?
Rather than the 20- and in one case 25-pound daily bags predicted by some for Cayuga this week, after three days of practice the Elite Series anglers are thinking much less than that.
"I think it will take 15 or 16 pounds a day to fish on Sunday," said Jordon.
"Fifteen pounds a day would be phenomenal," said Aaron Martens. "There's just so much pressure on the water. The only really good areas, everybody's fishing. Nobody will have a spot to themselves."
When jokingly asked if Cayuga was going to look like the Lake George area of the St. John's River, where in the second event of the season half the field concentrated on one small spawning area, Jordon said, "Yeah, it will be tighter than Lake George."
Lane confirmed, saying, "It will be like all the spots on Chickamauga (for BASSfest) put together in a two-acre lake. It will fish that tight."
5. Will the next four days fish more like a Pikemasters tournament than a Bassmasters tournament?
"It's going to be ridiculous," said Chris Lane. "The pike that are going to be caught out of this lake will be crazy."
Usually Elite Series anglers bend down the hooks or do something to get bites but not sore-lip the bass during practice. Kelly Jordon was getting so many bites that he decided to "take the safeties off" and make sure it was bass that were striking his lures.
"It was 8 to 1 pike to bass, seriously," Jordon said. "That's being conservative. There's a lot more pike here. Oh my gosh."