What sort of bass angler relaxes by going up against four Bassmaster Classic champions and 23 Bassmaster Elite Series anglers — a group that makes up just one slice of a talent-saturated field that numbers close to 200 pros?
Meet Bill Spence, air traffic controller. As an antidote to the stress of his job, Spence signed up for the 2010 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open circuit. A further enticement was that the season opener, July 22-24, will be on Lake Champlain, his home waters.
The Open's top pro prize will be more than $45,000. In the co-angler division, the winner will get a $34,000 bass boat rig. Pros also will compete for points that count toward the other big prizes awarded by the Northern Open: two 2011 Bassmaster Classic berths and invitations to join the 2011 Elite Series.
Spence, 40, lives in St. Albans, Vt., no farther from tournament host city Plattsburgh, N.Y., than a fast run across the lake. He's been hunting bass on Champlain for about 10 years, ever since he returned to his native New England after serving his country as a Marine. A military buddy introduced him to bass fishing when he was stationed in North Carolina.
"I got the bug," Spence said.
He might have a home-lake advantage, but Champlain is so big, there are more than enough productive spots for the entire Open field, he said. Champlain is the sixth-largest lake in the country, stretching 120 miles from tip to toe to form about half of the Vermont-New York border. The lake boasts almost 600 miles of shoreline; maximum depth is 400 feet.
The site of five pro-level Bassmaster events staged on the lake since 2005, Champlain will be in top shape for Northern Open anglers by the third week of July, Spence said.
"I expect the fishing to be really, really good (because) the bass will be established in their summer locations," he said. "People are definitely going to catch them, that's for sure."
He said the lake's smallmouth will be deep, so drop-shotting or Carolina-rigging could take them. The largemouth bite likely will be in grass about 10 to 15 feet down, he added.
The south end of the lake might see some of the hottest action. "It is fishing very well right now and I imagine it will still be, so I expect that (location) to be a key factor," he said.
Spence is one of 205 anglers entered in the pro side of the contest. They range from rookies to Classic champs Woo Daves (2000 Classic winner), Luke Clausen (2006), and Elite pros Michael Iaconelli (2003) and Alton Jones (2008).
Another of the 23 Elite pros signed up for Champlain is six-time BASS event winner Mike McClelland of Bella Vista, Ark. He has said many times that Champlain is his favorite fishery.
"It's such a unique and diverse fishery," he said. "There's not only the opportunity to catch the biggest bags of smallmouth you've ever caught, but also to cull up and brrng in 18, 20 pounds of largemouth. I just haven't had the success in tournaments I wish I could have had there."
He said a pro will need to bring in about 20 pounds a day to stay in the running.
McClelland plans to fish all three Northern events. He's not out for a Classic berth because he already earned one for 2011 — his eighth qualification — through the just-concluded regular Elite season.
"I can now go to the Northern Opens with a 'swing for the fences' mentality," he said.
Smallmouth have always been his safety net for a limit on Champlain, he said. But secure in a Classic spot, he might elect to go straight for the largemouth bite — an iffy strategy, but with a larger potential payoff.
The July timing leads him to expect a stickbait bite for smallmouth. Largemouth, he said, might fall for a football jig or a spinnerbait.
If McClelland (or any other Elite pro) double-qualified for the Classic through the Bassmaster Opens, then the next pro on the Elite points list — right now, that's Jared Lintner of California — would be awarded a Classic spot. The double-qualifier would go to the Classic through the Opens.
Fans are invited to catch the Lake Champlain action by attending the morning takeoffs and afternoon weigh-ins, all open to the public and free of charge. Boats will launch at 5:30 a.m. ET at Wilcox Dock on Cumberland Avenue in Plattsburgh. The weigh-ins will begin each day — Thursday, Friday and Saturday — at 2 p.m. ET at the Plattsburgh Boat Basin, Dock Street Landing in Plattsburgh.
The event will be covered by Bassmaster.com with daily photo galleries, results and real-time leaderboards during the weigh-ins.
After the stop in Plattsburgh, the Northern trail will hit the Detroit River, Aug. 19-21, out of Detroit, Mich., then move on to Chesapeake Bay out of Cecil County, Md., for the Sept. 16-18 season finale.
The Northern circuit is one of three Bassmaster Open divisions, each with three events. The 2010 Southern Open has completed two events this season and will wrap up Oct. 7-9 on Lake Seminole out of Bainbridge, Ga. The Central Open, also with two down, will conclude its season Oct. 21-23 on Lake Texoma out of Denison, Texas.