The winners circling

 BOSSIER CITY, La. — So it's the 1995 Classic, on North Carolina's High Rock Lake. The second day. Mark Davis needs to cull. Suddenly, he's got two fish on one cast.

 "I hook up 2 and a 4," Davis said Sunday. "Really need the 4-pounder, don't need the 2-pounder at all. And I get them up on top of the water — on a crankbait, of all things. I'm using big line, 20-pound test, and I'm thinking, 'If I get these fish to the boat, I'm swinging them in, because I've tried a lot of times to get down there, and you wind up losing them both.

 "When I swing, the fish come up midair. They both come undone. They both hit the gunwale. The 4-pounder slid into the boat and the 2-pounder slid into the lake. I knew then I was going to win the Classic."

 Davis did go on to win, beating Mark Hardin, who coughed up a 4-pound final day lead. For Davis, as with virtually all Classic champions, that win defined his career.

 It also bestowed on him advantages that makes him, 4 pounds and 7 ounces off the lead on Day Three of this Classic, an unusually dangerous eighth-place contender. While seven anglers stand between him and the most coveted tournament trophy in bass fishing, he at least has closed a tournament of this magnitude before. Ditto ninth-place Boyd Duckett, the 2007 Classic champ, and 10th place Mike Iaconelli, who won in the Louisiana Delta in 2003.

 All are within 5 pounds of a second Classic title, and all of them appeared markedly looser before taking to the Red River than the pros ahead of them in the standings. If you're looking for dark horses on the final day, this is a dangerous, steadfast trio to watch.

 "In the back of their minds," Iaconelli said of the leaders, "they know that this doesn't come around a whole lot. I've fished 10 Classics and I've had a legitimate shot to win probably half of them. It's a rare place to be, and that adds pressure. Some of these guys may never, ever get another opportunity like this."

 Leader Jami Fralick certainly hasn't been in a position like the one he found himself in at launch, but a few of the older pros have come close before. Eight ounces behind Fralick was Skeet Reese, who was runner-up behind Duckett two years ago. Edwin Evers was third and Kelly Jordon fourth. Behind Jordon was Aaron Martens — who has finished second in three Classics — followed by Brian Snowden and David Wolak, who are likely to wind up with their personal-best Classic finishes today.

 It adds up to a pressure cooker for the anglers trying to make the leap from contender to champion.

 "They know it's close," Iaconelli said. "They can smell it. I can remember the year I won Angler of the Year. Going into (the deciding tournament at) Table Rock — I was a mess. 'Cause I knew that it doesn't happen a lot. They feel that. They know that."

 The danger for an overeager angler, Davis said, is that the big-fish bite peaked on Day Two. Anglers trying to hit winning fish will have to be more patient than they were a day earlier. The stakes could push some guys to push, to rush, to crack.

 "You've got to fish hard, smart, slow," he said. "Yesterday you could fish wide-open. Even if you do everything right, you may not catch 'em. But if you are going to catch 'em, you're going to have to do everything just right."

 Little breaks count for plenty. Just as Davis boated that fluky 4-pounder 14 years ago, he missed a 5-pounder on Day One of this Classic that would have allowed him to cull perhaps 3 or more pounds. If he finishes within a couple of pounds of a win today, he'll long remember that fish.

 Decisive moments in the Classic, after all, have a way of staying with an angler. There is no substitute in the sport for a win in this tournament.

 "You can't replace winning the Classic with anything that'll ever happen," Duckett said. "We're all proud of Angler of the Year titles — it'll never change your career like a Classic win. The public doesn't recognize it, and you'll never make them recognize it. This is our Super Bowl. It's not stats at the end of the season.

 This is the career-maker. You're always a Classic champion, and you're referred to as that, your fans recognize it, your sponsors recognize it. It's almost an unfair advantage."

 Duckett said he felt far more pressure when he secured his win on Lay Lake by getting two big bites flipping on the final day.

 Sunday morning he considered his, Davis' and Iaconelli's positions. "We've all passed the point of feeling pressure," he said. "So it ought to be a very relaxed day of fishing."

 Iaconelli echoed that point, saying that in the past few years, he has adopted the philosophy that an angler will win when and only when it is his time. Knowing that he has a Classic trophy to go home to helps him to accept the day as it comes.

 "I'm going to go out and do my best today, and if it's my time to win again, I'm going to win," he said. "And there's nothing I can do about it."