GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Matt Herren couldn't wipe the wide smile off his face after he returned to the Lake Guntersville State Park dock Friday afternoon.
His goal, and the goal of several others competing in the Bassmaster Southern Open, was to earn a spot in the 2009 Elite Series season. The top 10 in the final point standings will be invited to the circuit that begins in March.
But the longtime Alabama pro knew he led the updated standings and, barring a total collapse of monumental proportions Saturday, could be on the Elite Series next season. His Friday catch of almost 22 pounds and two-day total of 48 pounds, 3 ounces, would be enough to put him atop the Open leaderboard going into the final day.
Thus, his smile and the realization of a new goal: a slot in the Bassmaster Classic next February on the Red River in Shreveport, La.
"Maybe this was enough to put me up there," he said. "I'd love to get in it. I think this may have been enough to do it."
The top three in the final standings earn Classic berths. Much is on the line and Saturday will be a full-tilt boogie shootout with the top 10 among the tournament leaderboard.
Greg Vinson of Wetumpka, Ala., is tied for second place in the tournament with 47-1, sharing the spot with Bobby Lane of Florida, and is seeking an Elite Series berth.
"That's been my goal this year and coming into this tournament — to qualify for the Elite Series," Vinson said. "I'm not sure how I would afford it, but I have some good sponsors and I'd like to make the move to BASS to be able to promote my primary sponsors."
Vinson has never fished a tournament on Guntersville Lake, other than as a co-angler several years ago. He's relied on a bit of advice from friends and his own instincts this week, keying on several areas with a NetBait Baby PacaCraw that helped him to a catch of 26-9 Friday and a jump of 15 positions in the standings.
"I'm excited," he said. "It's a bit overwhelming. But I'm close to my goal."
There will be some highs and lows Saturday evening, some exultations and disappointments of what might have been. Elite Series pros on the bubble for a Classic berth — notably, Rick Clunn of Missouri and Rick Morris of Virginia — are watching closely as Lane sits in second place in the tournament.
Lane already is qualified for the Classic, through the Elite Series, but could also qualify through the Opens with a top-three finish in the standings. That would put Clunn in his 37th Classic and move Morris to the bubble position.
But nothing is final until Saturday is over.
"I'm just going for the win," Lane said. "I've got my sticks out and swinging away. It's live or die Saturday."
Elite Series pro Preston Clark of Florida also is grinding away for a Classic berth. He's qualifed for the Elites but would love to be in the big show next February.
"I just need to have a solid day," he said. "I'm right up there close to it, and I want to get in pretty badly."