MONTGOMERY, Ala. — When the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Tour cranks up Jan. 27-30 on Florida's Lake Toho, it's a safe bet that every angler there will have just one goal in mind — earning a trip to the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh.
A handful of anglers, however, have already attained that goal. They enter the Tour season with their tickets to the Classic already punched after taking one of the top five spots in the CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship in December on the Ouachita River near Monroe, La.
Two of the qualifiers, Bradley W. Stringer of Huntington, Texas, and Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss., will be competing in the Classic for the first time.
"I'm still kind of just walking around pinching myself," said Stringer, who qualified by winning the Open Championship. "I'm elated. I'm more excited about the Classic than I can put into words."
Pace is another first-time Classic contender, qualifying in just his second year of fishing the Central Open division. "It's a wonderful thing to have on your resume," said Pace, who won the Central Open on the Atchafalaya Basin last year. "I'm glad I've got it on mine. I'd like to add 'Classic winner' to my resume, too."
The other three qualifiers from the Open Championship, Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., Chris Baumgardner of Gastonia, N.C., and Edwin Evers of Mannsville, Okla., will be making return trips to bass fishing's premiere event.
The three pros agree that having the Classic "made" at such an early date takes some of the pressure off them that normally is associated with the Tour season.
Hackney, who won the Southern Open division points race, will make his third consecutive Classic appearance after finishing second in the Open Championship.
"It definitely takes some pressure off," said Hackney, the 2004 Toyota Rookie of the Year. "But I always put pressure on myself to win every event, and that won't be any different this year, even though I'm already in the Classic."
Baumgardner said he'll fish more at ease with the knowledge he's made the 2005 Classic field.
"I don't know what to think about because I start off every year with making the Classic in the back of my mind. It takes one element out of the equation,"
Baumgardner said. "I think it's just going to make me fish more relaxed, and I always do better when I'm relaxed."
Evers will make his fifth Classic appearance this summer, and, like Hackney and Baumgardner, he'll enjoy focusing on individual tournaments instead of the season-long points race that determines Classic contenders.
"This way I can focus on the tournaments without having to worry about the points so much," Evers said. "It'll be a nice change."