BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Bassmaster Classic week is like no other tournament for the competitors due to different routines, events at night, sponsorship requirements and the never-ending thoughts about the lake that holds the key to winning the championship.
For Classic rookies, that conglomeration can be like standing in the middle of a storm with everything blowing around and no tree to grab for safety. Those who have endured the week and qualified for a second Classic, or more, often learn to take advantage of what they can control and avoid distractions.
"If you hear about some guy who says he 'just went fishing,' that's another way of saying he put everything aside and was able to forget about everything on the water," said Kelly Jordon of Texas, who has eight Classics under his belt including the 2002 and 2007 Lay Lake events. He'll be competing in his third this week on Lay.
"You can analyze it 100 different ways, but the bottom line is to relax, let it flow, have fun and be able to go for it at the same time," Jordon said. "Whoever can do that has much better shot at making the final day and having a shot to win."
Kevin Short of Arkansas will be fishing in his second Classic. But he was able to experience the championship from a different aspect while working as a contributing writer for ESPN Outdoors.
"Probably the thing I learned seeing things from the outside is the structure and regimen of the whole week is totally different from a normal tournament week," Short said. "Everyone is in the same hotel, everyone goes to the same place at the same time on a bus to the lake ... you have to be here, here and here, and is so different than normal tournament week. A regular week is you go to practice, go to registration on Wednesday afternoon and then fish.
"The hardest thing for me was the structure of being here and doing this or that, and until you go through it you don't realize how big of a deal it is to get up at 3 o'clock in the morning. That's earlier than normal for us. If you think of something at 9:30 or 10 at night to get out of the boat, you can't just run out of the door and do it. Just those little things can make a difference in breaking the routine of fishing a normal Elite Series event."
Kevin Wirth of Kentucky, an 11-time Classic qualifier, recalled his experience as a jockey in the 1981 Kentucky Derby prior to his first Classic. He said dealing with the distractions and expectations is tough to overcome.
"The prestige leading up to the Derby is huge and you get so involved with the ups and downs," he said. "I might have gotten a little more caught up in that than I should have, so when I came to the first Classic 17 years later I still had that in my memory and knew to eliminate things from my mind.
"You're getting more media attention. Fans are coming to you asking if you're going to win. Some guy says it's going to take 70 pounds to win the Classic and you're thinking you can't catch one, instead of taking the job at hand and catching the first one and then the second one."
Away from the hotel, media and sponsor attention and greeting fans almost at every turn, the anglers find themselves wanting to escape to the lake. But even then, because fans have access and want to watch from their boats, they have to factor that into their game plans.
"Spectator boats are zooming around you and you may have recreation boats running around, skiers, whatever, and you can hear them talking," Wirth said. "You have to keep a positive attitude and keep your mind on your task. You learn how to separate the two and go do what you do best while eliminating the other things.
Three years ago Boyd Duckett of Alabama flew into the Lay Lake Classic under the radar of fans and media, then stunned everyone by winning the championship. Duckett knows he'll be a marked man this week.
"The Classic is different ... you can't just go fishing," he said. "You have to discover patterns to fish with the crowd that is with you. You have to fish something to put the boat somewhere so they don't bother you. It will be a zoo and I thought about it when I was practicing.
"Fortunately, I know Lay pretty well. I wanted to build a game plan and have about 70 waypoints so I can fish differently than I might during some other event. I'm going to run it and try to keep the crowd behind me because that's the only thing I know how to do."
Federation Nation qualifiers often are overlooked but Jordon said that could be a mistake.
"They have some experience with big-time events with the Federation championship or if they've qualified before, but if it's their first time then they've never seen anything this big," he said. "It's the biggest show on the block. Everyone talks about the expectations and all, especially on rookies, and you can use that to your advantage.
"With the schedule and having so much to do, it can affect your game because most of the game is between your ears at that level. You have to have a plan, have the right attitude and be mobile to change with the fish."