MONETA, Va. — Famed bank robber Willie Sutton was once reportedly asked why he robbed banks.
"Because that's where the money is," he replied, stating a truism that made him rich — and wanted.
Nearly a century later, 99 Elite Series anglers blasted off Thursday morning into the clear but fertile waters of Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake for the first day Advance Auto Parts Blue Ridge Brawl, and once again riches apparently lie in the banks.
After a spring dominated by unstable weather, a combination of favorable conditions have pushed the first major wave of spawners into the shallows, so 99 sets of eyes are focused toward the banks, where green and brown finned gold appear to be abundant.
While rainsuits and facemasks may have been the key pieces of equipment in this season's first three tournaments, it seems that Power Poles and polarized sunglasses will finally be the anglers' most treasured possessions this week. Today's temperatures are expected to rise into the mid 70s, with light winds and clear skies. By the weekend, temperatures will likely reach the mid- to upper-80s.
Florida veteran Shaw Grigsby, widely known as a key sight fishing innovator, and still an ardent practitioner of the technique, was cautiously optimistic about what the dominant paradigm would mean for his chances this week.
"It's finally nice to have one," he said before blastoff. "It seems like we get one tournament like this each year and this is it. But I prefer it when it's just starting or just ending. Right now everybody is doing it. I seem to have my best tournaments when no one else is doing it."
Just because the fish are visible doesn't mean they'll be easy to catch. Oklahoma's Fred Roumbanis said he marked 48 beds with bass over 2 pounds locked on them during practice, but he suspects that he'll be able to catch "just a handful of them."
Accordingly, he worked hard to develop secondary patterns, both to guard against uncatchable fish and to protect himself should all of the easy-to-catch bass be snatched up early in the event.
"I figured out a little finesse thing," he stated. "I can sight fish with the best of them, but I prefer not to. I like the post-spawn a little bit better."
Arkansas-based Elite Series sophomore Clark Reehm made a scouting trip here at the conclusion of the 2008 season and like Roumbanis he would prefer that this event not be a full-on, eyes wide open and trolling motor on high slugfest. But unlike Roumbanis, he wouldn't prefer post-spawn conditions — he was banking on the fish still being out in their pre-spawn haunts.
"I pre-practiced in pre-spawn areas, isolated areas with isolated cover," Reehm said. "But they're moving up right now. A whole lot of people are having trouble catching them just fishing (instead of sight fishing).
"You can go out hunting and pecking and catch 10 to 12 pounds pretty easy," Reehm continued. "But it's going to be harder to get up into that 12- to 14-pound range. There are lots of identical sized fish. It comes down to getting a quality bite every day. Some of the other guys are reporting seeing bigger fish on beds or cruising, but it's tough to make them bite."
Gary Klein, Grigsby's traveling partner and occasional confidante, intends to start off this first day of competition by sight fishing, but he believes that the conditions are dynamic. While there may be a lot of active fish in the shallows looking to spawn, he recognizes that there may be just as many — or more — doing other things, and when Saturday and Sunday roll around the easy bedders may already have been caught.
"I've got an open mind about this tournament," Klein said. "I'm not sure if more are coming. We could get another surge or we might not. But right now it's hard to catch them by just fishing unless it's overcast and rainy."
But he likes the idea that most of his competition seems to have blinders on with respect to alternative patterns and strategies: "It gets everybody conditioned to a certain thing," he said. "Then when another pattern develops, they miss it."
While Sunday's weigh-in will produce only one winner, this week's results will have a substantial impact on the fortunes of all the anglers involved. In a truncated eight -event Elite Series season, every point is precious, and the end of this tournament will mark the halfway point.
Klein currently sits in fourth place in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, comfortably within the Classic cut and on pace to make the top 12 after eight tournaments, which would qualify him for two additional tournaments to wrap up the season. But he claims that the AOY race is a "non-issue."
"I don't even think about it," he said. "I'm just going fishing."
But for those further down in the standings, it can be all-consuming. Those barely inside the qualifying cutoff, like Roumbanis, want to maintain their status and will fight tooth and nail to hold onto it. Those like Grigsby, who sit outside the cut but within sight of it, will do anything to displace them.
"I've got to catch them here," Grigsby said. "I'm close but I bombed at the first tournament so I need to do well to get into that top 35."
Others, like Reehm, currently in 81st overall, need a money finish to restore their confidence and the viability of their career choice. "Financially, I need to get a check at this tournament," he said.
It's a new ballgame today, with 99 anglers on equal footing, ready to start fresh or cement their status, as the standings dictate. By this afternoon we'll know if Smith Mountain Lake is at its peak, as the dock talk seems to suggest.
And by Sunday we'll know if those focused exclusively on fish they can see will win out or whether it was necessary to widen their frame of reference to get find the winning fish.