It was the end of the practice day, two days before the start of the 2007 Bassmaster Classic, and an agitated Skeet Reese fidgeted with tackle in his boat behind the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center.
"Worst Classic practice I've ever had," he grumbled to a nearby reporter. "I don't have a clue what to do."
Fellow pro Greg Hackney smiled from his nearby rig.
"Practice is irrelevant," the soft-spoken Louisianan offered. "Besides, it's going to change every day."
No truer words were spoken.
This was a Classic when preconceived notions or Lay Lake knowledge was a hindrance, where the bass were on the move, and where a Classic newcomer etched his name into the record books.
In the end, it was Boyd Duckett's confidence in a risky game plan that made the difference. The Demopolis, Ala., angler ignored conventional wisdom of where the fish should be and focused on where they were going.
"The lake didn't fish the way it should for this time of year because of the sudden change in weather patterns," says Duckett. "I prepared myself mentally for that and it helped me immensely."
His plan was simple: Fish for aggressive bass around secondary points in the morning, then lock a flipping rod in his hands and probe grassbeds for giant largemouth the rest of the day.
The strategy produced an 8-pounder that anchored a solid limit the first day and a 6-9 that sealed the deal the last day.
That last big fish, which came in the final hour of the 2007 Classic, deprived Reese of his first world championship and made Duckett the first home state angler ever to win the event. His 48 pounds, 10 ounces for the week gave him a slim 6-ounce win over Reese.
"You have no idea how much that hurts," says Reese, who rode an emotional roller coaster from start to finish.
"You don't get many chances to win the Classic."
He wasn't the only one who had the title within reach.
Kevin VanDam led going into the last day, only to see hopes for a third title flushed when falling lake levels sucked the big fish away from shallow grass he was fishing. He finished third with 45 pounds, 4 ounces.
Terry McWilliams, a retired cop and B.A.S.S. Federation Nation angler, was given as much of a hope to win this Classic as a lazy shad has to survive in a tank of starving bass. Yet, the Indiana angler hung around the Top 10 the first two days and nearly pulled off a stunning upset. His 45-pound, 3-ounce total was hampered by a small limit the second day, but he rallied with the second heaviest limit in the finals and nearly shocked the world.
"How can I feel badly?" he asks. "I spent about $200 this year and was given the opportunity to fish against these guys and have a shot at a half million dollars. I didn't win, but I had the opportunity."
There were others, like Timmy Horton, who fell from fifth to 16th the last day when he caught only two fish, or Terry Scroggins, who trailed VanDam by 2 pounds, only to see his dinky limit in the finals drop him to seventh.
Federation NATION Rebounds
Terry McWilliams' fourth-place finish in the 2007 Classic marks the first time that a B.A.S.S. Federation Nation angler finished in the top five since Dalton Bobo was second in 1997.
In fact, only eight of 139 Federation Nation fishermen who have competed in the Classic have finished among leaders since BASS began including them in the event in 1973.
The accomplishment was not lost on McWilliams, a humble yet proud angler who has toiled in the Indiana BASS Federation Nation ranks for 17 years.
"The original Federation Nation left Indiana, so our state had to start from scratch last year," he says.
"Hopefully, other Hoosiers will see the opportunity I had, will join a club, make the state team and follow the path to this event. Who knows ... maybe someday a Federation Nation angler will win it again."
The 37th Classic— the third held on Lay Lake — will go into the books as one of a kind. Instead of one or two patterns producing fish, or one section of the 12,000-acre reservoir getting all of the attention, the 50-man field was spread throughout the 48-mile Coosa River impoundment.
Some anglers, like Reese, went upriver and banked on spotted bass. Some stayed in midlake and hoped to coax the heavier largemouth into biting.
Others ran south with the intention of catching a good limit of spots before returning to midlake and probing the numerous grassbeds for largemouth.
They fished logs, rocks, discharge areas, boat docks, grassbeds, points, steep banks and flats.
And lures? Spotted bass fishermen used an assortment of jigs, tubes, shaky head worms, jerkbaits and crankbaits. Those targeting largemouth found fish on all of the aforementioned as well as an array of soft plastics and spinnerbaits.
Give the weather an assist for making it interesting. Polar-like, pre-practice weather the week before left the bass shivering in deep holes. Pros who found them oozed with confidence, at least until Classic week's spring-like weather warmed the water and scattered the big bass hither and yon.
"We went from a winter pattern to prespawn in two days," laments Florida pro Peter Thliveros, who finished a disappointing 37th in his 11th Classic appearance. "Early prespawn is a volatile time of year because you need to fish where the bass are going, or catch them somewhere along their route. I, and a lot of others, fished behind them."
Duckett, who qualified for the Classic through the Southern Opens, figured it out before the first cast was made.
"I looked at the weather and saw the long-range forecast called for a warming period," he explains. "I decided to practice in areas where the fish might go once the water warmed. It's hard to build confidence in areas where the water temperature is 43 degrees and that don't hold fish. So, really, I went into this tournament blindfolded."
He hurled a Rat-L-Trap across flats and points leading into spawning areas to catch a decent limit early, then headed for spawning pockets where he flipped grassy areas for five to six hours every day.
"I didn't think I could win it on the Trap, but it gave me the limit and confidence I needed to go after bigger bites," he adds.
The 47-year-old Alabamian may not have been on many Fantasy League lists due to his lack of pro experience, but Classic insiders knew better.
Duckett has been fishing tournaments for two decades, during which he spent most of his time preparing himself to fish full time. In 2006, he fished eight Bassmaster Opens, laying the groundwork for his ascent to the Bassmaster Elite Series, a goal he set for himself two years ago.
"I own a $30 million business (Southern Tank Leasing) and have 65 employees who count on me," he explains.
"I wanted to get my life in order so I could do this right."
Day 1: The Surprise Leader
Duckett began the tournament fishing deep crankbaits on secondary points in the backs of creeks at midlake. He figured the cold weather had bass staging on those points before they made a move to spawning areas.
When the tactic produced small fish, he had a hunch the warming water lured the bass shallower. He picked up his Trap and began slowly banging it along the hard bottom points in Kelly Creek, not far from Paradise Point Marina, where the pros launched. He sacked a good limit by 9 a.m., then ran to the back of Cedar Creek where bass historically spawn.
"I worked my way out until I came to the first grassbed, thinking that's where the fish might be headed before moving farther back," he explains.
He tried a swimbait, thinking it might produce a lunker lounging outside the grass. And while the swimbait did produce a couple of fish during the week, it was the flipping pattern (Berkley Chigger Craw( that put him in the driver's seat.
He caught the 8-2 around 11:00, added a 4-pounder about 1:30 and suddenly found himself leading the Classic with 19 pounds, 14 ounces.
"A lot of people were fishing the grass, but they were fishing the thick mats," he describes. "I found the big bass in the loose, isolated clumps that everyone else overlooked away from the mats."
Meanwhile, fellow Alabamian Randy Howell was wearing out the spotted bass upriver on a Lunker Lure jig, not far from where Jay Yelas won in 2002. He caught 15 keepers, sacked a 17-pound, 15-ounce limit and moved into second place.
"There are so many fish up there that I figured it was my best chance to win," notes Howell, who lives an hour away and spent a lot of time on the lake. "Even though the water temperature was only 47 degrees, the fish would bite as long as they kept running water out of Lake Logan Martin upstream."
Reese fished upriver, too, where he caught 17-8 and moved into third.
"I put the trolling motor down and just started fishing banks that had good looking cover," he says. "That's what I do best, and it worked. Given the kind of practice I had, no one is more surprised about how well I did than me."
Timmy Horton, one of four Alabamians in the Top 10 after the first round, fished an Xcalibur lipless crankbait to sack up 17-5 for fourth, and Terry Scroggins was fifth with 16-11.
Interestingly, Scroggins is one of the best in the field at flipping mats, yet it was light line, a spinning rod and a shaky worm that produced most of his fish in this tournament.
"I tried flipping but caught all my good fish on the shaky rig," he offers. "I knew the flipping rod would decide this tournament, but I couldn't get on them that way."
Day 2: KVD Answers
The leaderboard took on a new appearance the second day when cloud cover and wind moved in. That enabled VanDam to go to work with his Strike King Red Eye Shad, a new lipless crankbait, and bag an impressive 19 pounds, 14 ounces.
"I got onto the pattern late the first day and the bigger fish moved up the second day," says VanDam, who vaulted from 19th into the lead. "Once the sun went behind the clouds, the bigger largemouth moved to the edge of the grass where I could catch them."
Reese continued to plug away at his upriver bank pattern to move into second, while Scroggins fished from one end of the lake to the other, scratching out a good limit to move into third.
Duckett stayed with his plan. He caught a good limit on the Trap early, but couldn't get the big bites in the grass.
"I did lose a giant in the grass," he says. "I didn't catch him, but that told me I was doing the right thing."
Horton stayed in the top five, thanks to two 3-pound spotted bass he caught on one cast.
They accounted for nearly half of his second-day weight.
Others played catch-up. Gary Klein made the biggest move, jumping from 30th to sixth by fishing deep, rocky banks and boat docks, while Angler-of-the-Year runner-up Steve Kennedy climbed from 25th to seventh fishing jigs and flipping mats.
Gerald Swindle has spent most of his career dreaming of winning a Classic in his home state of Alabama. He had a shot at it until he was disqualified the second day.Swindle was running upriver when he came upon an armada of spectator and camera boats hovering around competitor Randy Howell. Swindle ran between them, coming close to a camera boat.
A BASS photographer complained to Tournament Director Trip Weldon, who, after reviewing ESPN footage, ruled Swindle exhibited unsportsmanlike conduct and unsafe boat operation.
Swindle lost that day's catch, which would have put him in contention going into the finals.
Swindle says he had no choice because of the narrow passage and shallow water outside the channel he was running. Weldon says he should have slowed down and idled through the crowd of boats.
"The current was strong there, so, if I had slowed down, I would have thrown a bigger wake and muddied the water where Randy was fishing. I had to make a split-second decision, and obviously it was the wrong one."
Day 3: A Tight Finish
With the field reduced by half, those who barely made the cut swung for the fences while the leaders battled to stay in the hunt.
They faced changing conditions, as an overnight thunderstorm gave way to blue skies and strong winds by late morning.
Apparently, Lay Lake dam operators anticipated more rain than they got and pulled water overnight. That was a setback for VanDam, who saw the water around his grasslines drop by a foot or more.
"When the water falls, the big bass leave," says the two-time Classic champ, who wound up third.
Reese struggled early but got it going at midday when he began fishing new water and pummeling the spotted bass for a 15-pound, 13-ounce sack.
Overlooked McWilliams enjoyed his best day of the tournament. His 17-pound, 6-ounce limit was second only to Duckett, and the seventh biggest of the tournament. He caught the majority of his fish upstream in the hard current and 65-degree water that belched from the outflow of the Wilsonville Steam Plant.
While the leaders jostled, others were making a run toward the top. Duckett, meanwhile, stayed with his plan, picking up a solid limit with the Trap early before dunking his Chigger Craw around grass in the Shelby Shores area the rest of the day.
A 3 1/2-pound largemouth from the grass gave him hope, but the 6-9 that came at 2:00 made him believe he had a chance.
And much to Reese's disappointment, he was right.