Folks who live in and around Morgan City, La., might be noticing more bass boats on the roads and at the ramps.
The boats belong to anglers who have come to town to scout the Atchafalaya Basin for the Nov. 5-7 Bassmaster Central Open. With two Bassmaster Classic berths and seven Bassmaster Elite Series invitations at stake, Central Open pros are squeezing in as much on-the-water practice time as possible before the three-day Open season finale begins.
Besides the Classic and Elite slots, the event's top prizes are $45,000 (based on a full field) on the pro side and a $32,000 boat rig in the co-angler division.
The Central Open season points standings will determine who earns the Classic invites and the Elite Series berths.
Central Open competitors will have their work cut out for them in the vast, shallow Atchafalaya Basin. The local host, Cajun Coast Visitor's Bureau, describes the basin as "one of the last great wildernesses remaining in the continental United States."The name Atchafalaya is from a Native American word that means "long river."
Among the basin's most famous attributes are its cypress-tupelo gum swamp habitat and its outdoor sports, including bass fishing.
The Central Open anglers will be out to prove big bass swim there. Among the pros will be Todd Castledine of Nacogdoches, Texas, the leader in the points race after a third-place finish in the season opener on Toledo Bend Reservoir and a fifth in the Central Open on Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
"I'm shooting for the Classic," said Castledine, a 30-year-old Texas native who said he makes his living by competing in 40 to 50 bass tournaments a year, mostly in Texas. "I want to fish the Elites, but I won't make a decision before I qualify."He said he has never competed at Atchafalaya. He plans to get in about 10 days of scouting before competition begins Nov. 5.
Castledine sits only one point in front of James Niggemeyer, the Bassmaster Elite Series pro from Van, Texas, who won the Central trail's season opener on Toledo Bend. Through the Elite circuit, Niggemeyer already qualified for the 2010 Classic and Elite Series.
That means it's possible he could double-qualify for both through the Central Open by staying in second. If that happened, Niggemeyer would take his Classic and Elite qualifications through the Central Open. BASS would then award the entries to Elite pros by working down the Elite points list.
Both Niggemeyer and Castledine have reason to watch fellow Texan Stephen Johnston of Hemphill. Johnston won the Sam Rayburn tournament in September, and he's third in the points standings, out of first by 10 points.
Owner of a guide service on Toledo Bend and Rayburn for the past 20 years, but new this year to the Open trail, Johnston began scouting Atchafalaya on Oct. 23.
"It's the first time I've been in this part of Louisiana," he said. "It's mind-boggling, the mass of water and area you can go to. But I grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, fishing the bayous, and this is like that."
He said he's considering the Elites, and aims to move up one spot in the points to make the Classic. "That's every fisherman's dream, the Classic," he said.
A bit further back in points — in sixth place, 67 ticks from first — is Cliff Crochet of Pierre Part, La. Atchafalaya is his home water; in fact, he said, he's been fishing the basin since he was 5 years old.
So does he have a strong home lake advantage?
I think I do, but just with getting around because the basin's so big," he said. "I can run it from memory, without a map. But that's the only advantage I'll have."
Crochet said the bite likely will be a strong fall pattern. "If you can find the shad, that's a big plus," he said. "It's got to be a shallow bite, guaranteed, because there's no deep water around."Average basin depth is four to six feet right now, he said.
When he's not fishing, Crochet is a law enforcement officer and part-time football coach at a local school. He has been competing in the Bassmaster Opens for three years. He said he's ready to "definitely look" into the Elite Series.And the Classic?
"The Classic would be a dream come true, a lifetime dream," said Crochet. "It's mathematically possible (to qualify), but there are some good guys in front of me. They'd have to fall for me to catch them. All I can do is put five a day on the scale and let the numbers do what the numbers do."
As it has throughout the three-division Open season, Bassmaster.com will cover the final 2009 event with live, streaming video and real-time leaderboards each day beginning at 3:20 p.m. ET. Also available at the site will be daily photo galleries, results and standings.
The public is invited to the launches and weigh-ins at Belle River Boat Landing, 1797 Levee Highway, Pierre Part, La. Boats will launch at 6:15 a.m. CT. All events are free and open to the public.
Sponsors of the 2009 Bassmaster Opens: Toyota Trucks, Berkley, BOOYAH Baits, Evan Williams Bourbon, Mercury, OPTIMA Batteries, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha Marine.