STOCKTON, Calif. — The last bits of confetti had barely been cleared off the 2010 Bassmaster Classic trophy before Kevin VanDam was on the road, boat in tow, for a 3-day marathon behind the wheel.
Distance from his home in Kalamazoo, Mich., to Stockton, Calif., site of the 2010 TroKar™ Duel in the Delta, the first stop in the 2010 Bassmaster Elite Series: Just over 2,300 miles.
There are similar stories for Greg Hackney (2,245 miles from his home in Gonzalez, La.), and the majority of the Southern- and Eastern-based field fishing the first stop in the 2010 Elite Series.
"Man, I forgot how far it is out here," Hackney said after three straight days of 13-hour grinds across Louisiana, Texas and Arizona via Highway 10, and up half the length of California on highways 94, 40, 58 and 99. "Last time we fished here in 2007, we came here from Amistad, which knocked off 9 or 10 hours. All I can say is, I'm glad we're not coming out here to fish for 2-pounders."
It's been three years since the Elite Series splashed down in California waters but the field is energized by the prospect of competing on a fresh piece of water and by the possibility of surpassing Aaron Martens' 2007 Duel winning weight of 85 pounds, 12 ounces (and fish like the 14-6 donkey weighed in last month at a regional tournament held here).
"On any cast, you might catch a 13-pounder... or a 15-pounder," VanDam said. "The chance for giant bass is there, and (so are) the numbers and the quality of the habitat. It's a great place to fish."
As he waited through pre-practice quagga-mussel inspections on Sunday, VanDam sounded like a guy who needed some California sunshine: "The sun is shining and everything is green," he said. "Man, it's nice to be in the warm weather. We haven't seen that in awhile."
He also sounded like someone who's looked at the weather forecast, tides and water conditions and figured out that the three-day practice window might grind out similarly to his 72-hour cross-country commute.
"It looks like perfect prespawn to me — I can look around and see that the grass is green and spring is coming — but I know this place can change a lot," VanDam said. "The water looks a lot dirtier than I've ever seen it, and I'm sure the grass has changed. It's probably going to be like learning a whole new system again."
That'll almost certainly be the case in Frank's Tract, the west-Delta area where many of the 2007 competitors focused their attention. In the three years since, local water managers have undergone an active weed-removal regime, so much of the vegetation that was present three years ago is gone. That's only one area, though, in a sprawling expanse of water where most of the field is pushing a steep learning curve.
"I'm going to take a little bit of a different approach this year," said Mike Iaconelli, who started slow in '07 with a 2 1/2-pound average on Day 1. "One of the things I did wrong back then, I tried to fish the entire place. That was a mistake. I'm going to go out there and fish smaller areas. I'm not going to try to fish the entire Delta in three days of practice. With the water being dirty, I know how important clearer areas can be. I've seen plenty of grassy areas that fish awfully small when the water is like that.
Anglers filtering out into the web of sloughs, channels and bays of the Delta waterway on Day 1 of practice were greeted by a low-pressure system that brought gloomy, windy, 40-degree morning temperatures that turned into scattered thunderstorms and intermittent sun breaks throughout the early afternoon. A similar series of systems is forecast for interior northern California, so the Elite anglers will see a buffet of weather ranging from patchy morning frost and rain on Thursday to 66 degrees and sunny by Friday.
That's all part of a tenacious, unsettled late-winter pattern that's recently dropped the nighttime lows into the 30s around Stockton and pushed cold, stained water into the system via heavy rains and water releases from the big coldwater impoundments of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
"It's going to be a quite a lot different than when we were here before," Martens said. "I know it's cooler than last time, so fish will probably be prespawn. We were here just a little bit late last time, so fish were already up on beds or done spawning. I don't think it'll be a problem finding fish — you can find 2- and 3-pounders all day here — but you could go all day without catching a big one. If you can find where the better quality fish are and the conditions shape up right this week, the weight could be bigger than it was in 2007."