One way to look at the field for the Bassmaster Classic Wild Card presented by Star Tron is to divide the 49 anglers into four groups. For now, let's call them the favorites, the contenders, the outsiders and the long shots.
The favorites are the perennial Classic qualifiers from the Bassmaster Elite Series (Shaw Grigsby, Greg Hackney, Kelly Jordon, Jeff Kriet and others) and the Opens qualifiers from Florida (led by the great Roland Martin and Bobby and Chris' brother Arnie Lane).
The Elite Series is like a graduate program for tournament bass fishing. There's just no way to be there and not get better as a competitive angler; it's why so many Elite anglers are at or near the top of the leaderboard in the Bassmaster Opens. With 19 Elites in the field, it's a good bet that the leaderboard will feature several of them near the top.
Ditto for the "local" talent. Florida anglers have an edge here because Florida is ... well, it's Florida, and there's no other place quite it. Okeechobee is a 470,000-acre salad bowl with no water deeper than 16 feet. It's hard to prepare for a lake like that unless you're already there.
The contenders are the other Elite anglers and the top Opens pros — particularly the ones who are now qualified for the Elite Series (Brandon Lester and Chad Morgenthaler). They have a real shot, but will have to pass some serious talent to win this week.
The outsiders are the guys not in one of those first two groups who drove more than 500 (but less than 1,000) miles to be here. They say "Okeechobee" comes from the Hitchiti language and means "big water," but it just as well could mean "end of the earth" since it's such a long drive for most anglers to get here.
With the "long shots," we put the emphasis on "long" as in long drive. If you drove more than 1,000 miles to be here (and that describes about a dozen anglers), you're obviously not thinking about the odds. You're banking on some great help from a more experienced Okeechobee expert, have something up your sleeve that you think will be a game changer or you have a personal confidence that borders on psychosis — that or your sponsors told you to be here.
The angler driving the farthest to be here is 2013 Classic qualifier (from the B.A.S.S. Nation) Jonathan Carter of South Portland, Maine. He drove almost 1,500 miles (one way) to take his chances against the field for another shot at the big dance.
No disrespect to Carter (or anyone else from the Pine Tree State — yes, that's really its nickname), but you have to say the odds are stacked against him on the Big O. When you're facing so many Elite veterans, so many Okeechobee regulars and so many anglers getting help from Elite veterans and Okeechobee regulars, it's going to be an uphill climb. I guess that'll just make it more impressive if he wins.
(I remember the 2006 Classic on the Kissimmee Chain; it was won by Luke Clausen, who called Spokane, Wash., home. He had the longest drive of any competitor that year, but it didn't seem to slow him down any. Of course, he was getting help from Bobby Lane, but that's another story.)
As for the shortest drive, it belongs to Terry Segraves of Kissimmee at just under 90 miles. Segraves is a longtime Florida pro, a former Elite angler and a former Classic qualifier. He may have forgotten more about Okeechobee than some of the rest of the field knows. He should be a factor.
Of course, familiarity with a tournament venue isn't always an advantage. Would you rather put your money on an angler who launches with 500 places waypointed on his GPS or an angler who has just five but he found them all this week? Locals often fall prey to "the nostalgia factor," returning to areas that produced in years past and under different conditions. That's not going to happen to someone with less history on the lake.
Whatever happens, the Wild Card promises to be just that — wild. Three days, 49 anglers and one prize.
Sounds like the premise for a good reality show.