Major league talent descends on the James River

RICHMOND, Va. — For some competitors the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Opens are a steppingstone to the Elite Series, but anyone who thinks this week’s event on the James River is a Triple-A level affair is sorely mistaken.

Among the 133 anglers who blasted off into the James River this morning, there were approximately two dozen current, former and hopefully future Elite Series pros. There are also nearly three dozen Virginians, veterans of the river’s tidal swings. Some just hope to say they beat the big boys at their own game. Others, like 2000 Bassmaster Classic champion Woo Daves, are looking for a big payday and a berth in the 2012 Bassmaster Classic. Daves fished all three James River Classics — it was held here three consecutive years from 1988 to 1990 — coming close to victory but never earning the trophy on his home waters.

Clearly, the Elite Series pros here this week aren’t Derek Jeter on a rehab assignment, looking to fatten up on minor league pitching.

Anglers often speak of “swinging for the fences,” and with this year’s “win and you’re in” Classic qualification process the phrase is bandied about even more than in the past. While many of the Elite Series pros who are here this week entered the Opens because they didn’t qualify for next February’s Classic through the Elites, that’s not the only reason they’re here.

Boyd Duckett, the 2007 Bassmaster Classic champion and a veteran of four Opens seasons, initially said that he had one goal this week: “Win, baby.” The Alabama pro finished an uncharacteristic 84th in the Elite Series points race this year. Unless he wins an Open, he’ll miss the Classic for the first time since 2006.

Upon further consideration, Duckett said that winning wasn’t the only acceptable outcome this week.

“All you can to (get out of a slump) is fish,” he said. “That’s why I’m fishing the Opens. I need to keep fishing and catch a groove and then carry that into next season. It’s all about making good decisions. If I only weigh in three fish today because I tried to win it, I’m OK with that.”

Elite Series pro Grant Goldbeck currently calls Texas home, but he grew up in Maryland as a tidal river rat. He finished four spots behind Duckett in the AOY race, so he’s of two minds this week. He’d like to shoot for the win and his first Bassmaster Classic, but he also knows that he needs to requalify to fish the tour next year.

“The talent level here is insane,” he said. “I haven’t seen it this good in five or six years. You have all of the tour pros and lots of local sticks, as well as a lot of guys like Frank Scalish, the ‘Open King.’ If you fish conservatively, you’re out of your mind.

“If I can make the top ten, it’ll be a great week,” he continued. “I’ll be happy with a top ten.”

Speaking of Bassmaster Open royalty, fan favorite Charlie Hartley was among the first anglers to the ramp this morning. The former Northern Open points champion recalled his early days fishing the Opens and spoke of the perceived divide in the competitors.

“Back in the old days I used to see a tour pro at one of these tournaments and I’d say ‘there’s one of those pro-pros.’ Now I guess I’m one of them. You know how sentimental I get. It really means a lot to me that several guys have told me that I was the reason they entered the Opens.”

Although he’s fished tidal waters like the Potomac River and the California Delta, Hartley had not previously fished the James. He noted that after being here for practice he has “a week’s worth of history now.”

Fred Roumbanis hasn’t been here before, either, but believes that his extensive experience on the California Delta may give him a leg up on much of the field.

“My history on tidal water is what I’m banking on,” he said. “The bite is completely tide-related and I have the experience to know to wait for when it switches.”

He’s already made the Classic, so he admitted that he’s “not really sure” why he’s here. Perhaps, he surmised, he’ll be able to help out one of his fellow Elite Series pros. If an already-qualified angler wins this week, then Texas pro Kelly Jordon will slide into a Classic spot. “Ideally I’ll win it and ask KJ if he wants to sponsor me,” Roumbanis joked.

Another angler fishing this week who has already qualified for the upcoming Red River Classic is 2003 Classic champ Mike Iaconelli. Like Hartley, he hasn’t previously fished the James, but it’s still a homecoming of sorts.

“I love tidal water,” he explained. “I’ve fished the Potomac, the Upper Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River, all of those famous tidal waters, but I’d never fished here and I wanted to experience it. Besides, I’m a tournament rat. In the late fall and early winter, when there’s not a lot going on, I love to just go out and fish club tournaments with 20 boats.

“I love the new Open format,” he continued. “It’s becoming like what used to be the Bassmaster Invitationals, the old ones when we had pro-on-pro draws. I drew Kevin (VanDam) one time and a lot of top local anglers. It gave me a lot of really good learning experience. There’s a lot of new excitement and this sport has always been based around the grassroots.”

Grassroots, maybe. Minor league? Hardly. An angler with no national name recognition may claim the winner’s trophy, but if he does, it’ll be a hard-won title.