Brawl begins without two

MONETA, Va. — The field for the Blue Ridge Brawl presented by Advance Auto Parts has a smaller field than expected, with the number of anglers dropping by two before the first boat blasted off at Smith Mountain Lake on Thursday morning.

Elton Luce Jr. and Greg Gutierrez will not compete at the sixth stop of the Bassmaster Elite Series. Luce withdrew prior to the start of the tournament, when his wife Kathy became ill while traveling to the tournament last weekend. Gutierrez' exit came in the form of a disqualification for violating tournament practice rules.

BASS officials said Luce contacted them Monday and withdrew from the tournament before arriving at Smith Mountain Lake. Kathy Luce became sick while the couple was staying in a West Virginia hotel over the weekend. She was hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery, BASS officials said. She remained in intensive care at a West Virginia hospital on Thursday.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with Elton and his family right now," BASS tournament director Trip Weldon said.

Gutierrez was disqualified from the event for violating a rule governing tournament practice. According to BASS officials, Gutierrez practiced with a non-competitor who had been on the lake during the time it was off-limits to the pros, an infringement of BASS rule 3.ii.

The rule states, in part, that "during the official practice a competitor may not have the advice or assistance of anyone for the purposes of locating or catching bass, nor enter the tournament waters with anyone who has been on the tournament waters during the off-limits period unless they are a competitor in the tournament."

Gutierrez fished Monday with Dave Meza, who works in promotions for BASS sponsor Toyota. Meza had been staying in a houseboat on the lake for a week prior to the tournament. Elite Series pros aren't allowed to be on tournament waters for 30 days prior to the start of the official practice period, and they can't practice with anyone who has been on the lake during the off-limits period.

BASS officials didn't reveal how the infraction came to their attention. No mention of the disqualification was made during Wednesday night's pre-tournament briefing. Weldon approached Gutierrez about the violation before Thursday morning's launch, and Gutierrez readily acknowledged that he had fished with Meza.

"He didn't realize he had broken the rule. I really feel like it was unintentional," said BASS tournament manager Chuck Harbin. "I hate it. One of the hardest parts of this job is disqualifying somebody."

Gutierrez left the tournament site shortly after the disqualification to return home to California. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful Thursday.

Going into the Blue Ridge Brawl, Gutierrez ranked 34th in the Elite Series Angler of the Year race. The top 37 at the end of the season earn berths in the 2008 Bassmaster Classic, so the disqualification could be costly.

It was the first disqualification this season in the Elite Series. Last year, Kevin VanDam, Alton Jones and Randy Howell were disqualified from events for violations of practice rules, and Shaw Grigsby disqualified himself for receiving outside information in the last tournament of the season, costing himself a Classic berth.