LAKE GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Everybody knows California fishermen are crazy, but that still doesn't explain the atmosphere of zany jocularity that bounced around the dock prefore Sunday's takeoff in the Southern Challenge.
Though tournament leader Aaron Martens calls Prattville, Ala., home now, the only thing Southern about his accent is southern California. Skeet Reese, in fifth place, is the consummate California golden boy, and Byron Velvick, most recently a resident of Del Rio, Texas, is a Californian through and through.
Wisecracking, playful dissing and cutting up were the order of the day as the 12 top fishermen waited for emcee Keith Alan to signal the final round's start, and one suspected that it was gallows humor that had the anglers so relaxed.
Martens has a lead of almost seven pounds over the closest competitor, Marty Stone, and bass have been practically jumping into his boat. As Reese observed in a fleeting moment of gravity, "really and truly, this is now an 11-man tournament for second place."
Such an eventuality didn't keep the California guys from wild, not-too-serious conjecture. Velvick speculated that Martens might fold like a cheap lawn chair. (Velvick has a gift for outrageous gab. On the weigh-in stand Saturday, he said that local fishermen were on him and his fishing hole "like mosquitoes on a naked man in a hot Amazon jungle.")
Even Stone, of North Carolina, got into a Left Coast frame of mind.
"You know, I doubt whether Aaron can be beat," he said with a wink and a nod. "I was in the Pizza Hut last night and a bunch of local guys came in and told me they had fished his spot after he left. They said that his place was so good and they caught so many bass from it yesterday evening that they didn't think there was any way he could be beat. And I heard Byron Velvick might drop in on him today, too."
Whatever; it's time to exhale, time to unwind, but not completely. Though Martens might have a lock on first, there are other motivations in play. Everybody will be scrambling to move up in the points standings, and some have a reasonable shot.
"I was fishing for big ones Saturday, and that's what I'm going for today," said Kevin Wirth, one of two Kentucky anglers
"I'm switching between a Berkely Football Jig with Chigger Craw trailer and a Bomber Fat Free Shad and Switchback," he said. "I've been getting good limits, and think I will today, but I would like to nudge up the weight."
Mike McClelland, who's been alternating between a War Eagle spinnerbait and a Spro BB-Z1 rattlebait to amass his fourth place stringer of 77 pounds, 4 ounces, also has a strong chance of moving up because he's fishing a spot that has consistently produced big bass for him.
"The real deal for me is to get more than just one big fish in my bag," said the Arkansas pro. "I've got a place that has produced a 7-pounder each day, but today I need to get at least a couple of them. On this lake, this week, anything's possible, so…"
Jami Fralick of South Dakota said he would need 35 pounds and a miracle to win, but maybe that counts as two miracles. The best stringer so far was Todd Faircloth's 31-pound bag on Thursday, and only he, Stone and McClelland have cracked the 30-pound barrier on any day.
What is doable, for any of the top 12, is to reach the 100-pound club. Wirth is 27 pounds away; Martens needs 12 pounds, 7 ounces.
The prospect that at least a half-dozen anglers would average more than 25 pounds of bass a day over four days might have been considered a reach before this Elite Series event started Thursday morning, but it's almost a slam dunk now. And everyone who got to fish Sunday, even the ones who knew they didn't stand a chance of overtaking Martens, appreciated the implications.
"What a week this has been on Lake Guntersville, what an awesome lake it is," said Mike Ianonelli, in third place with 80-2. "I'm glad I made the cut, but now I'm just going to fish for the fun of it and enjoy one more day in a spectacular week. I don't know if it could ever be this good again for so many anglers."
No joke, no kidding.