Tommy Biffle had to almost shout to be heard over the wind.
“Practicing … Bassmaster Classic. Wind … hear.” The reporter who had reached him on his cell phone caught only a few words.
Biffle was bucking what he later explained were winds of 20 to 25 mph. He said he welcomed the challenges of fishing against that wind. Between now and the Feb. 22-24 Bassmaster Classic presented by Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa out of Tulsa, Okla., he wants to put in as much fishing time as possible, preferably in adverse weather. Conditioning, he called it.
That windy day was in early January, and he was on Tenkiller Lake near his home in Wagoner, Okla., not on Classic competition waters of Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. Grand Lake has been off limits to Classic qualifiers since Dec. 10. Biffle scouted Grand for about a week’s time before cutoff, and then shifted his practice sessions to Tenkiller and other lakes near his home. As experienced an angler as he is, Biffle had not put in much time on Oklahoma waters in winter.
“It’s for the Classic. It’s important,” Biffle said. “I know I’ve spent more time scouting and practicing for this Classic than for any other Classic. I’m not out for a Top 10, I’m going to fish it to win. That’s how I approach any Classic, but it would be great to win this one. I’ve come in second twice in a Classic (1990 and 1993) and three times in the FLW Cup, so it would be redemption to win this one here in Oklahoma.”
Biffle is one of only three anglers who could win a Classic crown at home in 2013. The other two are Edwin Evers, who lives in Talala, Okla., and Jason Christie from Park Hill, Okla. (Another of the 53 qualifiers, Mike McClelland, who won a 2006 Bassmaster Elite Series event on Grand Lake, is just a hop away in Bella Vista, Ark.
An Oklahoma winner would join a very exclusive club. That club’s sole member is Boyd Duckett of Demopolis, Ala. When he won the Classic on Alabama’s Lay Lake in 2007, Duckett became the first to get it done in his own backyard.
“To win a Classic anywhere is unbelievable,” said Duckett, who has qualified for every Classic since that 2007 win with the exception of a 2012 blip. He’ll be back in 2013. “It’s sweeter to win in your home state and especially for me because it hadn’t been done.”
Duckett contends that a home-state advantage in the Bassmaster Classic can come into play, but not in the way that some people might imagine. But for the most part, he said, the advantage doesn’t exist. Experience on a lake isn’t enough in today’s Classic. Competitors are more highly skilled. Anglers are better than ever at picking apart an unfamiliar fishery. Besides, Duckett pointed out, the Classic is so important that many qualifiers devote weeks to practice and study.
“Classic waters have become like everyone’s home lake,” added Duckett.
So how’d Duckett do it? The short answer: The weather changed. Duckett knew Lay Lake well enough to know where the bass moved when the water warmed up quickly.
Such an overnight change, Duckett said, is just about the only factor that gives a local angler an advantage in a Classic.
“A home-lake angler can make good, on-the-fly decisions when conditions change rapidly,” said the 2007 champ.
Perhaps the Classic competitor most likely to bring such an advantage into play is Christie. He grew up fishing Grand Lake. He’s won, by his off-the-cuff estimate, 15 or 20 local tournaments over the past 15 years. Knowing a fishery that well can help you, but such knowledge can turn on you, he said.
“Say things aren’t working out. You have a hundred places you know you can go. By the end of the day, you’ve spent most of the day driving place to place and not fishing,” he said.
Biffle and Evers have many Classics under their belts. For Evers, 2013 will be his 12th; for Biffle, his 18th. Both are looking for their first Classic win. Likewise for Christie, but with a twist: Grand Lake will be his Classic debut.
“It’s a lot of pressure. I expect myself to do well, not to mention the pressure from friends and all the local guys,” said Christie, who claimed his Classic berth by winning a 2012 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Opens Series event on the Detroit River. He then went on to win yet another Open in 2012 — near home on Fort Gibson Lake. At season’s end, he had enough Northern points for an Elite invitation, and he opted in.
His unfolding Elite career might be one reason Christie broke his rule about never pre-fishing. He spent considerable time on Grand Lake before the off-limits period began.
“I felt like, with the lake being so close, I needed to so I could give myself a better chance,” Christie said.
Evers also scouted Grand Lake. Like most scouts, he drove the boat and mapped and marked, then turned around and did it again. His electronics’ trip counter surpassed 2,200 miles. From that scouting time and from the two Elite competitions on Grand, he knows the lake, he said, but not like Christie or others might know it.
“When you grow up fishing a lake, you fish every team tournament, every weekend, and you see what happens throughout the year on a body of water. I’ve not had that experience on Grand,” said Evers, who has called northeastern Oklahoma home for about seven years.
Evers is looking forward to representing his adopted state. At the same time, he’s on guard against the home-lake sirens that can lead an angler astray. Fishing too fast is one, he said.
“And I have to make sure I’m ‘fishing the fish,’ not memories of where the fish were,” he added.
Evers can only guess how he’d feel if he won his first Classic title at home.
“To be able to do it with all your friends and family there would be the most perfect scenario you could ever, ever ask for,” he said.