For some Elites, the season never ends

RICHMOND, Va. — Earlier this week Elite Series pro John Murray described himself as a truck driver who occasionally gets to fish. In order to claim the crown and its attendant Bassmaster Classic berth at the Northern Open, local pro Kelly Pratt had to beat a whole bunch of long-distance haulers.

Three Elites and multiple other Classic veterans fished through to Saturday, for varying reasons.

For Pat Golden (eighth, 32-01), the primary reason was simple: He’s desperate to qualify for his first Classic. He finished 39th in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race in 2011, missing a spot in the championship by a mere 10 points.

“That’s why we fish,” he explained. “That’s our Super Bowl. I want to win one one day, but you have to qualify in order to have a shot.”

For other Elites in the top 12, the reasons for fishing the Opens are more complicated.

Bernie Schultz (12th, 26-11), a veteran of eight Classics, seemingly had a subpar year on tour, ending up 80th overall. But he said that the difference between success and struggles is often razor-thin.

“I had a brutal year, but I don’t feel like I’m fishing poorly,” he explained. “I found enough fish to do well. Most of the time I was in the money after the first day, but every time some issue seemed to occur on Day Two.”

At the final Elite Series tournament of the year on Wheeler, Schultz finished eighth, and even though his catches decreased each day on the James, he carried some of that momentum forward into this event for a second consecutive final day cut.

“I feel like I’ve finally got the monkey off my back,” he said. “Still, I have to be careful. The wheels could come off at any time.”

The other silver lining for Schultz is that the third Northern Open will be held on New York’s Oneida Lake. He finished in the top 12 the last three times the Elites visited the combination largemouth-smallmouth fishery — in 2006, 2008 and 2009. He hopes that the fourth time will be the charm. While another final day showing would be nice, with this year’s “win and you’re in” Classic berths, he’ll need to notch his first career B.A.S.S. victory if he wants to fish his ninth Classic next February.

Yesterday Mike Iaconelli (fourth, 35-01) described himself as a “tournament rat.” While the other long-haul drivers take a much-needed break, Ike just keeps on trucking. On the strength of an 18th-place finish in the Angler of the Year race, he’s already qualified to fish the upcoming Classic in Shreveport, but he viewed this week as a chance to spend time with family and feed his addiction.

“I just love to tournament fish,” he explained. “That feeling hasn’t changed since I was 19 years old. I started fishing club tournaments straight out of high school. I don’t care whether it’s 10 guys fishing for a hundred-dollar pot. I get the same feeling whether it’s an Open, a local derby or the Bassmaster Classic.”

While his Elite Series competitors may be every bit as dedicated as Ike, other perpetual top-finishers weren’t here this week. For Iaconelli, the lure of these events is the competition and the fact that it’s an iterative effort to put together the puzzle. Despite the fact that he’s won both a Classic and an Angler of the Year title, he’s constantly learning.

“The funny thing is that I still feel like tidal water fishing is one of my strengths,” he said. “Still, the high water really hurt me this week. I couldn’t figure out how to fish them when the water was high and it really hurt me, wasting a couple of hours. On a lot of other tidal systems, I have places I can go on tougher tides, but here I didn’t have that.”

Ike’s co-angler, Cory Hatton, described his day behind the fan-favorite veteran as the ultimate learning experience, not necessarily about fishing tactics but rather about the mental side of the sport.

“He never got down,” Hatton said. “He never gave up and he fished every minute he could. We made it in with about 10 seconds to spare.”

Even though Golden, Schultz and Iaconelli didn’t win this week, all filed away lessons that they’ll use going forward, whether it be on the James River or elsewhere.

“When you quit learning, you need to quit fishing, you need to quit life,” Schultz said. “You can learn from a bad day just as well as you can from a good day.”

The highway and the next tournament both beckon. More miles on the odometer mean more chances to put the puzzle together.

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