Clark Wendlandt was the first angler to launch his boat this morning for the final day of the Northern Open on the James River.
That’s a bit counterintuitive, since the Leander, Texas pro lives a greater distance away from the Osbourne Landing launch site than any member of the 12-angler contingent that remains.
Meanwhile, the Virginians, most of whom slept in their own beds last night, trickled to the ramp one by one, apparently in little rush to launch.
Maybe they got lost on the way to the ramp?
Not likely. Both collectively and individually, Kelly Pratt, Greg Cooper, Chris Daves and Mike Hicks have decades of experience on this river system. Leader Pratt, of nearby Williamsburg, estimated that he has won over 100 tournaments here over the years. Today he’d like to add another notch in the “W” column.
Those four make up 80 percent of the top five. The lone exception is New Jersey pro Mike Iaconelli, but even he has a local connection. His wife Becky grew up in Virginia and this week they are staying with her parents, so he’s a Virginian by marriage and would like to continue to feast on home cooking.
Ike is a river fiend like the rest of them – he grew up fishing the massive tidal swings of the Delaware River – and he thinks that local knowledge can both help and hurt an everyman trying to earn a Classic berth against the big boys.
“When things are really tough, there’s no doubt that local knowledge helps,” he said. “But it could also hurt you. A lot of times, you’re so married to your history that you commit to places longer than you should.”
Pratt and Cooper are immediately ahead of 3rd place Iaconelli in the standings. Daves and Hicks are directly in his rear view mirror. None of them has shown any signs that they are going to fall into the sinkhole of fishing inapplicable memories. Nor do they seem likely to succumb to nerves.
“I slept like a baby,” said Pratt. “It’s just fishing. I’m not worried about catching five.”
Cooper admitted that looking at the two dozen Elite Series pros at the registration meeting on Tuesday was “pretty humbling,” but for most of them the tournament is over. One exception, of course, is Iaconelli. “I see that shark boat hanging around. He’s everywhere. He understands the tides just like we do and he’s covering a ton of water.”
But if Ike’s presence ever stressed him out, those days are over. Cooper professed to be “very relaxed” heading into the final day of competition.
Right now Pratt has a 1-10 lead on Cooper, the difference of one bite, but he’s been on the other end of that equation, too.
“Two years ago at the end of November I weighed in 20.19 pounds here,” Pratt recalled. “Greg had 20.24.”
While their weights might have been close, their fishing styles are different. “He’s a pad fisherman and I’m a drop deep water guy,” Pratt explained. While his deep water holes have yet to come into play, it doesn’t appear to have hurt him so far.
Daves, in 4th, just over 4 pounds behind Pratt, will need one or all of the anglers ahead of him to stumble if he’s going to make a charge at the trophy. He doesn’t know if he can crush the big bag that’ll be necessary to leapfrog Pratt, Cooper or Iaconelli.
“One of those guys in first or second is going to catch them,” he explained. “They’re too consistent. I’ve never caught a 20 pound bag here. There might be one there, but if I catch one it’ll be a pure miracle.”
Unless local weekend traffic knocks him off his game, Daves believes he has one advantage over those anglers ahead of him – water to himself. He said that he thinks he’s the only remaining contender fishing primarily in the James River, rather than the Chickahominy. He’ll have one less boat to contend with as Mike Hicks, in 5th place, just four ounces behind Daves, vowed not to stop in the James on the way downriver, as he did Thursday and Friday.
“I’m not wasting any time there today,” Hicks said.
“I’ve made top twenties in the Opens before but I really want to win one,” he continued. “I really think I have a chance. There are six pound fish to be caught in the area that I’m fishing and if I catch one, that’ll change things.”
If any angler in the top twelve gets that big bite and adds four more solid fish to his bag, he’ll have a shot, Right now the gap between 1st and 12th is only 6-09. If Pratt stumbles, or any of the other locals succumb to big time jitters, the door could be opened to anyone who manages to adjust to the changing conditions. Those who know the leaders don’t expect anything to change, though.
“Those two win just about everything down here,” Daves said.
It’s time to see if that blanket statement holds true for another day.