Herren, Pugh and Lane qualify for the Classic

 GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Matt Herren of Trussville, Ala., Greg Pugh of Cullman, Ala., and Bassmaster Elite Series pro Bobby Lane of Lakeland, Fla., qualified Saturday for the 2009 Bassmaster Classic through the Bassmaster Southern Open circuit.

 The three pros also led the list of 10 anglers who earned this season's Southern Open invitations to compete in the 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series.

 Herren, Pugh and Lane punched their tickets for the Classic after scoring the top three places in the 2008 Bassmaster Southern Open points race, which reached the finish line Saturday on Alabama's Lake Guntersville.

 Herren had come into the Guntersville event sitting fourth in points — strong enough to be a realistic Elite hopeful but shaky enough to view a Classic slot as slightly out of reach. Now he's set to compete in his first Classic.

 "I came here with a specific goal, to make the Elites. That was priority one, but now the Classic is right here in my hands too," said Herren, an experienced pro who has competed in various circuits for about 20 years.

 Herren said he will join the 2009 Elite Series.

 Pugh is also a first-time Classic qualifier.

 "Making the Classic this season was my top goal," said Pugh. "It's something I've wanted to do for several years, but I hadn't been able to fish the Opens like I wanted to. Everybody always dreams of going to the Bassmaster Classic, and I finally made it. I'm very excited."

 Lane's 2009 Classic berth will be his second; his first was last year, also obtained through the Southern Open circuit.

 Lane, the 2008 Advance Auto Parts Bassmaster Rookie of the Year, had already secured a 2009 Classic spot by finishing 15th in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, which is the Bassmaster Elite Series points competition. Lane, however, now takes his Classic qualification through the Southern Open.

 The double-qualifier situation opens the Classic door to Elite pro Rick Clunn of Ava., Mo., who is now in after being the first man out in the Elite's points race to the Classic. Clunn will be competing in his 32nd Classic, more than any other angler in Classic history.

 Clunn might not end up taking the back-door entry. He's said he'd "rather make it on my own." He has a good shot at that through the Bassmaster Central Open

division, which wraps up Nov. 1.

 A total of 51 anglers will compete Feb. 20-22 on the Red River out of Shreveport-Bossier City, La., for the Classic's top prize of $500,000 and the prestigious title.

 The three Southern Open pros are the most recent additions to the Classic field. They join 37 previous qualifiers: the defending champion — Alton Jones of Waco, Texas — and 36 other Elite pros.

 Another Classic berth will be filled Oct. 25, when the Toyota Women's Bassmaster Tour Angler of the Year winner will be named in Hot Springs, Ark., at the Women's Bassmaster Tour Championship presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors. She will make history as the first woman to qualify for a Classic.

 Three more berths will be filled Nov. 1 through the Bassmaster Central Open, and six more Nov. 7 through the BASS Federation Nation National Championship.

 The final 2009 Classic competitor will be known Nov. 15. That person will be the winner of the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Weekend Series Championship operated by American Bass Anglers.

 While a Classic entry can fire-up a new fishing career or validate an established one, first-time Elite Series qualification means stepping up into the sport's most prestigious fishing circuit. Besides Herren and Pugh, Greg Vinson of Wetumpka, Ala., and Luke Gritter of Kalamazoo, Mich., became first-time Elite Series qualifiers Saturday.

 Vinson, 31, was 18th in the points standings before the Oct. 16-18 Lake Guntersville event. His second-place finish in Alabama on Saturday ran up his points tally to land fifth place in the points race, easily making the top 10.

 He began his trek to the Elite level in 2004, when he competed as a co-angler in Elite events.

 "Fishing beside the best of the best gave me the inspiration to try to achieve that level," Vinson said. "I'm tickled to death. My goal coming into the Guntersville tournament was to qualify for the Elite Series."

 Six pros who earned Elite spots Saturday had already qualified through the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race: Lane; Preston Clark of Palatka., Fla.; Terry Scroggins of San Mateo, Fla.; Peter Thliveros of St. Augustine, Fla.; Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala.; and Casey Ashley of Donalds, S.C.

 As with dual-tour Classic qualifiers, the six must take their 2009 Elite spots through the Southern Open. BASS will work down the AOY points standings to award the six spots to pros who competed on the Elite level in the 2008 season, but who did not requalify.

 The 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series season will kick off March 12-15 on Lake Amistad out of Del Rio, Texas.