For years, the concept of bass fishing tournament trails has been built around qualifying events and championship events.
Basically, anglers must fish a "circuit," "series" or "tour" of events to qualify for a season-ending championship.
Not surprisingly, the championship is where the big money is stacked. Winning the championship event is like winning a whole season's worth of qualifiers.
Given this traditional model of tournaments, 2008 Bassmaster Classic qualifier Jeff Coble of Beaufort, N.C., is concerned with one thing: the championship event.
"When I examine any tournament circuit, on any level — local, regional or national — all I want to know about is the championship event of that particular circuit: where it is, when it is, how many people are in it and the payout. My decision on what circuits I'm going to fish in any given year is based on the championships.
"If the championship of some particular circuit is going to be held on say, Lake Conroe in Texas in February, and there are going to 200 boats in it, then I'm probably going to pass on that circuit.
"But let's say I find a trail that is going to hold its championship on Buggs Island (his home lake) in October and only 50 boats are invited, well then I'm all over that. For me, it's all about the championships."
It's a classic case of working the tournament system backwards. Once Coble identifies a championship of interest, then he reads the fine print of the circuit to find out what the qualification process is and where the qualifiers are held.
Some years he has even traveled outside of his normal fishing range in the Carolinas just to fish a series of qualifying events in other parts of the country in hopes of making a championship in his backyard.
"I remember one team tournament trail that had a stipulation that said any team that enters all of the qualifying events for the season will get an automatic berth into the championship," Coble recalled. "We sent in all our entries at the begging of the year and hardly even fished any of the qualifiers. When David and I showed up at the championship, some folks were not too happy about that."
Truth is Coble puts absolute minimal effort into the qualifying events in terms of fishing.
"With so many of these local or regional trails, if you just catch a few fish per qualifier, you'll usually make the championship," he revealed. "Sometimes I hardly even practice for the qualifiers. I just show up, go fishing, catch a few fish, get my points and go home.
"I might get a 30th place finish in a qualifier on my home lake, but I'm not there to win that event, I just want the points," he added. "In all my years of doing this I've hardly ever won a qualifying event — that's not where the money is."
The championship, though, is different story. Coble, and team partner David Wright, will spend weeks prepping themselves on a championship lake before the event. That preparation includes a lot of pre-fishing hours and brush-sinking projects to have plenty of fish-holding structure in place when they return for game time.
The duo prefers championship tournaments that are held on reservoirs in the summer or fall — when fishing is generally tough and offshore fishing is at a premium.
"Rivers, natural lakes and grass lakes are not my strong suit," Coble explained. "Sinking brush really does not do much for you then."
Coble, however, has won championship events on such lakes. In January of 2006, he won the BASS Weekend Series Championship on East Lake Toho in Florida by flipping grass, proving that his fishing skill is not just centered on sinking brush and crankbaits.
"I have to put extra time into those events," he said. "Every championship event is not going to be held on my preferred location, but sometimes the prize money and the number of people in the event offset that. Fishing against 50 anglers for $100,000, like the Weekend Series Championship, are pretty good odds to me no matter where it is."
Working tournaments "backwards" is something Coble learned from team partner David Wright.
"The number of people that go to a championship is a big factor in our decision making process," Wright said. "Some trails do not reveal the location of the championship until late in the season. But if you know you're only going to compete against 50 other people, the chances of winning go way up as opposed to a tournament with 150 boats in it."
"Plus, only having 50 anglers in the field means less fishing pressure — a lot more water and patterns open up because there is not a boat on every good spot on the lake," Coble added.
Coble has qualified for three Bassmaster Classics by working the system backwards.
In 2002 he qualified for the Classic through fishing just four BASS Opens. He qualified for the 2006 Classic through the 2005 Bass Weekend Series and winning the Weekend Series Championship at East Lake Toho. And his current 2008 Classic berth came from that same path, winning the 2007 Weekend Series Championship on Clarks Hill.
"Making the Classic is a huge bonus," Coble said. "The real goal was to win the Weekend Series Championship and with it came a ticket to the biggest bass fishing championship of all — the Classic."
And Coble has prepped just as hard for this event. He and Wright spent a week in pre-practice sinking brush in hopes of pulling off the ultimate working-the-system-backwards coup: a Bassmaster Classic win.
But will the magic formula work this time around?
"I like everything about this Classic — it's on a reservoir in my part of the country, it's a 50-man field, the payout is awesome — but there's only one thing that concerns me: the time of year," Coble said just hours before the start of Classic. "I have about 40 brush piles planted out there, but the only problem is bass don't tend to use brush a lot until after the spawn. I don't really know why that is, all I can tell you is that brush works best in the warmer months and rock is a bigger key in cold water."
"I've sampled several of my brush piles with limited success during practice," he added. "I did crank up some small fish out of them, but they're going to have to get a whole lot bigger before I commit to cranking brush for this event.
"Right now my gut feeling is that I'm going to have to fish a jig a lot. I never really got that schooling bass deal going around those blueback herring and my cranking gig is not happening, either. Day one of the Classic will likely be a jig day for me."