The bubble boys

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — Last week, as he prepared to fish the Bassmaster Legends tournament (worth a cool quarter-mil to the winner) Jason Quinn called home.His wife, Taffi, asked him how practice was going.

"I'm not really worried about it," he told her. "I don't want to be here."

 When he recounted the exchange after Day One of the Legends, he seemed a little sheepish about his ambivalence.

 "That's a bad way to feel about no-entry-fee, fishing for a quarter-million dollars," he said. "But I can't get that Classic out of my mind."Quinn wound up placing second in the tournament, his best finish of the year. Still, to him, it could end none too soon. The Legends meant suitcases full of cash, but no points in the Angler of the Year standings — and it's AOY that determines the field for the Bassmaster Classic, which will be held in Quinn's native South Carolina in 2008.

 Heading into the final points event of the Elite Series season, Quinn sits in 35th in the points race. A Classic berth is guaranteed only to the top 37.

 It won't cement the full field for the Classic, but the Sunshine Showdown presented by Allstate Boat Insurance (to be held on Lake Tohopekaliga, near Orlando, from Sept. 13-16) will be a crucible for anglers like Quinn who find themselves in danger of missing the biggest event their profession offers.

 "Everything I'm doing out here I'm thinking about Toho the whole time," he said. "I need to get down there and catch 'em to make that Classic, because I don't want to miss it being on [Lake] Hartwell. Hartwell's only two hours from me, and I've won a lot of boats that time of year on Hartwell. So that's on my mind at all times. It's an unbelievable distraction."

 Others are feeling the pressure as well. Last year, it took roughly 2,000 AOY points to qualify for the Classic. If that holds, then an angler as low in the order as Denny Brauer, at 57th place, still has a mathematical chance to punch a Classic ticket at Toho.Gerald Swindle, in 49th, may be the lowest-ranking angler with a realistic chance at making that leap in Toho. He figures he needs to finish in the top 12 or 15 to do so.

 "It's like batting with a full count: It ain't good, but it ain't over," he said. "I'm kind of glad to be in that position now because there's nothing left to do but fish to win. It makes it easier mentally because you're not stressing about it. You damn well know that you've got to win or do really good, so you fish one way and one way only.

 "Being in 37th place will worry you to death going into that tournament, because you'll just try to catch keepers, and next thing you know, you'll slide out."

 In 37th currently is Dave Wolak, who finished about 40 points south of the cut for the 2007 Classic. He still recalls a fish that would have put him over: a 3 ½-pounder under a dock on Table Rock Lake in the final tournament of last season. "Just didn't eat good," he said of the fish. "I missed it."

 He spent the whole off-season mulling that lost fish. If he misses the cut again this year, he'll think back to Day One on Lake Guntersville. An April thunderstorm prompted BASS officials to cancel a day of fishing, and yet Wolak ignored the circumstances when the anglers returned to the water, and fished for the same bed fish he had found in practice.

 "With that day that was canceled, a lot of the bed fish left, or the rain came in and muddied up areas," he said. "I tried to stick with that the first day and I only caught two keepers. The next day, I went out and caught 13 pounds. It was a little bit of a recovery but I ended up finishing 91st. That one day, man.

 "There's a lot of dwelling in the off-season," he said. "I don't want to be that person, like I was last year."

 Asked whether their Classic chances will affect the way they fish when they know they need the points, and anglers give conflicting answers. Alton Jones, who's 33rd in the points, said that so long as the goal is to find the most and biggest fish, that's what he will continue to try to do."Practically, it really doesn't make any difference," the 10-time Classic qualifier said.

 By contrast, Matt Reed said his first concern would be to find a safe limit each day on Toho.

 "I try not to think about it," said Reed, who's 38th in the points. "But I will fish safer. If I can figure out a way to catch just a decent limit, that's something you have to do in that situation.

 "The Classic is hugely important to qualify for. You can't just go whole-hog and try to win."

 Last year's Angler of the Year, Mike Iaconelli, sits in 27th this season — in good shape for a return to the Classic, but by no means a certainty. He, too, sounded as though he'd be taking a conservative approach.

 "I'm 27th, but I did it on paper, and if I get a top 50 or higher, I'm in," he said. "That sounds easy, but it's not. Not at Toho in September. You could go there and skunk just as easy as anything."

 Even with $250,000 on the line at the Legends, Iaconelli, like Quinn, said he couldn't concentrate on anything except qualifying for the Classic. One angler who didn't have to sort through that dilemma was Davy Hite. The Legends qualifier cited "personal reasons" for not fishing the Arkansas tournament. While he didn't elaborate on what those were, it's hard not to wonder whether the fact that he's from South Carolina, and that he's tied with Reed for 38th in the AOY points, figured into his decision.



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