The cold weather in store for the 2010 Bassmaster Classic will make for difficult fishing conditions, and not just because of the slow bite that goes with winter fishing.
"It's going to be a factor on the fishing," said Classic contender Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala., "but it's also going to be a factor on the fishermen."
The last time the weather was brutally cold for a Classic was Day One of the 2008 event on Lake Hartwell.It's one of the coldest days in the history of the Classic.
Forecasts for the Lay Lake area near Birmingham, Ala., are calling for high temperatures in the 40s and 50s and lows in the 20s and 30s. Anglers agree that such climatic conditions will mean a difficult bite, but they're even more in agreement on what the conditions mean for the 51 anglers vying for the Classic crown.
"The Classic is three days of the most intense mental output you'll ever experience," said Kevin VanDam, a two-time Classic champion and the reigning Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year. "Everything's magnified in the Classic. And when you throw in conditions like this, it's brutal."
As anyone who works or plays in the great outdoors can attest, cold weather can bring negative physical and mental effects. Exhaustion comes easier, leading to clouded judgment. Cold weather produces both physiological and psychological changes.
Fishing doesn't produce a great deal of body heat, and long boat runs at 70 mph can chill an angler to the bone.
"It comes down to who can deal with the fish and not the weather," said reigning Classic champion Skeet Reese. "Extreme conditions take out anglers all the time. It pushes the limits of the competitive angler, and some of them collapse."
Swindle put it in less complicated terms.
"Cold weather will put a lot of give-up in you," Swindle said. "When your hands won't function and your body's trembling, it's tough."
In a sport like professional bass fishing, which is much more a mental pursuit than physical, loss of focus and concentration equates to a loss in competitive edge.
"You have to really concentrate out there on the water," VanDam said. "If you don't have the right gear to keep you warm, you can't perform at the level it requires to be successful."
Hailing from Kalamazoo, Mich., VanDam may be more accustomed to the cold than some of the Classic contenders from more southern latitudes. But experience has prepared him for chilly fishing conditions more than acclimatization.
"My hands got real cold at the Classic on Lake Hartwell (2008)," VanDam said. "Since then, I've scoured the market for the best gloves. When you can't feel your hands, you miss some of the subtle bites, and when the conditions are as tough as they'll be on Lay Lake, you can't afford to miss a single opportunity."
Swindle will try to beat the cold using a combination of battle-tested cold weather gear and an acclimatization process that he started during fall hunting seasons in Alabama. He stayed in a tent at his hunting lease this past fall and winter in an attempt to grow accustomed to colder weather. He has also been fishing in cold weather for the past few weeks. In addition to that process, he'll use the standard layered-clothing approach to keep out the cold.
"I like big, baggy layers because I've found big clothes don't wear you down physically like tight clothing will," Swindle said. "I'll have gloves for running the boat, and gloves for fishing. I'll put insole warmers in my tennis shoes because I don't like to wear boots. And I'll put hand warmers in wrist bands to keep the blood warm that's flowing to my hands. It may not make that much difference, but every little bit helps."
And if that doesn't work, Swindle has been known to pull up to the bank and run wind sprints to get his blood pumping.
Matt Herren of Trussville, Ala., was stocking up on extra cold weather gear on Tuesday, buying a couple of sets of thermal underwear at a local sporting goods store.
"It's absolutely stupid cold," Herren said. "It's the worst winter I've ever seen in the South."
But anglers can have too much of a good thing, according to 2007 Classic champ Boyd Duckett.
"Bulky clothing is the worst," Duckett said. "When you have on clothes that make you bulky and awkward, it makes for more mistakes. Your casting proficiency goes way down."
Keeping out the cold means keeping a psychological edge in a sport in which the mental game is as big as or bigger than the physical aspect of competition. It requires a positive mental outlook in the face of sometimes painful cold.
"You have to step it up psychologically," Duckett said. "You fish for hours and get one bite, and somehow you have to stay positive. At 2 p.m., when you haven't had a bite all day and it's brutally cold, you still have to try to catch one. It definitely creates separation between the anglers."
Still, the Classic contenders will be playing on professional bass fishing's biggest stage, a place that brings out the best in anglers and keeps the adrenalin level high.
"It's the Classic," VanDam said. "It's what we live for."