Rookies have been a part of the Bassmaster Classic since the very beginning -- 1971, when all the anglers were rookies. In 2011, there will be 15 Classic rookies competing. It seems like a big number, but it's actually quite average.
This year's rookies include three anglers from the Elite Series (Morizo Shimizu, Jason Williamson and Greg Vinson), five from the Opens (Randall Tharp, Andy Montgomery, Keith Combs, Ryan Said and Tracy Adams), all six of the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation qualifiers (Brandon Palaniuk, George Crain, Dale Hightower, Brian LaClair, Sean Alvarez and David Watson) and the Weekend Series champion (Ryan McMurtury).
Ordinarily, you'd think those 15 have little chance of winning the greatest bass tournament in the world, and, of course, you're basically right. The odds are certainly against them, but rookies have a storied history in the Classic, and you'd be making a mistake to completely dismiss their chances of taking home the trophy.
For starters, eight rookies have won the Bassmaster Classic -- eight, if you want to include Bobby Murray in 1971, when everyone there was a rookie. The other seven rookie champs were Rayo Breckenridge (1973), Tommy Martin (1974), Jack Hains (1975), Stanley Mitchell (1981), Charlie Reed (1986), David Fritts (1993) and Boyd Duckett (2007).
Rookies have actually won more Classics than anglers in any other appearance year. The next closest are third- and sixth-year Classic veterans with five wins each. Being a Classic rookie is certainly very different from being a Classic veteran. For one, all of the hoopla and media attention are new and often distracting.
For nearly a week before the event, competitors are being ushered here, bussed there, told to hurry, told to wait and generally taken out of their comfort zones. All but the most focused quickly lose their edge. On the final day of the 2010 Classic, one competitor (a veteran of several Classics) was heard to say, "I'm never going to win one of these things!
All the rushing around and being told where to go and what to do is just too confusing. I can't think!" Another different thing about being a Classic rookie is the attitude.
Classic veterans are more likely to have their eye on the prize. They've been to the rodeo before and are not as likely to be dazzled by the camera flashes, media attention or big crowds on the water and at the weigh-in. Rookies will often tell the media, "I'm just happy to be here." That statement may be the biggest indicator that they have little chance to win.
Veterans typically take the approach that there is no second place at the Bassmaster Classic. Not only is the prize money dramatically less for second place, but there are few endorsement dollars available to the runner-up. Since there are no points to be earned by a high finish, veterans generally swing for the fences and have a "hero or zero" attitude. One recent exception to the rookie malaise was Boyd Duckett.
In 2007, he made his Classic debut on Lay Lake. Although a rookie, Duckett understood the stakes better than most. "I'm here to win," he told anyone who asked -- and few media show interest in the rookies. "There's no second place in this tournament, and I feel I have as good a shot as anyone." He was right, too.
A few days later he was hoisting the trophy as the last rookie to claim fishing's greatest championship.