2010 Bassmaster Classic Lay Lake - Birmingham, AL, Feb 19 - 21, 2010

2010 Classic Quest

Day One is do or die

Boyd Duckett

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Three years ago, Alabama pro Boyd Duckett got some great advice that would help him emerge victorious in the Bassmaster Classic's first appearance on Lay Lake. Notably, that advice came from someone with the resume to give it — two-time Classic winner Kevin VanDam.

"Kevin told me 'You can't win the Classic the first day, but you can darn sure lose it," Duckett said. "I went on and won (the 2007 Classic) and I didn't think that much of it. But the very next year at the Classic on Lake Hartwell, I did.

"I had a lot of fish, I was really aggressive and I came up short the very first day. And even though I had the second largest stringer of that event, I caught so little the first day that I couldn't win it.

"That's why you have to stay in it. I intend to do my best to catch five fish (on Day one) to stay in the hunt and see where everything is. I can swing the second and third days."

VanDam's words of wisdom will ring truer than ever during the next three days, as 51 anglers tackle a tough Lay Lake. Normally, this Coosa River impoundment merits much higher regard, with good numbers of largemouth and spotted bass — either of which can produce competitive limits. However, an unusually cold winter has sent lake temperatures plummeting to the lower 40s.

Muddy conditions aren't helping, but the frigid water has stacked the odds against those wielding rods and reels. Texas pro Kelly Jordon puts it plain and simple.

"Fish are cold-blooded animals and the water is extremely cold. When the environment is cold on a cold-blooded animal, they don't move much and don't eat much," he said. "A couple of them are coming out of their holes every now and then — yawning and stretching. You hope you can find one of them and move forward."

Deepening the difficulty, the cold claimed many baitfish. Like most anglers, 2003 Classic winner Mike Iaconelli reported large numbers of shad floating during practice. As Ike noted, the bass don't have to work hard to find an easy meal, so fooling them with imposters will be even more difficult than normal.

Often, when modern times see some form of challenging conditions, you can almost always find an old-timer who laughs and says: "That's nothin'. When I was a boy, I had to walk to and from the boat ramp, barefoot, in the snow, uphill — both ways — and fishing was twice as tough.

February 2010 has the old-timers saying "Wow, never seen that before."

Duckett knows. He's fished Lay Lake for two decades and has a pretty good idea of how things should be.

"This is the lowest I've seen this water — and I've been fishing here during January and February for 20 years — is 48 (degrees) at peak low," he said. "Normally, this time of year, we're fishing shallow water that's 51-55. We were looking at 43 the last day of practice."

Given these daunting conditions, the mental game will play as big a role — dare we say "bigger" — than the actual casting and winding. Can you wait out the bite on a promising spot? Can you fight the temptation to switch rods and just stick with that confidence bait? Can you control the maelstrom of emotions that echo inside an empty livewell? Such are the questions that will confront each Classic competitor and each angler's response will impact their opening performance.

"You cannot have a bad first day at the Classic," VanDam said. "I did last year. I had a terrible first day. I bounced back and caught a big stringer, but it was too little too late.

VanDam said experience at this level cannot be overrated.

"This is my 20th Classic. I've been there, I've won it and I know that's what I want to do — win. So, I'm going to try to put myself in position to win. I know in my mind what I need to do in these conditions to have a chance to win."

For VanDam, that comes down to three key points:

Maintain balance: "You don't want to take yourself out of it by saying 'I'm going to swing for the fence and only catch big ones, but a limit of 12-inchers isn't going to help you either."

Stick to the game plan: "Confidence-wise, I know that at noon (on Day 1), if I don't have a limit in the boat, I know that it can happen quickly. That's not going to change my focus; I'm not going to start scrambling around; I'm not going to start finesse fishing just to catch a keeper. I'm not afraid to take a chance and come across that stage without any fish at all.


Time management: "The water is so cold, you can't fish fast. You can't just burn the water up. You have to slow down for these conditions so that makes time really critical."

For Duckett, the water temperature has compromised what would normally be a very logical strategy of sacking up a limit of spots and then upgrading with largemouths.

"Spotted bass, which usually accommodate the cold water well seem to be inactive. The largemouths are up shallow doing what I thought they'd do, but I can't catch the spots like I could three years ago to fill out that limit and give me the hours I need to go and catch one or two big fish.

"It's a really dicey deal. Am I willing to weigh only three fish by trying to catch big ones, or do I try to blend some spots in? I don't have an answer to that question yet."

Ultimately, VanDam expects an exciting event with each day delivering a dazzling dose of dramatic developments.

"The level of competition is better than it's ever been, so this is the Classic that anybody could win," he said. "I think it's going to be one of the best ones ever because of the way it's setting up — the brutal conditions, the weather changing over the weekend.

"This is going to be a tournament when you don't have to catch a giant string every day. I think if you're fishing on the final day and you're within 10 pounds of the lead, you could win here."

That being said, Arizona pro Dean Rojas has a show-no-mercy-and-take-no-prisoners approach.

"You have to go out there with guns blazing," he said. "This is the Super Bowl (of fishing). How can you not come out here and give it all you've got? I may crash and burn, but I'll go down swinging."