Cooper growing tired of playing follow the leader

RICHMOND, Va. – For the second consecutive year, Greg Cooper entered the final day of the Bassmaster Northern Open on Virginia’s James River in second place.

Last year he was directly behind friend, occasional foil and fellow local Kelly Pratt. Pratt went on to win the tournament and its accompanying berth in the Bassmaster Classic, while Cooper failed to box a Day Three limit and fell to 6th overall – a nice check, to be sure, but not the result he desired. This year he’s 2 pounds 6 ounces behind another Virginian, Josh Wagy, with a string of top local sticks and tour-level terrors breathing down his neck.

While Cooper has his sights set firmly on the goal ahead of him, he can’t help but be concerned about the group directly behind him. Last year Mike Iaconelli sat in 3rd place heading into the final day. Ike’s not here this year, but another former Classic champion, Woo Daves, has usurped his spot in 3rd. Daves, like Wagy, caught over 19 pounds yesterday to shake up the leaderboard. A tightly-bunched pack sits directly behind him, including Pratt (6th).

 “This year I worry about someone else catching up even more than I did last year,” Cooper said. “This time everyone is catching them. I don’t think anybody’s out of it quite yet.”

Pratt, who competes against Cooper regularly in tournaments on the James and its tributaries, said no one should take Cooper lightly today: “June is not my month,” he said. “Greg is a good fisherman and June is his month on this river.” Nevertheless, Pratt also noted that he’s caught three 20 pound limits in the last two weeks and believes that things are lining up right for him today. “This is the best tide I’ve had all week and I’m starting in a place where I caught 19 pounds two weeks ago.”

While Cooper professed to be happy for Pratt’s success in 2011, he also noted that he still doesn’t know what went wrong on Day Three, and it has haunted him on occasion.

“You have no idea of the night sweats I’ve had over the last year,” he said. “I was so close and laid an egg, to not even catch a limit on the last day. It’s a river. You don’t run out of fish, my fish just weren’t biting. I’m doing what it takes to get a big bite. I just need the bass gods to smile down on me and give me a little something.”

If he should pass Wagy and hold off the others, Cooper will earn a ticket to the 2013 Bassmaster Classic on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake. Another second place finish, on the other hand, might be debilitating because while the payout here is good, first place is the only spot that really matters. As Cooper said, “For anybody out here fishing, it’s all about the Bassmaster Classic. I’ve thought about that all my life.”

Last year as they prepared to blast off, Cooper approached Pratt and told him, “Let’s keep this thing at home.” It’s not clear if he made the same statement this morning to Wagy, or any of the other top twelve for that matter. Perhaps he’s learned that he wants it in his home, not just his home state.