Skeet Reese was understandably concerned going into last Sunday's final day of the Capital Clash presented by Advance Auto Parts.
He held a lead of about eight pounds over his closest competitor, but had seen Saturday's bite on the Potomac River turn nasty. Tidal waters can do that.
Fish can get lockjaw. A whiffed hookset or bad decision could be critical.
Witness runner-up Kelly Jordon of Texas, who won the 2006 tournament on the Potomac but caught just 7 pounds, 7 ounces, on the third day last weekend when the field's hopes went haywire.
So it wasn't unusual for Reese and the rest of the Top 12 to have the jitters on the final day. Anything could happen.
Reese closed the deal, though, for his first Bassmaster Elite Series victory. He caught 66 pounds and picked up 300 points in the Angler of the Year standings for his wire-to-wire victory, and added 20 extra points for leading each day.
More importantly, Reese said, it put a stamp of approval on his performance after numerous close calls.
"It's hard to explain," he said Tuesday while waiting in an airport for a flight home to California for a few days with his family. "If you're a competitive person by nature, especially in professional sports, everybody is always trying to achieve that No. 1 position. A lot of people work their whole lives to reach those goals and most never achieve them.
"But for those who do, it's like you finally break through and accomplish something you set your goals to do — it's a weird feeling. It's confirmation that your abilities are there, that you have the skills and knowledge and all the abilities to do it."
Reese has the skills. He claimed a tour win in 2003 on the Harris Chain of Lakes in Florida and the 2000 Arizona Invitational. He has seven runner-up finishes, including one in this year's Bassmaster Classic, and three third-place showings. Since 1999 he's qualified for eight Classics, finished in the money 89 times in 118 tournaments and has won more than $1.1 million.
But the Harris Chain of Lakes win, even though it was nice, left a bittersweet taste he's tried to erase for four years.
"Do I feel like I kinda got lucky and won that one a bit? Yes," Reese explained. "David Walker lost a couple of fish that would have won it, hands down. I watched the film and he swung a fish in the boat that came off and that would have beaten me. I won because he lost fish.
"Since then I've wanted to win one to validate to myself personally — not my fans or to my sponsors, but to me — that I can win and am not just a top 10 fisherman. This season I've come from the top 10s to the top 2s. I got sick of being runner-up.
"Everybody always says 'You're going to win' — but it's frustrating as hell. I've always been there, been there, been there — and then this one, to win by what I won by, this was the one I truly earned."
Bumping it up a notch Reese burst into the spotlight eight years ago as part of the West Coast Invasion that brought some new techniques and attitudes into the sport.
Ushered in were board shorts and thumpin' music. Drop-shotting and finesse fishing became vogue. Along with the purchase of B.A.S.S. by ESPN came new television shows, a change in personalities and, admittedly, some clashes with the old guard. But the guys brought their sticks and have made a mark.
During that time, Reese was content with finishing in the Top 10. It showed some consistency, he believed, to finish the season among the best anglers even if he didn't take home any hardware. It also helped with sponsors, who could see he wasn't on a roller-coaster of seasonal highs and lows.
This year, everything changed. Maybe it was maturity. Maybe it was the frustrating finish by three ounces at the Classic in February, when he again went away the bridesmaid. Maybe it was seeing his fellow anglers winning
that gnawed at him during the hours on the road traveling from one tournament site to another.
Reese can't put a finger on one single thing, but something clicked inside.
"Getting older, my work ethic has changed the last three or four years — my personal determination to succeed and wanting to win changed and evolved," he said. "My previous goals were to finish in the top 10 and I did a pretty good job of doing that each year. This year I was tired of top 10s. I'd had enough of them and wanted to win. I came out with more of a determination to win.
"I've pushed myself harder. I try to limit distractions during the week — I'll turn off my cell phone during the week unless it's a call from my family. I don't like to spread myself thin. I have a routine I like to stick with and stay focused.
"My co-anglers probably don't like me too much because I'll joke around a bit before we start, but once we're on the water it's different. The focus changes and I'm totally into what I'm doing."
"Pinnacle" in his sights.
Now comes a few days off before the final Bassmaster Major, the Bassmaster Legends presented by Ramada Worldwide, next week on Lake Dardanelle in Arkansas, and then a few weeks before the final tournament on Lake Toho.
Reese would love to pocket the $250,000 check awarded to the Legends winner. But he's more keenly aware of the possibility before him — an Angler of the Year title that could be clinched with a finish of 35th or better at Toho, a lake he admits is not one of his favorites.
Reese has 2,579 points, while three-time Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam trails with 2,472. VanDam overtook Reese earlier this season with a win at Grand Lake. But Reese bounced back in July with his second-place finish at Champlain, then padded the lead a bit last week on the Potomac.
It won't be easy. Toho could be another "grinder," as he called the Potomac event. But it's within his sights.
"That title validates my career," Reese said. "That means more to me than anything. It's not validating it with fans or sponsors — it's validating that I achieved the pinnacle of our sport at least one time in my lifetime.
"I've done everything I need to do to put myself in the position to win that title, but I haven't done it yet. I go back to Grand Lake — I had a 120-point lead and finished 67th and Kevin won the tournament. I know this (current) lead doesn't mean anything.
"I will be stressed," he said. "I will be consumed thinking about Toho."
Fans, media and some anglers see a Classic victory as a crowning achievement. Most of the Elite Series pros, though, especially those who have been around the lake a time or two, believe otherwise.
"The Classic is a Super Bowl deal, a one-time tournament and possibly a one-fish tournament," Reese said. "A guy can win it on one fish. But now that we have 11 tournaments, you flat-out earn the Angler of the Year title.
There's no one bite, no one-tournament glory that earns you that honor. If you don't do it all year, if you don't figure out the spring bite and summer bite and stay focused, you don't finish well.
"I think for any hardcore angler, they'll tell you that's the title."