Time to Wheel and Deal at Wheeler

DECATUR, Ala. – This tournament means so much to so many Bassmaster Elite Series competitors, it’s difficult to sum up the various make-or-break scenarios that will unfold on Lake Wheeler beginning Thursday. The Dixie Duel is the last regular season stop on the 2011 Elite Series tour, and the importance of the outcome is bearing down on these guys like the 95-degree temperatures in Alabama this week.

“I’m going to have to smoke ‘em,” said Kelly Jordon. “It’s pretty much put a big bait in your hand and let it rip.”

Jordon has been on a wild ride of a year. Over the last 12 months, he’s gotten married, been diagnosed, treated and recovered from a deadly form of skin cancer (melanoma) and become a first-time father.

“She’s two weeks and three days old today,” Jordon said Wednesday about his daughter.

Jordon has had his fair share of emotional highs and lows on this year Elite Series as well. After recording two top 10 finishes early in the year, he has dropped to 45th place in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. Right now the cut line for making the Bassmaster Classic is 37th place. Qualifying for his 10th Classic is atop his list of goals the week.

“I need to get my life settled down a little bit,” said Jordon, with that seemingly ever-present smile on his face. “I need to quit getting skin cancer, getting married and having babies.”

Jordon needs a top 20 finish at Wheeler Lake to assure himself of a qualifying spot in the Classic. He said Wheeler won’t be an easy place to accomplish that. It will take a level of focus that he understandably hasn’t been able to summon for each event in the Elite Series this year.

“It shows how focused you have to be out here,” said the 40-year-old Mineola, Texas, resident. “If you lose your focus at all, these guys will leave you in their rearview mirrors.”

There will be plenty of attention at the top of the standings this week in the Dixie Duel. Kevin VanDam will be trying to wrap up his seventh Angler of the Year title and fourth in a row. VanDam leads the AOY race by 55 points over Edwin Evers. Steve Kennedy is in third place, 114 points behind VanDam. Alton Jones and Gerald Swindle are tied for fourth place, 123 points behind the leader.

But there are potential successes and failures sprinkled throughout the standings. For instance, Jeff Kriet figures he could earn as much as $70,000 this week by finishing in the top 12. The Ardmore, Okla., angler is 30th in AOY points, so he needs a strong showing here to solidify a spot in the Classic.

“I was having a pretty good season, then I fell from fifth (in the AOY standings) to 30th, and I’m not real proud of that,” Kriet said. “For me, it’s all about the money. With a top 12 finish I could move into the top 20 in Angler of the Year points, and there’s a lot of difference in the money for finishing in the top 20.”

Kriet proceeded to list the various bonuses that would kick-in with a solid finish this week. They are considerable.

Then Kriet’s mood down-shifted a bit as he thought about how tough practice had been on Wheeler.

“It’s not good at all,” he said. “I don’t think it will be easy to catch (a limit) each day. These fish are funky.”

After failing to make the top 50 cut on the Arkansas River at Little Rock last week, Kriet drove straight to Lake Guntersville to fish for a couple of days before practice started at Wheeler.

“They were funky there, too,” Kriet said. “I expected to catch 50 fish a day there, but I didn’t, at all.”

Kriet thinks a day of 10 pounds or better should earn a decent check at Wheeler Lake this week.

“If you can catch a limit each day with a three- or four-pounder, you’re probably going to be good in this tournament.”

Mike McClelland agrees. Unlike Kriet, McClelland, who has qualified for the past seven Classics, sits in 82nd place in the AOY standings now. He needs a win in the Dixie Duel and the automatic Classic berth that goes with it. He has too many points to make up for anything less than a victory to help him.

“This is one of those tournaments that I truly believe I’m around the fish to win it,” said the Bella Vista, Ark., pro. “Sometimes you’re around the right fish, but you settle for keepers instead of fishing a bait that might catch a big one.

“I’ll be throwing nothing but big baits this week. There won’t be any spinning rods in the boat.”

Spinning rods will probably be scarce for many of the Elite Series pros this week at Wheeler, where hitting a home run will be the only way to salvage the season.

Also By This Author