Everybody’s still in first

The 2013 Elite Series campaign is nearly underway, and all 100 anglers remain tied ... for now. There’s no first place, no last place, and perhaps most significantly, no second place.

No one has to say “what if?” about a tournament they almost won last week, except that part of being a professional angler is having a steel trap memory about tournaments that happened a year, two years, 10 years or even 20 years ago.

Last week, 24 year-old rookie Josh Bertrand drove 20-plus hours with John Murray to the Sabine River in East Texas to start his Elite Series career. Many fishing fans, especially those east of the Mississippi, think of Murray primarily for his longevity on tour or for his deep-water finesse skills. For the young pros from the west, though, he is a godfather – one-half professor, one-half O.G.

Talk to Skeet Reese, Fred Roumbanis or Ish Monroe about him, and their reverence for Murray shines through. Even if they occasionally beat him on the water, he is still placed on a pedestal, so for an up-and-comer like Bertrand to have nearly a full day of his uninterrupted time is an honor and a huge opportunity. I spoke to Bertrand as they pulled into Orange, Texas, and he clearly recognized that fact. He was ebullient in his praise for the not-so-old senior statesman.

Bertrand was also still hopped up on the fact that his Elite Series career was set to start in less than a week. He’d fished his last Open event in September and thought the “off” months (he guides when he’s at home) would fly by, but in hindsight he said, “The offseason seemed like it took forever.”  He took the last week off from guiding and still found himself trying to get everything in order the night before they put Arizona in the rearview mirror for a few weeks.

Another thing he may try to put in his rearview mirror is a string of second place finishes. Last year, he tied Brent Chapman for the lead after three days during the season-opening Central Open on Lake Lewisville. In a fish-off, Chapman prevailed.

“One more ounce and I would have made the Classic,” Bertrand said. “But I caught what I caught. I didn’t lose a key fish or have a bad break. I don’t have a whole lot of regret. I was just one fish short.”

The win gave Chapman an automatic Classic berth, one of three he earned in 2012, but he couldn’t give one of the extras back to Bertrand, so as Classic week unfolded in Tulsa this February, Bertrand kept his eyes on the sport’s biggest prize from a distance. Meanwhile, he fished an EverStart tournament on Arizona’s Lake Roosevelt, his home body of water, where once again he finished … you guessed it … second. Unlike Lewisville, the gap between first and second was over 5 pounds and there was no Classic spot at stake, but it did mean a difference in prize money of over $17,000, something any young gun looking to make a name for himself could use.

The other thing those young guns can use is a little bit of appropriately-placed encouragement. Sometimes that comes from an elder statesman like Murray. Other times it’s derived from on-the-water examples. Our sport has lots of notorious bridesmaids who’ve gone on to be successful. Aaron Martens has a string of near-misses in the Classic, but no one denies that he’s a superstar. Brandon Palaniuk has two near misses in the Classic; he’s clearly going to be a superstar in the very near future. Until recently, Cliff Pace was better known for runner-up finishes at Hartwell, Toledo Bend and La Crosse than he was for his exceptional angling skills, but if possession is nine-tenths of the law, then the Classic trophy on his mantle puts all of the second place talk on the back burner.

“To get close like that and come in second so many times, it could wear on a guy after a while,” Bertrand said. “I’m not at that point yet. I feel like if I keep putting myself in that position that many times, eventually it’ll happen.”

At 24, he has a long road ahead of him and plenty of time to gain the respect those anglers like Murray and Pace have earned. Today everyone has an equal claim on first place and an equal likelihood of ending up in last, but no one’s in second place. The race is a blank slate, and every angler is one win away from changing his outlook and his reputation.

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