Scott Ashmore's first competition as a Bassmaster Elite Series rookie will be the year's biggest event, the Feb. 19-21 Bassmaster Classic on Alabama's Lay Lake. He will be fishing to win the $500,000 first-place prize against 50 of the world's best, including defending champ Skeet Reese and Kevin VanDam, five-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year and two-time Classic winner.
What a way to start an Elite career. Does this give Ashmore the jitters?
"Maybe a little bit," said the rookie from Broken Arrow, Okla., a marketing rep for boat and tackle companies when he isn't competing.
As to his Classic chances, Ashmore doesn't claim a thing. But what fishing fan does not recall the rookie upset of the 2007 Classic on Lay Lake? Boyd Duckett took the trophy — the first Classic champion to win in his home state — besting Reese by 6 ounces and VanDam by 3 pounds, 6 ounces.
It's possible for a rookie to topple a superstar.
Ashmore — who, like Duckett, qualified for the Elite Series and Classic through the Bassmaster Open circuit — is giving himself every chance for rookie success. He is organizing his tackle, rigging his newly wrapped, high-tech boat and having his Toyota Sequoia wrapped to match. Before the Dec. 14 start of the off-limits period, he spent seven days scouting Lay Lake, a Coosa River impoundment.
He is well aware he is playing catch-up with the many 2010 qualifiers who learned Lay during the 2007 and 2002 events, and even the 1996 Classic.
"Those guys know where to go," he said. "Timing is a big deal on this water. I feel I found some really, really exciting spots, but I don't know how many of the other guys know about the spots that I found. If I get there the first day of the tournament and my stuff is covered up, it could be a bad deal."
Ashmore is actually one of two Classic first-timers who is also a 2010 Elite rookie. Cliff Crochet, a 26-year-old deputy sheriff from Pierre Part, La., is the other double rookie.
Crochet carries the Louisiana banner with veteran Greg Hackney of Gonzales; both want a solid Alabama Classic to kick-start their 2010 regular Elite season and go on to qualify for the 2011 Classic out of New Orleans.
Eight anglers are from this year's host state of Alabama: Randy Howell of Springville, Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Aaron Martens of Leeds, Matt Herren of Trussville, Russ Lane of Prattville, Duckett of Demopolis and Kotaro Kiriyama of Moody.
With eight Classic anglers, Texas ties Alabama for highest number of representatives. Arkansas has five, Oklahoma four and Florida three. The remainder of the 22 states represented each has one or two anglers in the championship.
The 2010 roster is as decorated as it is diverse. It includes seven past Classic champs: Missouri's Denny Brauer, 1998; Michigan's VanDam, 2001, 2005; New Jersey's Mike Iaconelli, 2003; Texas' Takahiro Omori, 2004; Alabama's Duckett, 2007; Texas' Alton Jones, 2008; and California's Reese, 2009.
Seven 2010 qualifiers own Elite Series AOY titles: VanDam has five; and Reese, Iaconelli, Brauer, Texas' Gary Klein, and Alabama's Swindle and Martens all have one each.
Another qualifier in possession of an AOY title is Pam Martin-Wells of Bainbridge, Ga. She earned her title in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Women's Tour, and winning the AOY title in 2009 earned her a 2010 Classic berth. Martin-Wells will garner plenty of attention as the sole woman in the field — and only the second in Classic history — and because she already owns multiple tournament titles on Coosa River impoundments.
There were five main avenues of qualification for the 2010 Classic. The first — the defending champion — is an automatic "in." The bulk of the field — 36 anglers — qualified through the 2009 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster AOY rankings in the Bassmaster Elite Series. Six more came from the three divisions of the 2009 Bassmaster Open trail. One qualifier advanced from the Bassmaster Weekend Series produced by American Bass Anglers. One qualifier advanced from the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Women's Tour. Six anglers earned their Classic spots via BASS Federation Nation competitions.
Of the 51-angler field, nine competitors are Classic rookies, including two Elite pros: Arkansas' Billy McCaghren, the 2009 Elite Series Rookie of the Year, and Terry Butcher of Talala, Okla., an Elite pro since the 2006 inaugural season.
In a new twist, only three of the six BASS Federation Nation qualifiers are Classic rookies. Three will be competing in their second Classic: Brent Long of North Carolina, Jeff Freeman of Virginia and Bryan Schmidt of Texas.