BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In 2007, with no prior experience on bass fishing's highest stage, a relative unknown from Demopolis electrified the Alabama crowd with a narrow victory over Skeet Reese.
Three years later, Boyd Duckett returns to Lay Lake, the scene of his home-state triumph, looking to add another Bassmaster Classic trophy to the mantle and confident in his ability to do so.
"To win it again in Alabama would be better than winning it anywhere else," Duckett said. "Having been out on the tour for three years now, I've had thousands of people from Alabama tell me, 'You gotta pull it out for us.' Winning again would be fun for me, but it would be really fun for all of us."
The task promises to be much more difficult the second time around, as a bitterly cold winter has shut down the fishing on the famed Coosa River impoundment. When Duckett won, the water temperatures were warmer, around 50 degrees, and he was able to find a solid early morning spotted bass bite.
Catching a quick limit that weighed between 11 and 13 pounds by 9:00 a.m. enabled him to move up to shallow vegetation and flip for bigger largemouth for the rest of his day. In 2010, the cold weather has put an end to that strategy.
"I think part of the problem this year is that the shad are dying and that may be keeping the fish from moving up onto places I usually catch them," Duckett said. "They just aren't here. I can see them suspended, ready to move up, but I can't get them to bite."
That leaves flipping, which can put big fish in the boat, but only results in a few bites each day. The challenge Duckett was hoping to answer on the final practice day Wednesday, was how to catch a few quick keepers in the morning so he could spend the rest of the day fishing shallow for largemouth.
"I know I can flip up a couple of good ones, but I need to do something for the first three hours," Duckett said.
For the morning, Duckett can either stay on the lower end or run up to the river-like upper end of Lay. The north end was the area Reese fished on his way to the runner-up finish in 2007.
The river is usually good for some nice spotted bass, but heavy current and dirty water has made fishing there difficult as well. Add to that the warming weather forecast. With sunny skies and 50 degree days, there is a good chance more largemouth could move up come tournament time.
"If they pull up, the boys up the river will get their brains beat out," Duckett said. "If not, they can win it up there. All it will take is a trigger. I know there are fish here ready to move up. These next few days of sun might have more of an impact than we give it credit for."
Duckett had a tough practice, getting only a few bites each day, but one of those was a 10-pound monster that he caught on the snowy Friday last week. Snow began accumulating on his deck and he was fishing an area slow, when he felt a light tick on his line.
"It felt like a bite, but nothing was there, so I dragged it another two feet and felt another little tap, tap, tap," Duckett said. "It felt like a little knothead, a dink, since he hit it about four different times. I figured I would just set the hook. Whack. And then I thought, 'Did I really just do that?'"
His rod loaded up with the weight of a big fish and when he finally hauled it into the boat, it pulled down his scales to 10 pounds, 5 ounces.
"I thought it was a drum at first," Duckett said. "The fish fought way harder than I expected. It would run one way and shake its head and then run the other way. That's the biggest fish I've ever caught on Lay."
Fishing was tough Wednesday and at one point, Duckett pulled out his winning lure from 2007, a Berkley Chigger Craw, to recapture some of that special feeling.
At the time, the Chigger Craw was still in the prototype stages and the only two colors he had were black with red flake and green pumpkin.
"I chose the black with red flake and they sure liked it," Duckett recalled.
The Chigger Craw was responsible for a few big fish each day and propelled him to victory. In fact, Duckett felt fortunate that a small mistake on Day Two of that tournament didn't cost him the trophy.
"Everyone talks about how you need to have a perfect week to win the Classic — everything just goes right," Duckett said. "I actually lost an 8-pounder on the second day and I thought that would cost me. I guess I proved you can win the Classic and lose a big fish too."
Classic success ultimately helped Duckett launch his own fishing company last year, Duckett Fishing, an avenue for him to pursue both his passion for business and for creating high-quality rods.
"I wanted to make quality component choices and launch micro-guide technology," Duckett said. "The microguides improve casting distance, create tremendous amount of sensitivity because of the contact points with the rod and are a lighter weight."
His rods definitely stand out, at least on the deck of a boat. Featuring a bright white finish, the Duckett Fishing rods are performance driven and offered in 32 different models to match any fishing need.
Duckett is no stranger to owning businesses. He also owns a stainless steel chemical tanker leasing business and was in the country music industry for 10 years, managing such artists as Tim McGraw and Joe Diffie.
"It has been a lot of fun owning a business in the fishing industry for the last six months," Duckett said. "It will give me something to do when I quit fishing. When I'm too old, I can build rods for the rest of these young guys."
Unfortunately for Duckett, success in the 2007 Classic and success in business did not translate to his last Classic appearance on the Red River in 2009. After the first day, he was in the lead with 20 pounds, 3 ounces and had an area that held a massive number of 3- to 5-pound bass.
"I really thought I was going to win last year on the Red," Duckett said. "I did a poor job of managing boat traffic on the second day. The area I was fishing was in the middle of a backwater around a clear stump field. I had over 30 boats in there the second day. They were trying to stay out of the way, but they were right in the middle where I was trying to fish."
When he would advance towards the boats, they would move out of the way, but in doing so, startle the fish in the area. Duckett said he could see big fish swimming away from the boats as they moved around, knowing he wouldn't be able to catch them after that.
He fell to ninth on Day Two with just over 13 pounds, and while he managed to adjust the final day, it was too late to mount a comeback to threaten eventual winner Reese.
"I eventually got the word out to everyone to just float there without running the trolling motor," Duckett said. "At the end of the day, I pulled up to someone who had floated against one of my favorite stumps. I kept telling him as I approached, 'Don't move.' I worked up to him and flipped right next to his motor and caught a 4-pounder."
Finishing 12th was a poor end result for a tournament that he thought he should have won. Winning on Lay Lake in front of a home crowd would be a great way to remedy that pain.
"I have a lot more pressure on me at this Classic than any I've been to," Duckett said. "I'm representing a lot of folks here this week and yeah, you feel some of that pressure. But I think if I can get a little help up the river, I can win this thing."
With a resume like he has amassed over his short three-year stint as a professional bass angler and his intimate knowledge of Lay Lake, odds are that Duckett will find himself in the mix when the tournament kicks off Friday.