A fast start and a big finish

In so many ways, the CITGO Bassmaster Classic does not resemble the average fishing tournament.

 High expectations, self-imposed pressure, enormous weigh-in crowds, hordes of on-the-water spectators, the $200,000 top prize and the most important title in professional fishing with its life-changing potential are all elements that transform the Classic into an event like no other.

 There is one other factor that separates fishing's Big Show from the rest, a consideration that will be on the minds of the 47 contenders who will battle it out in Classic XXXV in Pittsburgh July 29-31.

 The importance of getting off to a fast start.

 "It's much more important in the Classic than in a regular tournament," 2002 Classic champion Jay Yelas said. "The Classic is pretty much a winner takes all event. During the season we're thinking more about catching fish and trying to make the Classic. But once you're in the Classic, it's all about the win.

 "So you never want to think of yourself as out of the hunt. It's so important the first day to stay within striking distance. I always think top-10. You've really got to be in the top 10 the whole week. The first day is very important."

 "With the Classic, there's a lot more pressure, a lot more drama to perform," agreed California's Skeet Reese, who is competing in his sixth Classic. "Psychologically, getting off to a good start is really a huge factor "All the drama, all the hype is there. If you catch them the first day, you can relax a little bit. All the butterflies, all the anxiety subsides in Day Two and you can be much more relaxed. A lot the pressure's off once you've caught them. If you caught them, you're in it; if you didn't, you're out of it. At least you know."

 Twelve-time Classic qualifier Tommy Biffle believes that making up ground and coming from behind is probably more difficult in the world-championship event than it is with regular season tournaments.

 No angler has a broader perspective on the question than Rick Clunn, who will be making a record 29th Classic appearance. He has won the event four times.

 "Historically and certainly physiologically it's always good to get off to a fast start," the Missouri pro said. "I've won four and two of them I got off to a fast start and two of them I didn't. So you can argue it either way.

 "The real key is defining what a fast start is. A fast start is not necessarily dominating like I did at Pine Bluff (in 1984). A fast start is just being in the top five and you're in contention. In fact, nowadays with all the spectators out there, you might not want to be dominating that first day unless you're really dominating because you're going to have a lot of boats following you the next day. At the same time, maybe third, fourth or fifth is the best position to be in, but you don't want to be way back. You want to be close.

 "It's a tough call. You've got a lot of mind games going on."

 The spectator traffic has gotten increasingly bigger with each passing Classic — to the point where it has worked its way into the strategies of the Classic contenders. Clunn is right when he points out the opening-round leader is "going to be cursed with follow boats the second day."

 Whether it's the shortened fishing day, the hoopla that envelopes the event, the distractions and demands on the contenders' time, the modern-day top-25 cut after two rounds or the impact of the spectator flotillas, the fact is that there have been very few dramatic comebacks in the 34-year history of the Classic.

 "I don't know any anybody that's come from 15th or 20th after the first day to win the Classic," Yelas noted. "That tells you that you've got to be in that top 10 to have a shot."

 Only four anglers have ever gotten off to a start of 10th place or worse (see siedbar) and managed to win the Classic in 34 years. The most amazing comeback in Classic history belongs to Clunn, who in the 1990 event on Virginia's James River started off in 14th place and then needed a whopping summertime catch of 9 pounds, 9 ounces, to overtake Biffle in the thrilling final round.

 If the fishing is as tough as the Classic pros contend, the fast-start Classic trend of the pass might be tested this time around.

 "I think anybody that makes the cut can win this Classic," Clunn said "I still think you will probably see a 10-pound-plus string during the tournament. Let's say somebody does that the first day. I would say that guy would have a pretty substantial lead over the field. And that's possible there. It's tough, but that is still a reasonable string to expect.

 "But the problem with that is he might not catch another keeper the way that fishery is the rest of the tournament. So that still brings him back to the field. In other words, he might jump out ahead, but I think that guy is going to come back to the field. I don't expect to see a guy do that two days in a row."

 "This Classic is one where a guy can come from way back and win just because the weights are going to be so light," Yelas added. "But by and large in all of the Classics that have taken place, you have to stay in the top 10 the whole week.

 "This Classic will be the exception to the rule. The weights are going to be so low that most guys think that George Cochran's record is in jeopardy, which is just over 15 pounds. There is a 10-pound stringer out there that a guy can catch. If a guy added another 5 pounds over the next two days, theoretically, that 10-pound stringer could propel them to the win. This is just a poor fishery, but because of that it will keep it open to anybody that makes the cut. Anybody, I would think, would have a shot."