PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Ten of the 46 contenders participating in the 35th annual CITGO Bassmaster Classic will have a little extra momentum, thanks to recent successes in the Bassmaster Elite 50 Series.
The top 10 from the recently completed Elite 50 include: Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli, Davy Hite, Zell Rowland, Gerald Swindle, Aaron Martens, Chad Morgenthaler, Dean Rojas, Rick Clunn and Larry Nixon.
The Elite 50 Series highlighted an all-star line-up in the sport's only mega-bucks, no-entry-fee circuit with a guaranteed paycheck for every participant — a milestone in the sport created and nurtured by BASS.
"This definitely gives me momentum heading into the Classic," said VanDam, the three-time CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year who won his second consecutive Elite 50 points championship. "Winning back-to-back tournaments and the points title, I'm feeling real good going into the Classic."
But for some Elite-50 qualifiers heading to the Classic, momentum is mixed with a measure of relief. For those who performed poorly during the CITGO Bassmaster Tour season, the Elite 50 Series was the final opportunity to qualify for the 2005 and 2006 Classics.
Veteran pros Zell Rowland and Davy Hite both entered the Elite 50 season feeling the pressure. Both had to finish in 10th place or better in the standings to participate in the world-championship events.
Rowland, a 48-year-old Texas pro, sweat it out almost until the season's final day on fish-stingy Lake Wissota in Chippewa Falls, Wis.
"Going into the E-50s, I knew I had to bear down a lot more than I do in the Tour events because I knew I was fishing against 50 of the best," said Rowland, a 12-time Classic qualifier and five-time BASS winner. "A bunch of the guys had already qualified for the Classic, but a bunch of them had not. I knew it would be just as tough fishing against them there, if not more, than it was competing against them in regular Tour events.
"I was able to breathe easier after I made the top 12 on the third day. But that first day when I zeroed, I was sweating bullets. I really thought I had watched my chances go down the tubes because I knew the guys that were right behind me going into that event had caught fish the first day. I knew that I was no longer in 10th (in the season-long standings)."
Rowland credits VanDam with suggesting the right lure and pattern that enabled him to bounce back with four bass the next day. And that pointed him toward a third place finish and a ticket to the next two Classics.
In contrast, Hite's worries were largely over going into the final E-50 event. He held a 12th place finish in the E-50 season-opener on Smith Lake in Jasper, Ala., and followed it with a victory on the second stop on Lake Dardanelle in Russellville, Ark.
"I wasn't sweating it near the end because I only needed a 42nd or better (placement) to make the Classic," said the 40-year-old South Carolina pro, who won the 1999 Classic. "But I had to take care of business. You would think that only needing to finish 42nd you could coast in there, but there are some people who proved that definitely wasn't the case. But it wasn't like I had to have a top 10 finish like a lot of the guys."
Hite's understanding of the importance of doing well in the Elite 50s helped him change his overall philosophy entering the all-star event season.
"It made me bear down more," he said. "And it made me fish more to just not have a terrible finish. It made me fish a little more conservatively. I had a spinning rod in my hand in that first E-50, which normally I don't do. So, yeah, I did fish a little more conservatively."
Both pros insist that the bass-tough conditions at Lake Wissota were good preparation for the upcoming Classic on July 29-31 on Pittsburgh's Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
"I'm looking forward to the Classic," Rowland said. "I heard a lot of stories about the rivers in Pittsburgh already and I know the fishing will be tough. There will be a lot of fish caught, but they will be very small. If you can catch 6 to 8 pounds a day there, you have a chance of winning. And the experience at Wissota should make it easier to get in that kind of frame of mind."
"I've been thinking about Pittsburgh since I left Lake Wissota," Hite added. "I've told a couple of guys that Wissota was kind of like the pre-fish for Pittsburgh.
"It's going to be tough, but somebody's going to win."
The 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic will receive unprecedented coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 this year. A total of 15 1/2 hours of programming will be devoted to Classic tournament coverage from July 29-31.