SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The main question for Gerald Swindle heading into the Ramada Champion's Choice this week was whether any effort, no matter how stout, would be too little, too late.
The G-Man desperately wants an opportunity to fish the Toyota Trucks Champions Week, which will pit the top 12 anglers in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race against each other in a two-event shootout for all of the marbles. Both events are within a long cast of his Warrior, Ala., home. So will the 2010 Bassmaster Classic, which will take place on Lay Lake.
He started the season with consecutive checks at Amistad and Dardanelle before laying an 83rd place egg at Wheeler. At that point, the season's halfway mark, he was in 57th in the points race.
But since then he's been on an absolute tear and has gradually — but never quietly in Swindle's case — climbed back up the ladder. This week will mark his fifth consecutive money finish.
More impressive than his streak of trips to the bank is the fact that over the last three events he's managed to fish through to Sunday each time. He was ninth at Kentucky Lake, 11th on the Mississippi River, and heading into the last day at Oneida he's in fourth.
Prior to Kentucky Lake, Swindle hadn't made it into the top 12 since early 2007. Last year was pretty much a washout and this week's event is indicative of the change that's come over the 2004 Angler of the Year.
"Last year, I was very frustrated," he said. "Once I lost my brother, I wanted to catch them so badly that I just pushed too hard."
He noted that he's matured as an angler, too. When the group of fish that had him in 15th entering today's competition disappeared early in the morning, he used past experiences to build his limit.
"The first two hours, I just couldn't get it going," he said. "All I had was just two or three little old keepers, so I just left and went fishing."
In the distance, he saw two birds diving on bait, headed that way, and found what he claimed was the largest congregation of schooling smallmouths he's ever seen. He went back later to fish some deep grass with a Zoom Speed Craw and Magnum Finesse Worm and managed to capture another 3-pounder, but he was concerned that even that fish wouldn't be enough to catapult him into the Sunday cut.
"Then I remembered a mat where I had a bite two years ago," he said. "I idled a long way to get there but I caught a 3 3/4 pound fish. There's been so much pressure to try to make the postseason. I hope it's a done deal now."
Greg Hackney, like Swindle, made a move up the chart today, although his ascent was a little bit less dramatic. He entered the day in fifth place and on the strength of five bass that weighed 15 pounds and an ounce, he inched up two more places, 4-6 out of the lead.
Hackney entered this tournament in 26th place in the TTBAOY race and feared that even a herculean effort would leave him short of the post-season.
"The stars and the moon would have to align perfectly," he said.
Recognizing that he couldn't completely control that matter, he entered focused on redeeming what he considered "a mediocre year."
As opposed to Swindle, who has spent the last few events climbing, Hackney has seen his TTBAOY status fall over the latter half of the schedule. Specifically, he entered the Kentucky Lake event in seventh overall before posting twin disasters at Kentucky Lake (78th) and the Mississippi River (66th). Those two finishes in many respect outweighed a solid start to the season in which he cashed five consecutive checks, including a season's-best fourth-place finish at Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake.
He blamed himself for his skid, asserting that he had gambled to win when he had no business doing so. When it was pointed out that it was similar gambles that had enabled him to win in the past, he answered that in these two events it "wasn't very smart."
Nevertheless, he'll be fishing again Sunday and with nothing to lose and the chance to move up, he'll look to add to his three career BASS victories.
"I want to win," he said. "It's the last tournament of the year and I always like to end the year on a good note."
Cliff Pace failed to make the Top 12 here at Oneida but he may have preserved his opportunity to fish the postseason by doing exactly what Hackney said he failed to do: fish conservatively.
After finishing as the runner up to Alton Jones in last year's Bassmaster Classic, Pace changed styles and suffered the consequences.
"It was pretty bumpy last year after the Classic," he said of his 58th-place finish in the 2008 TTBAOY. "This year I went back to fishing the way I used to, consistently grinding them out, pecking them out. I wasn't fishing to win, but to be in contention to win."
But he admitted that a post-season berth would give him the opportunity to reverse course once again.
"If I'm in 10th or 12th place, sure I'll gamble," he said. "With a sixth and a sixth, they just send you home."
Takahiro Omori will be fishing Sunday — he's currently in 12th place — but having entered this tournament only one spot ahead of Hackney he too was resigned to the futility of hoping to make the post-season.
"I don't think it's possible" he said shortly after weighing in. "I'd have to gain 30 or more points and even then it might not happen."
But Omori smiled at the season gone by, content in the knowledge that not only will he be going to his 7th Classic, but also that he ended the season like Swindle, with three straight quality finishes — 25th at Kentucky Lake, 8th at the Mississippi River and no worse than 12th this week.
"I'm not disappointed at all," he said. "My goal this year was making the Classic in 2010. I'm glad this is over."
Omori plans to spend some of the extended offseason in his native Japan. He's not the only one headed home — Swindle's going back to Alabama not as a new man, but with a new lease on life.
"I got the old Gerald Swindle back," he said.