Bubble Boys

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For the anglers who have to eye the standings, wondering whether they'll make the 25-man to fish the final day of the Bassmaster Classic, the process is like appraising their own private jet.

If you even have to ask 'how much?" then you can't afford it.

 Because the Classic carries no Angler of the Year points, and every finisher south of the first-day cut finishes with an identical $10,000 check. Finish at 10th,

take home only twice that. Second-place earns a handsome $45,000.

 First place is worth more than 11 times that amount. And the winner attains something close to bass fishing immortality. And only two of the previous 36 Classic winners didn't start the final day in the top 10.

 So if an angler's not in contention by the end of the second day, well, missing the cut doesn't look like such punishment.

 Jeff Reynolds, who stood in the low 20s with 10 anglers yet to weigh in, said he was feeling "not too bad." Fishing Sunday would be great, he said. Good for sponsors, good for the ol' wallet.

 But he was hardly broken up about the possibility he wouldn't make it. "It's all about first," he said. He wound up 27th, and continues to live happily anyway.

 After John Murray and Jeff Kreit weighed their second bags, they compared notes as Kreit drank a Coke and Murray laid into a burger oozing with ketchup.

 "I think 24 pounds will be enough," Murray told Kreit, who totaled exactly that amount. "I've got 17 or 18 pounds. I'm done."

 "That should be close," Kreit replied. "I thought before the tournament it would take 23. But some guys just didn't catch 'em."

 The cutoff wound up at 22-7. It was curtains and a late wake-up call for anything below that. Casualties included Renolds' 22-1, Edwin Evers' 21-5, Takahiro Omori's 19-11 and Rick Clunn's 19-1.

 When Tom Hamlin took the stage near the beginning of Saturday's weigh-in, he was exuberant. The Lizella, Ga., angler brought in 12-12, pushing him to a respectable two-day total of 22-5.

 "Everybody needs to do this," he told the crowd. "If you don't own a bass boat, go buy you one, join BASS and fish bass tournaments."

 When the dust settled, he was No. 26 — first man out. If he was disappointed, he masked it later by singing to friends, "I get to sleep in tomorrow."

 Russ Lane, one of the pre-tournament favorites, knew he was going to be a close call when he brought only 8-10 to the stage on the second day. The Prattville, Ala., angler all but apologized to the crowd gathered at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex for his showing: "That's the smallest bag I ever caught on Lay Lake, any time, ever."

 As the anglers filed across stage, Lane sat in the media center, watching the proceedings on TV. Royce Dennington weighed in a 13-13 bag, putting him in 21st place — and bumping Lane to 23rd.

 Lane looked at the lineup and quickly did the math. He knew the final angler, Tommy Biffle, had him cold. That's like being in 24th. He knew that Brent Long wouldn't leap him (Long finished 49th).

 Then James Niggemeyer brought 10-8 across. Lane was in 23rd, sure to be no higher than 24th and had to ponder whether living legend Denny Brauer would top him.

 "I missed one check last year by one ounce," Lane said, hoping. "Maybe this will make up for it."

 Standing nearby, Classic leader Kevin VanDam offered, "Sometimes you get lucky."

 Someone asked Lane whether he made the cut. He said he was waiting to see what Brauer potted.

 "Brauer didn't get anything," said Dennington, who was standing across the table. "You're there!"

 "You've got another shot," VanDam told Lane.

 Lane stood, pumped his elbows and tried to work up some enthusiasm: "Wooo!"

 Last man in, 10 ½ pounds back of KVD. Forgive him for not considering himself the favorite.