TAVARES, Fla. -- After sitting out last year with a serious injury to his left hand, Brent "Brody" Broderick was in the water Thursday morning, raring to go.
After eight months of treatments, his hand, he said, is "100 percent of what it's going to be."
He said the hand lacks some strength. But after three days of practice for the Sunshine Showdown, his fingers were flexing normally.
"I haven't had to ice it, and I haven't seen any bruising, so I'm tickled to death. This is the most I have fished in over a year."
A flood of young pros
Like last season, Bradley Roy is the youngest angler in the 2011 Elite field; he turned 20 last November.
This year, he has company, as the 20-somethings showed up in force. Five of this season's rookies are in their 20s: Jonathon VanDam, 22; Brandon Palaniuk, 23; Ott DeFoe, 25; and Nate Wellman and Andy Montgomery, both 28.
Roy said he's liking the trend of anglers getting serious about bass fishing earlier in their lives.
"I think it's great. And behind me, there's a lot of good youth programs, so there's more coming," he said. "You're going to see even more in the next five to 10 years, especially with the college programs getting better. There's going to be a flood of younger pros coming into the sport."
For the first time, B.A.S.S. is offering a 2012 Bassmaster Classic to the 2011 College Bass Champion. Roy likes that, too.
"It's a good deal," he said. "Every other pro sport has a college level, and now we have one too, and it's building."
Roy was the 2011 Bassmaster Rookie of the Year, an accomplishment that helped him garner more sponsors for his second year as an Elite angler. This year, with a stable of sponsors that includes Berkley, Triton and Mercury, he's added Academy Sports & Outdoors, Rugged Shark and several more.
Not bad for 20 years old.
Just say no to dock talk
Bradley Hallman was parked in a slip at the end of a dock, far from any other Elite angler waiting to take off for the first day of 2011 competition. He was hunkered down against the driving rain, his cell phone tucked up under the hood of his rain jacket. He carefully perched it against his neck where he could hear it ring.
Why so solitary, Hallman?
"I don't want to listen to all the dock talk," he said, referring to the chatter, sometimes purposely misleading, that goes on among anglers and can mess with one's head.
A rainstorm delayed the launch for 15 minutes while Bassmaster officials checked the storm's movement. The go-ahead was given as soon as conditions were safe.
He didn't care about the rain. He didn't even mind the wind too much.
"It will make boat positioning tougher. But it probably plays better for me than for some others, so if it wants to blow, it can blow," said Hallman, revealing only that he did not intend to target bedding bass.
Don't tread on me
Nate Wellman's rookie-year boat wrap features a bright-red, large-scale tire tread that runs over top his outboard motor, and across the multitone blue hull. The design promotes his wrap sponsor, Trailer Equipment Inc., his family's Michigan-based business of leasing trailers for semi-trucks.
Like everyone else Thursday morning at launch, Mark Menendez was well-wrapped in a rainsuit. His outfit, however, had a finishing touch no one else on the dock could claim: black-and-blue rubber boots.
"Had them for 14 years," he said. "Not my lucky boots or anything, but they keep me warm and dry. That's a type of luck, I guess."
Menendez told a story of being kidded about his stylin' footwear by someone who has called him "Blue Boots" ever since.
Elite veteran Steve Kennedy was boat No. 17 in the Thursday launch order, but he made sure he was the last boat in the water.
He sat in his truck, boat poised at water's edge, while a squall ran through and B.A.S.S. officials checked out the weather situation. Many people stopped to ask Kennedy if he had boat trouble, or just what the problem might be.
Rolling down his passenger side window (his wife was his tow-vehicle driver for the put-in), Kennedy chatted with each person.
"It's raining, and my wife would like to keep me around for a while," he laughed. "There's no reason to get any wetter than you have to."
At the last minute, they slipped his blue Kinami Baits wrap into the water, and Kennedy shot off and took his place in line as No. 17, right on time.
Take a number, please
Throughout practice, anglers have had to contend with heavily pressured waters. A lot of the pressure has come from other Elite pros.
Much of the field plans on sight-fishing for bedding bass, which can produce 30-plus-pound stringers on the Harris Chain, as it did during a 2009 Southern Open. However, this event falls at the tail end of the spawning cycle in central Florida, so 30-pound bags are unlikely, but still possible.
In the canals and cuts where bass are still on beds, there are anglers -- lots of them.
Veteran pro Bernie Schultz says that one determining factor in the sight-fishing bite is boat number. If an angler receives a late launch time, he may have to forego the bedding bass that he was planning on. The weather may also curb the sight fishermen. Rain, wind and clouds all make it difficult to see through the water. The forecast calls for storms until mid-morning, then clouds until the weigh-in. Not a good prognosis for bed fishermen.
Schultz is prepared with a backup plan, though.
"We'll see how it goes. If it's rainy or cloudy, guys may be discouraged and try something else," he said. "It might be a matter of waiting them out. But, I've got a little something elsewhere."