SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As 98 anglers anxiously awaited a foggy Day One blast-off this morning at the Ramada Champion's Choice, those pros who have something to lose cautiously eyed those who would like nothing better than to leapfrog them in the season-ending standings.
Kevin Short of Arkansas and Brent Chapman of Kansas, for example, are mirror images of each other's current status.
While both will qualify for the 2010 Bassmaster Classic, Short currently sits two places inside of the top 12 mark in the standings while Chapman is two places outside of 12th. Only the top dozen anglers in the Toyota Tundra Bass Angler of the Year (TTBAOY) standings after Sunday's weigh-in will qualify for the two-event Toyota Trucks Championship Week in September.
While those anglers at the top of the standings and those at the bottom have an opportunity to "swing for the fences," those like Short who are holding onto coveted positions by small margins have to decide whether to gamble or play it close to the vest. Short, for one, is taking the latter tact.
"I'm just looking for 13 pounds a day," Short said. "I'm not worried about winning."
He figures that if he can achieve that target it will be enough to hold his position and put him into the postseason.
Perhaps surprisingly, Chapman, on the other side of this high fence, is approaching the tournament in a rather similar fashion.
"I'm going to be a little more conservative than I usually am," he explained.
Here conservative typically means chasing the more prolific smallmouths instead of the largemouths that have comprised the winners' creels in past Elite Series tournaments on Oneida. Short intends to pursue smallmouths exclusively while Chapman will likely target both species.
But this year there seems to be a slight hitch in the accepted logic that it takes at least some largemouths to do well.
"The average largemouth is a little smaller than the average smallmouth," Chapman said. "So if you swing for the fences you might catch a four-pounder and then go two hours and not get another bite. But if that one largemouth happens to be a 14-incher, you've wasted a lot of time."
Fred Roumbanis, like Chapman, intends to pursue both green and brown bass, and said that Oneida Lake is the perfect lake for that strategy.
"It's an easy lake to bounce around on," he said, so he'll "get smallmouth and move on."
Roumbanis is in 30th place in the TTBAOY standings, inside the Classic cut, but not comfortably. He characterized the two months off since the Genuity River Rumble on the Mississippi River in Iowa as "brutal," and despite the long wait he was pleased to wait a little longer and to be in the last flight today.
"That extra time will help me relax more," he said. "The extra time is critical."
The top 36 finishers in the TTBAOY race are guaranteed slots in the Classic, and since last year's Champion Skeet Reese is firmly rooted within that group, there will be 37 automatic berths from the Elite Series. Double-qualifiers from the Southern, Northern and Central Open circuits may push that number even higher.
Unlike Roumbanis, who is on the inside of the Classic cut looking out, Alabama's Timmy Horton is in 39th. Were he to hold onto that position after this tournament it might be enough to get him into his 11th consecutive Classic, but he'll have to move up if he wants to be certain.
"I definitely want to make the Classic, but not in a stressful way," said Horton, who plans to start on smallmouths but added that to finish high anglers will almost certainly "have to spend some time largemouth fishing each day."
While Horton claimed not to be stressed about the TTBAOY standings, he knows that each point will be critical to his fate, and in this tournament huge points will be determined by narrow margins. One spit-up crawdad, one culling mistake or the wrong lost fish could be the difference between whether an angler makes it to Saturday, to Sunday or to Lay Lake for the Classic in February.
"I hope to have over 12 pounds," he said. "It's funny here. There's such a difference between 11 pounds and 13 pounds. Every ounce is a big deal."
Even those anglers with no chance of making the Top 12 or the Classic cut have something to shoot, whether it is a victory, a check or just some restoration of their bruised pride.
Rookie Mark Burgess, currently in 86th, has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He's put together a plan that he characterized as a "make the cut on Sunday type of deal," but still wants to play it safe in some respects. To quote an oft-used cliché of the pros, the tournament can't be won on the first day, but it certainly can be lost.
"There are two schools of thought (on how to win)," Burgess said. "You can go for largemouths 100 percent from start to finish or you can try to fish for smallmouths early, when they're really biting."
He's elected to take the latter approach.
In a manner similar to the explanation provided by Roumbanis, Burgess said that having five smallmouths in the boat will make the shorter time spent fishing for largemouths more productive.
"It will allow me to slow down and catch a big fish if I have a good limit in the boat," he said. "It's all about being a lot slower and more methodical."
Burgess added that today's fishing will be "informational," an opportunity to see whether eight weeks of waiting, punctuated by three days of practice, will play out as expected. But now it counts. As Roumbanis put it, "It's do or die here."