TTBAOY race down to photo finish

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — At Friday morning's Day Two launch of the Champion Choice Elite Series' season finale on New York's Oneida Lake, all eyes were on Kevin VanDam and Todd Faircloth, as they motored up to the dock to rig tackle, meet their co-anglers, and get wired up for the ESPN television cameras.

While each angler managed a weak smile, it was apparent both were under considerable strain. That's understandable, because an arduous 11-tournament trail is about to come down to one last weekend to decide the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title race, with its $250,000 first-place bounty.

"It's mentally draining," Faircloth said. "I go to sleep thinking about it, I wake up thinking about it, and not only myself, but my wife is strained thinking about it. It's definitely taking its toll on her.

"I'm sure that just like Kevin, I'm ready for it to be over with."

VanDam still might have something to say about that. Entering Day Two, Faircloth maintained a scant 15-point lead over VanDam, who's looking for his fourth TTBAOY title.

Before launch, VanDam pondered missed opportunities and a potential encore by the storms that drenched Day One.

"The fish, they should be biting good on a day like today," VanDam said. "Yesterday, (however) it was real intermittent."

As geese flew through a light rain and heavy storms northwest of Oneida Lake lit up the radar, VanDam noted that each wave of storms on Day One brought a flurry of feeding, leaving him hopeful the fish would remain active.

"The fish are already wet, so they don't care," he quipped. "I really would prefer it to be like this in general, especially on a lake where you are largemouth fishing and you've got clear water like this, (because) they're a lot more active in low light conditions.

"Typically, a lot of the time, they're going to do their feeding at night, but they're going to feed all day in stuff like this."

VanDam knows that active or not, it's fish-or-cut-bait time for him.

"I've got to catch them today," he said.

The two-time Bassmaster Classic champ and 14-time BASS event winner dismissed the suggestion he was any keener than usual.

"I've had that focus for quite some time about this, through the season this year," he said. "Even as far back as Clarks Hill, I knew that was a stretch of the season where I had to turn things around and really start making things happen."

While there are certainly moments VanDam would like to have over again from this season, he said that undoubtedly Faircloth and the other contenders, such as Skeet Reese, Mike McClelland, and Dean Rojas could all be saying and wishing for the same thing.

"He (Faircloth) stumbled yesterday, but so did I," VanDam said. "If I had had 12 pounds yesterday, it would have been huge. I had that multiple times over and just couldn't get them in the boat."

If VanDam can catch Faircloth, he said, he couldn't hope to crush a nicer guy.

"Todd, he's a great guy," he said. "I want to win this real bad, but I almost ... you know, he's such a good guy and such a humble person that it is tough to compete against him and feel good about trying to win.

"He's a very deserving guy and it would mean a ton to him, too, but trust me, I'm going to be fishing hard."

And so will Faircloth, looking for his biggest moment in the spotlight.

"There's a lot on the line today — the Angler of the Year race," he said during the pre-launch fanfare.

With VanDam not catching a big bag yesterday, Faircloth admitted he missed an opportunity to salt away the title race away. At 3 p.m., he had a single fish in the livewell. He was literally praying when he caught the second.

"To end up catching a limit right there at the end, I really feel like I salvaged my day and the possibility of Angler of the Year," he said.

Even so, Faircloth admitted that while he'll leave the results to a higher authority, if he had his druthers, today would include a Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year win, even though he, like VanDam, feels the same ambivalence about beating a friend.

"I don't wish anything bad on anybody," Faircloth said. "We're doing our own deal and it's us against the fish — and whoever catches them the best is going to win the title. Someone is going to have that title and crown."

To do so, Faircloth admitted he's got to adjust. He fished deep early on Day One, targeting a school of fish he found in practice. But neither he nor the two other anglers who started on that spot caught them well, he said.

Weather was likely a factor. The schooling fish were more active in the sunny calm. His stated plan on Day Two was to start shallow and bag a limit, then perhaps running to deeper water in hopes of culling.

"I'm ready to get this show on the road today," he said, "and let the cards fall where they may."