Classic qualifiers pumped up after Open Championship

CELEBRATION, Fla. — A few hours after he earned a spot in the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Classic, Randy Howell still couldn't contain his excitement. "It's awesome," said Howell, who finished fourth in the CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship. "I'm worn out. I've been on the phone all night and I'm still pumped up and excited about it."

The Springville, Ala., resident is one of the top five Open Championship anglers headed to bass fishing's most major event. They competed and won their berths this past weekend on the Alabama River in Prattville, Ala. The five will join the best pro anglers in the world to compete Feb. 24-26 at Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Fla., for a $500,000 top prize.

This marks Howell's sixth Classic appearance and it is especially important since he missed the Classic in both 2004 and 2005. "I missed them just by a few points and a few positions. I've had to come back through the Opens and I've made it in an almost last-ditch effort. It worked out perfectly."

Mike McClelland of Bella Vista, Ark., won the Open Championship to earn a Classic berth, while Rick Morris of Lanexa, Va., finished second. Chad Brauer of Osage Beach, Mo., was third, and the final Classic qualifier from the Open Championship was fifth-place Mark Menendez of Paducah, Ky.

"It's probably everyone's No. 1 goal at the beginning of the season to get to the Classic," said Brauer. "I had a pretty poor year on the Tour last spring, so this was my alternate route to get to Toho. This is what I worked for since May."

Morris, who's fished BASS for 13 years and appeared in the Classic in 1997 and 1998, qualified for the Open Championship through the Northern Opens. "I came down, put in some serious practice, found some good water and it got me to the Classic. I'm ecstatic."

Sharing that excitement was Menendez, who earlier this year battled with viral meningitis at one point, thought it would end his fishing career. "I'm so thankful just to be back in a bass boat and fishing," he said. "Now to go to the Classic, it's where we as fishermen quantify our careers."

All of the anglers view their participation in the CITGO Bassmaster Classic as a kickoff for the rest of their season, the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series and, possibly, the Bassmaster Majors. Howell, Morris, Brauer and Menendez already have signed up for the Elite Series, while McClelland is hoping to follow suit.

"I've been working on deciding what I'm going to do next year, and hopefully this will help me line up what's needed to fish the Elite Series," said McClelland.

Winning the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Classic is not only an incredible payday, with $500,000 awarded to the winner, but it also means earning a place among the greatest anglers of all time.

"Winning the Bassmaster Classic is a jewel that goes in your career that never gets taken away from you," said Brauer, whose father, Denny Brauer, won the 1998 Classic. "A Classic championship stays with you the rest of your life."

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