Running the Classic race

It's a question that weekend warriors ask each other during those sleepy, coffee-mug filled pre-dawn drives to a favored bass water: Would you rather lead the CITGO Bassmaster Classic going into the final day of competition or would you rather come from behind to win?

Actually, those who have lived out the dream of winning one of the 33 previous Classics have done it both ways.

Some anglers have won from the lead, while others have stormed back from behind to claim fishing's biggest prize.

Take Rick Clunn's legendary final-day Classic comeback on August 25, 1990 on Virginia's James River.

Starting the day nearly 10 pounds out of the lead, Clunn staged one of the circuit's greatest all-time comebacks by cranking in a heavy sack of bass from cypress trees on the James River.

When the smoke had cleared from the final weigh-in, Clunn had claimed his fourth Classic crown with a final day weight of 18-pounds, seven ounces. That boosted his three day total to 34 pounds, 5 ounces, easily enough to beat out runner-up Tom Biffle's 27 pounds, 6 ounces.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is 2002 Classic champ Jay Yelas, who led wire-to-wire on Alabama's Lay Lake.

Fishing a productive pattern below the Logan Martin Dam, Yelas used daily water releases from the Alabama Power Company to trigger a feeding frenzy of spotted bass near an undercut bank with the occasional overhanging tree producing shady areas that the hungry bass were stacking up in.

The result was a lightning fast start out of the gate for Yelas with a five bass limit weighing 18 pounds, 9 ounces, good enough for a first day lead of four-pounds, eight-ounces.

Yelas repeated his magic on Day Two, weighing five bass in at 16 pounds, 9 ounces, giving the Texas pro a commanding nine-pound, four-ounce lead heading into the final day of Classic competition.

Yelas completed his three-day waltz to the 2002 Classic title with four bass weighing 10-pounds, 11-ounces. That gave him a three-day total of 45 pounds, 13 ounces, more than enough to hold off runner-up Aaron Martens with 15 bass weighing 39-pounds, nine-ounces.

Which way would this year's Classic contenders want to head into the final day of competition — solidly in the lead or lurking within striking distance and catching the leaders by surprise at the final weigh-in?

Mike Iaconelli, the defending champ who is trying to join Rick Clunn in the exclusive back-to-back Classic titles club, knows how he hopes things will unfold this year — exactly as they did for him last year.

In 2003, Ike got off to a good start on the Louisiana Delta, ending Day One at the weigh-in scale with five bass weighing 15 pounds, 6 ounces.

That put the New Jersey pro in second place a pound and 4 ounces behind first day leader Mark Menendez's catch of five bass at 16 pounds, 10 ounces.

On Day Two, Iaconelli overcame early mechanical problems to weigh in five bass weighing 11 pounds, 10 ounces, enough to take a 2-pound, 11-ounce lead into the final day over 1999 Classic champ Davy Hite.

On the final day of the 2003 Classic, Ike of course landed his dramatic last-second 3-and-a-half-pound bass in his final five minutes of fishing to hold onto his lead and capture the Classic crown by weighing in five bass at 10 pounds, 14 ounces.

That was good enough for a three day total of 15 bass weighing 37 pounds, 14 ounces, enabling the New Jersey angler to overcome Texan Gary Klein's solid final day total of 11 pounds, 14 ounces and three day tally of 36 pounds, 2 ounces.

If Ike has his druthers, he'd like another fast start again this year, please.

"Getting the good start puts you into a good mental rhythm, so I think a good start is a good key (to winning)," Iaconelli said.

"Mentally, being in the hunt on the first day is real important," he added. "Somewhere from (number) one through 10, (just) one, two or three pounds out of the lead (is where I want to be after Day One)."

"My goal is to stay in the hunt throughout the tournament. I'd love to be in (number) one through five going into the final day.

Gerald Swindle, who claimed the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year crown, agrees with Iaconelli that a fast start could be a key to a Classic victory on a fish-loaded water body like Lake Wylie.

"The angler with quick adjustments that can come out and catch four or five good fish a day with various techniques and adjustments is probably going to win the Classic this year," Swindle said.

While he admits that fishing for deep water bass isn't one of his greatest angling strengths, Swindle is buoyed by the amount of shallow water possibilities that he sees on Wylie as he tries to join Mark Davis as the only angler in history to capture an Angler of the Year and Classic title in the same year.

"There is a lot of deep water here, a lot of rocks, and some shallow water," Swindle said. "There is not (going to be) one set way to catch these fish. Anything goes; it's no holds barred."

While 1998 Classic champ Denny Brauer doesn't discount the value of a fast start on Lake Wylie this week, he believes this year's event might be one that no one is going to run away with.

With a small water body, plenty of healthy fish, and a variety of ways to catch them, Brauer might be right.

"I think you can come back," said the 1987 Angler of the Year. "You can look at it both ways. Leading the event is good, but I've led Classics before that I didn't win."

Brauer contends that an angler in the lead heading into the final day of competition on Sunday will undoubtedly draw plenty of media and spectator attention.

On a small lake like Wylie, such a crush of boat traffic could hinder a pro's final day fishing ability, enabling someone back in the pack to weigh in a big sack of bass to take the Classic title at the end.

"The only time to be concerned about leading (the Classic) is when it's all over."

Now that's something that all 53 Classic qualifiers would agree on.

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