SYRACUSE, N.Y. — So far this week at the Ramada Champion's Choice, most of the talk has been about cuts — top 12 in the tournament, top 12 for the year and what it'll take to make it to February's Bassmaster Classic. But for those who subscribe to Vince Lombardi's adage that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," there's only one cut that matters, and that's the reduction of the field to one winning angler.
Oddly enough, it's tough to get most of the fishermen to talk about winning the tournament.
"I'm just hoping to make it to the top 12 (post-season)," said Mark Menendez, currently in sixth place in the tournament at hand with a first day catch of 15-10. "I really want to go play a little more. It would be a fun way to end the season and it would provide so much exposure."
Similarly, Tommy Biffle, who won here in 2006 and won again earlier this year at Wheeler Lake in Alabama, said his "main deal" is to make it to the post-season. Nevertheless, Biffle said that anglers like himself and Menendez, who won this year's Elite Series tournament at Dardanelle, have an advantage over much of the rest of the field — they've won before and getting the first one out of the way is the tricky part.
"It's something they've got to get over," Biffle said of fishermen who've yet to taste tour-level victory. "When you first start out, you want to catch a 20 pound bag and it can take a while to do it. But then once you do it, it's easy." Joining the winners' club, he added, has similar barriers to entry but becomes easier over time. He has four BASS wins to his credit and doesn't consider a season a complete success unless he's tasted victory.
"You need to win one every year," he said.
For some professional anglers, the first win comes early in their careers. South Carolina's Casey Ashley, for example, won the $100,000 top prize at Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake during his rookie Elite Series campaign in 2007. He said that he appreciated the difficulty of that feat at the time, but has come to appreciate it even more over the past two years since it occurred. Still, he said, it takes time to learn when you'll have another opportunity, if indeed it comes at all.
"Of course everybody wants to win," Ashley stated. "But you have to take it as it comes. You've got to figure out which ones you can win and which ones you just have to survive."
Is this one that Ashley, currently tied for 19th with 14-10, feels that he can win?
"I do," he responded. "This is my type of fishing, junk fishing."
It's certainly possible to craft a solid BASS career without tasting victory. Bernie Schultz, currently tied for 10th with 15-07, has made a name for himself without winning a BASS event. Gerald Swindle, the 2004 Angler of the Year, has also yet to win at this level. He's tied for 7th with 15-09. A win would be icing on the cake.
Even notching that first win doesn't satisfy most pros' hunger for success. Randy Howell, the current leader of this tournament, won a BASS Elite 50 event on Lake Dardanelle in 2004. While it boosted his already-established career, it was a standalone event and his total prize money was a mere $5,500. He hungers for a victory of the $100,000 variety.
"I want it more than anybody would ever know," he said. "It has eluded me so far. I've been real close a couple of times but I want to have that accomplishment under my belt."
He thought he had a chance last year at Tennessee's Old Hickory Lake, but said that a couple of bad decisions on the third day of the tournament cost him a chance to edge out eventual winner Kevin Wirth. He ended up third in that tournament and took home $27,000, but it wasn't quite the same, in terms of remuneration or satisfaction.
He realizes now that his downfall at Old Hickory was that he fished nervously, so he's endeavored to remain calm and take what the day offers him. This morning, as he waited to blast off, with BASS officials outfitting his boat with electronic equipment to follow him, he remained rock steady. No butterflies appeared to be plaguing his stomach, but the true test will come as his day progresses.
Meanwhile, three other members of the Howell clan will have to wait on the shoreline and hope that Randy can come back with another big bag of Oneida Lake bass. His wife Robin and sons Laker and Oakley have as much invested in Randy's career as he does.
"I'd love to win it for them as much as for me," Howell said. "The boys, they're at that age where they want trophies. And my wife, she's the biggest part of this, we've being doing this together for 16 or 17 years."