It wasn't long after Skeet Reese arrived at his first spot during the final day of Classic practice on Wednesday that he started cursing himself.
While trying to cast, Reese stepped back and barely caught the edge of the trolling motor pedal, throwing himself off balance.
"Come on Skeet, get your s**t together," he said, after getting his feet squarely back under him. It was the first of many outbursts directed at himself in the eight hours on the water. An obvious perfectionist, the slightest miss with a cast or hint of error would result in a string of self-loathing, some more volatile than others.
"I feel like I'm in a tournament or something," he added shortly after the original outburst. "I'm on edge, waiting for a bite."
But don't confuse his perfectionism with taking his job too seriously. From the moment he raised the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year trophy at Lake Toho in September, to first day of Classic practice on Feb. 12, Reese estimated he spent a total of four hours on the water searching for bass.
"It's just not a priority in the off-season," he said. "I've got plenty of business and family to take care of. This has, by far, been the busiest off-season of my career.
"I don't even want to look at a bass when the season ends. When I have gone fishing, it's been with my girls or something. I'm definitely not going bonkers because I haven't been on the water."
He admitted he was a little rusty when he came back and that his "casting is not 100 percent," but he shrugged it off as not a big deal — except for the loathing, of course. He also shrugged off Lake Hartwell before the lake went off-limits in December. He did stop on it, to ride around for a couple hours, on his trip back from Toho to his home in Auburn, Calif. — but he didn't think he needed to make a special trip to fish it early.
With the constantly-changing weather, and not knowing if it would be a pre- or post-spawn bite, he said there wasn't much to gain. And as for making sure he was at the top of his game coming into South Carolina, Reese said he'll be ready when the game begins.
"Bottom line is somebody's going to win," Reese said. "It doesn't matter what the conditions are, or when it is — it's one tournament, and anything can happen."
But don't confuse his laid-back attitude in preparation with not caring if he wins the Classic. When it was mentioned to Reese that the reigning Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year has only backed it up with a Classic victory once, he was quick with the answer.
"Mark Davis did it in 1995," he said, very matter of factly. "I would love to join Mark in that category."
But he then qualified Davis' achievement: "It's hard enough to win as it is. And winning after a year that you've already had such a good season — it's hard to do. After the season I had last year, I definitely question whether I can do something like that again."
Even then, Reese said it's not really accolades, records or even 10-pound bass that drive him, it's the competition — the fish are just a way of keeping score.
"I love fishing, but it's the competition that makes me tick — wanting to beat everyone and be No. 1," he said. "On the water, I love that initial strike with the bass. That second where you set the hook and you don't know what's on the other end of the line — that's what fishing is all about."
Being No. 1 this weekend, according to Reese, means 17- to 18-pounds a day on a lake that offers 100 different ways to catch them.
"If I don't win it this year, hopefully I'll make it back again and get another opportunity somewhere else," he said.
But don't confuse his sense of perspective with a lack of confidence. There are those who say Reese was in a zone last season. The same Zen-like zone 2007 champ Boyd Duckett and four-time Classic champion Rick Clunn lay claim to: That place where you know what the fish are doing before they do it.
Here's how Duckett put it last year in a post-Classic interview: "I promise you that if I catch that zone, I can pull up into a pocket behind any angler on tour and I can catch 'em. It can happen."
Reese takes it from a different angle.
"I don't look at it as a zone as much as making the right choices," he said "Look at my track record over the last five years: I'm always in the top 10. It was just a matter of one decision here and one or two more bites there.
"It's the difference between finishing fifth, seventh, ninth — this time, I got first."
He contends if an angler doesn't do his homework and doesn't find a pattern, he'll never "feel it," but if you pull up on a spot and you know what the fish are doing, "everything lines up."
"That just comes from a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes," he added.
In other words, practice makes perfect, and as Reese lamented on Wednesday, perfect is the ultimate goal.