Bittersweet victory

Biffle gets win on Arkansas River but won’t punch Classic ticket after missing first Central Open.

BROKEN ARROW, Okla. – Tommy Biffle isn’t known for showing a lot of emotion. But Biffle’s lack of emotion after winning the Bass Pro Shops Central Open on the Arkansas River had little to do with a stoic personality. He was genuinely disappointed.

Because of a scheduling conflict earlier this year, Biffle’s victory didn’t result in the automatic Bassmaster Classic berth that usually comes with an Open victory.

“It’s about par for the course,” Biffle said. “Of course, I’m happy about winning this tournament, but the Red River is the (Bassmaster Classic site) I’ve been wanting to get to the worst, and that seems to be the one place I can’t get to.”

Winning a B.A.S.S. Open tournament usually qualifies an angler for a coveted spot in the Bassmaster Classic. But because Biffle didn’t compete in the first Central Open event on Texas’ Lake Lewisville earlier this year, his victory in the Central Open’s second contest won’t result in a trip to Shreveport, La., site of the 2012 Classic on the Red River.

There are nine B.A.S.S. Open tournaments on the schedule, three each in the Central, Southern and Northern divisions. B.A.S.S. rules require anglers to compete in all three events in their division to be eligible for the automatic Classic berth that comes with an Open victory. B.A.S.S. officials said the rule is designed to promote fairness and consistency in the Open tournaments.

Biffle had planned to fish the Lake Lewisville event but had to miss the tournament because of an obligation to a sponsor, which required him to make a personal appearance the same weekend as the Lewisville tournament.

“I told them it might cost me making the Classic,” Biffle said. “But they said, ‘You’ll make it on the Elite Series anyway.’ Well, not this year. But that’s part of it. My sponsors are real good to me. It’s just one of those deals.”

Biffle had one of the worst years of his career in 2011, finishing 67th in the Elite Series standings, well out of contention for a Classic berth based on the season-long points race. After starting the season with a 19th-place finish in the Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans, Biffle struggled in the regular season, cracking the top 50 only twice (Wheeler Lake, Ala., and Lake Murray, S.C.). A sixth-place finish at Lake Murray was the lone bright spot in an otherwise sub-par 2011 campaign.

“I just had a lot of bad luck this year,” Biffle said. “I had the fish on at every tournament to do a lot better than I did, but I kept losing fish. I finally figured out that it was my hooks, but it was too little, too late.”

Biffle may find some comfort in that he’s not alone in failing to qualify for the Classic after winning a B.A.S.S. Open. Bobby Ferguson won the third event of the Bass Pro Shops Southern Open on Tennessee’s Douglas Lake earlier this year, but because it was the only event of the Southern Open division in which Ferguson competed, he didn’t qualify for the Classic.

The result of the two Open winners not qualifying for the Classic is two vacant spots in the 2012 Classic field. There’s no contingency for accepting the top-finishing angler who fulfilled the Open participation requirement or for working down the Elite Series points list to fill those Classic spots.

Biffle also found consolation in winning the Central Open at home. He lives in Wagoner, Okla., just a few miles from the tournament’s take-off site at Muskogee, Okla. A partisan crowd cheered Biffle’s victory Saturday afternoon at the Bass Pro Shops store a few more miles up the road in Broken Arrow, Okla.

Saturday’s victory was Biffle’s second in as many years on an Oklahoma waterway. He won an Elite Series event last year on Fort Gibson Lake. This year, he fished the tailwater of Fort Gibson Lake, which is an Arkansas River tributary, to take his wire-to-wire victory.

“Yeah, that’s nice,” Biffle said. “A lot of the guys (fellow Elite Series anglers) were saying the only reason I won last year was because B.A.S.S. moved the tournament to my home lake. I told ‘em I’d beat ‘em on the river, too.”

Although Biffle’s disappointment was genuine, the victory seemed to be easing the pain enough that he was able to joke about what he’s going to say to the sponsor that asked him to skip the Lewisville tournament.

“They haven’t called me yet, and they’re good friends, too,” he said. “But they probably don’t want to talk to me right now. I’ll probably just tease them a little when they do call. I think I’ll tell them that an Alaskan bear hunt on Kodiak Island will ease the pain.”