KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The wait is over. After four days of practice and countless hours of anticipation, 51 of the world's best bass anglers began their quest this morning to win the 36th annual CITGO Bassmaster Classic when they launched into Lake Tohopekaliga here in central Florida.
There's a lot riding on this tournament. Media from around the world will capture the anglers' moves and offer the winner tremendous notoriety. There's also the prestige of winning the sport's biggest event, not to mention the $500,000 check that goes to the victor.
A cold front rendered last week's practice sessions largely non-productive. But the traditional Florida weather has returned with temperatures expected to climb into the low 80s today. There is a chance for rain later today, however, which made for cloudy skies and a stiff breeze when the anglers left shore just before 7 a.m.
Not surprisingly, many of the anglers said the weather would be a key factor in the catch on Lake Tohopekaliga — a body of water known to produce huge bass. And they had varying opinions on whether the weather would hurt or help their chances.
"That wind is going to be a big factor," said Zell Rowland. "Most all the guys are going to fish shallow. I am going to try to catch some on a topwater bait. It's extremely cloudy and I've had several fish hit that topwater bait. And with the wind blowing, it shrinks the lake down. So it's going to be incredibly interesting."
Jay Yelas, a former Classic champion, was fairly pleased with what he saw this morning.
"This is good fishing weather, unless you're a sight fisherman than it's probably not the best," Yelas said.
Yelas predicted that to stay in the first-day hunt, he'd have to catch "in the high teens."
Gary Klein, who is fishing in his 24th Classic, went higher.
"The lead stringer will probably be in the mid 20s," Klein said. "I hope I have 26 or 27 pounds."
Klein said he plans to use various techniques to land lunkers today. Most anglers have the same designs in mind.
"I'm going to cast a bunch," Klein said. "I've been reeling a frog across the water and I've had five hits on it in practice. That's pretty good. I've had a couple of good flipping bites. I've got a good mixture. I'm not fishing with one rod laying on the deck. I'll probably have all 10 of them out."
Ish Monroe will stick to fewer baits, but he agreed with Klein, saying it's going to take 25 pounds or more to seize the first-day lead.
"I don't think there's going to be a bunch of huge sacks, because there are a lot of small fish out there," Monroe said. "But 25 pounds gets you a lot closer to that 60 (pounds) it's going to take to win."
Skeet Reese was less sure of how the weather would effect the size of the anglers' catches.
"I have no clue," Reese said. "It could be 20 (pounds) today. It could be 30 or it could be 40. I have no idea. I figure my goal is to catch at least 18 to 20 to keep me in the hunt. I'm going in totally open-minded.
"I'm not committed to any one area or any one technique."
Larry Nixon, who is fishing his 25th Classic, said the impending rain could prove difficult for the anglers.
"I think it's going to knock the overall catch down considerably," Nixon said. "The overcast conditions, too much wind. It's going to be much tougher than it was the day before yesterday (during the last day of practice.)"
Defending Classic champion Kevin VanDam said he believes that big fish will be caught, regardless of the potential for declining weather.
"For me, it's going to be to really focus and concentrate on what I'm doing," VanDam said. "When you get that quality fish, you have to capitalize. You've got to get him in the boat. I came into this tournament thinking big fish. This lake is known for them. It's going to take a lot of big fish."
But how many pounds?
"I think it's going to be a big weight," VanDam said. "But the guy that wins this week has got to get consistent stringers each day and probably have just one outstanding day."