BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — To those about to flip, we salute you.
Footage of Boyd Duckett winning the 2007 Bassmaster Classic may be the worst false positive any 2010 Classic qualifier could have experienced or it might be the golden ticket.
Duckett, you may recall, brought out the big flipping stick and short line to create some last-minute heroics and outlast a surging Skeet Reese for the career-changing victory. A six-plus pound bass with only minutes to spare was the difference.
Accordingly, conventional wisdom heading into this tournament was that a sound strategy was to hunt down five spotted bass early in the day and then spend the rest of the day trying to flip up a kicker.
"Historically, every time someone's won here they've had a kicker largemouth," Alabama pro Matt Herren said.
The first sign that conventional wisdom was mistaken was Denny Brauer's empty weigh-in bag. He committed to flipping all day, and the result was a monster goose egg.
Florida's Terry Scroggins brought 13 pounds to the scale, but he said he could have had more had he not glued the flipping stick to his hand for hours at a time.
"I could've done better if I didn't do it so much," he said. "I didn't get a bite flipping. As soon as I caught five, I went back to it."
Despite the fact that his flipping stick got no love on Friday, Scroggins still intends to have at least one of them prominently displayed on his deck Saturday, and not just for show. He says that the past and future weather conditions indicate that that's the way to make up ground on Lay Lake this week.
"The colder it gets, the tighter and thicker those blanket mats get," he said, referring to last week's Arctic surge. "And more warm weather will just push those fish shallower."
Bobby Lane, another Florida flipper, said that while warm temperatures and sunshine may have pushed fish toward the bank, falling water was the yin to the heat's yang.
"The water dropped two feet in the creek that I was in," he said. "I thought that I could turn my 8 pounds into 12 or 13 by flipping."
Herren had been checking the generation schedules religiously in the days and hours leading up to blast-off, and knew that the water was going to drop.
"I adjusted to it," he said. "I went up and caught them in the river and then I went and gambled in the grass."
It was a gamble that didn't pay off. He might roll the dice again Saturday, but he has a strong feeling that the upriver (non-flipping) bite will pay off.
"Remember the name Takahiro Omori," he said. "What he's doing is fixing to get better. Where he caught 15, it's going to turn into 18 and 20."
Of the anglers fishing primarily or entirely in crowded Beeswax Creek, he said "unless they have backups, they're done."
Rookie Billy McCaghren, in sixth place, just over 4 pounds out of the lead, keeps hope alive that a flipping bite will develop as well. He caught all he could catch doing something else — "I didn't leave them biting, I left them after they quit" — then went and flipped, but like Scroggins, Lane and Brauer, he never had a bite on the short line.
"They're going to turn on at some time," he said. "You never put that rod in the box at this lake."
He admitted that the footage of Duckett's 11th-hour victory "probably had a lot to do with that belief," but he quickly added that not much gets by anglers at this level, and "with the type of grass we have here, (flipping) generally produces the big bite."
McCaghren said he'll need that big bite if he's going to make up ground on the likes of Kevin VanDam and add a Bassmaster Classic trophy to his 2009 Rookie of the Year accolades. One good bite could bridge a lot of that gap.
Tommy Biffle, like Brauer a legendary flipper, is in eighth with 14-3, but he said he didn't have to use the flipping stick that often appears to be surgically attached to his arm.
"It's a little bit too cold," he said. "I didn't want to lose it on the first day, and it took me all day to catch a limit."
He added that he caught some big fish in practice but said that none of them came on his trademark technique.
Temperatures both Saturday and Sunday are supposed to get up to the mid-60s in Birmingham, and perhaps more importantly the bitter cold overnight temperatures of the past week are in the rear view mirror, so the water should retain most of the much-coveted heat. Before blast-off, local expert Russ Lane, currently in ninth with 14-1, said that the magic water temperature to stimulate the bite was 48 degrees. There was plenty of water in that range by Friday afternoon.
"This will be the toughest of the three days," Lane said.
If the stout catches brought in by much of the field are any indication, and Lane's beliefs prove correct, then the potential to make up ground with one or two big bites will likely increase as well.
"It's been a real abnormal winter down here and with these conditions it could get crazy," leader VanDam said. "If you're flipping grass on Sunday, you could come from way behind."
VanDam's prediction may be realized, or it may be a bit more sandbagging or misdirection play these anglers seemingly have mastered as well as their on-the-water skills.
At launch Friday, local favorite Gerald Swindle said that his on-the-water decisions were "either going to be real ballsy or real dumb." The hero-zero dichotomy seems to be a common fear. Biffle for one, doesn't want to be beaten using a technique that has largely defined his career.
"I didn't want to not be doing it and have others catching them that way," Biffle said. "If I can catch a decent limit tomorrow, then I'm going to go and do it."