Professional fishing's next generation of stars was on full display Monday during the inaugural Junior Bassmaster World Championship on Lake Norman.
Youngsters ages 11-17 from all over the United States and Canada fished through a rigorous qualifying process to be in Charlotte and compete for $25,000 in scholarships during the kickoff event for Classic Week. They were treated to a special banquet in their honor, followed by a one-day practice and single-round tournament guided by the CITGO Bassmaster Classic pros.
It was an experience they will never forget.
But it was difficult to tell who enjoyed it more - the youngsters or their pro partners.
"It was a lot of fun fishing with the next generation of fishermen, which they are," three-time CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam said. "There were some good sticks out there.
"The thing that impresses me is how knowledgeable they are. I had a 14- and 17-year-old with me, and they have definitely followed Bassmaster Magazine. They've done a lot of the same things that I did. They know what's going on. They know how to read conditions and things. They're way ahead of most guys when I was that age. It's pretty incredible."
"I couldn't believe it when I stopped the boat yesterday and my junior partner hopped on the front deck, threw the trolling motor down and headed down the bank like a pro," Arkansas pro Mike McClelland added.
"He knew what he was doing."
Veteran pro and 22-time Classic qualifier Gary Klein can identify with these fishing-focused young anglers. He knew at an early age that his goal was to fish for a living and has never had a job outside the sport.
"As far as enthusiasm, those guys are at the level of enthusiasm that I had," he said. "All I wanted to do was fish. It's all a process and they've started. These guys have really good mechanics compared to me when I started. They have all of the basic ingredients. So now it's up to them to go out and work hard. It's definitely a new breed of anglers."
Kentucky pro Kevin Wirth called the event "the greatest thing we've ever done in the sport of bass fishing.
"This is where our sport can really grow and improve," he added. "Maybe some of these kids won't stay with tournament fishing all of their life, but it's a good foundation for them that will keep them out of trouble."
Thirteen-year-old Christopher Baksay, who competes in team tournaments with his father (former Classic qualifier Terry Baksay) in Connecticut, summed up the Junior Bassmaster World Championship experience
"When I leave here, I'm going to remember the good time I had," he said, despite failing to bring a legal-sized bass to the scales. "And the fact that I tried to do something and although it didn't work out I think it's really going to help me because I can't only accept the good. I've got to accept the bad.
"I want to do this for a living. It's my dream and I hope it comes true.
This is definitely the highlight of my career. When I got here and saw the whole thing, it was breathtaking because I made it here. It was because of me. And that is really great."
Surprisingly, Mark Kile, the 2003 BASS Rookie of the Year, will likely be fishing his last national tournament during this week's Classic.
The 38-year-old Arizona angler will leave the CITGO Bassmaster Tour after making his third Classic appearance. His next move? Work as the new western rep for Skeeter Boats.
"Has there ever been a pro walk away?" Kile asked. "I'm going to walk off after the Classic.
"This is just a great opportunity for me. I got to the point where if I was going to keep fishing the Tour, I was going to have to move back East. I would have to be gone for six months again next year. I really love the West Coast. Nothing against the South, but I grew up a West Coast guy and I love the fishing out here. It's going to give me some time to fish some of the western tournaments.
"And John Murray, Skeet (Reese) and Aaron (Martens) are out of the West now and they've left it wide open for me."
At the conclusion of the final Classic weigh-in one lucky spectator will get the opportunity to cast for a fortune in the Abu Garcia $1 Million Challenge.
Fishing fans can register their names at the Classic ESPN Outdoor Expo in the Charlotte Convention Center and one lucky person will be drawn and have the opportunity to cast for $1 million.
ESQUIRE and BASS
Fishing fans might want to pick up a copy of the August issue of Esquire. It might be the first time for some of them, but this contains an 11-page spread on the Bassmaster scene titled "A Fish Story."
The story centers around the final Tour event on Santee Cooper reservoir and inaugural Elite 50 on Lake Dardanelle and highlights pros including Roland Martin, Denny Brauer, Michael Iaconelli, Jarrett Edwards, Ish Monroe, Bink Desaro and Brett Hite.
Live audio from the Classic
Be sure to visit the Real-time Leaderboard for live audio coverage of Classic XXXIV weigh-ins. The times (all Eastern): Friday,
4:15 to 5:45 p.m.; Saturday, 4:15 to 5:45 p.m.; Sunday, 3:45 to 5:45.
The webcast will be hosted by Chicago radio personality Chauncey Niziol.
Momentum, Part 1
Former Classic champion Paul Elias has it entering Classic XXXIV, but not for the reasons you might expect. Last week, the 53-year-old Mississippi pro shot his best round of golf - an even-par 72.
Momentum, Part 2
Japanese pro Takahiro Omori takes momentum of a different kind into his second Classic appearance. Last week, he took Classic contender Steve Sennikoff's nephew fishing on Lake Fork for three hours - and boated a pair of 10-pound-plus bass.
"I went out on the lake to make sure all of my tackle was ready for the Classic," he said. "I brought my 10 rods and tackle box with me, and I caught two 10-pounders - one on a crankbait and one on a Carolina rig.
It was the first 10-pounder I caught since '97.
Did you know?
There are seven past Classic winners in Classic XXXIV:
Denny Brauer, Mark Davis, Paul Elias, Davy Hite, Michael Iaconelli, Kevin VanDam and Jay Yelas.
Tennessee's Rufus Johnson will be 30 on Aug. 2. Texas pro and lure designer Gary Yamamoto becomes 60 on the fifth. Kentucky pro Mike Auten celebrates his 34th birthday on Aug. 6. Sam Swett (40) of Louisiana and Arkansas' Mike Wurm (51) share Aug. 15 as their birthday.
Massachusetts' Danny Correia will be 41 on the 19th, while Joe Thomas turns 42 on the same day.
If I hadn't become a BASS pro
Veteran Florida pro Pete Thliveros would still be working as a world-class chef. In fact, he still occasionally cooks at his family restaurant in Jacksonville when he's home from the Tour.
They said it
I graduated high school in 1976, and Rick Clunn had just won the Classic and he was kind of my angling hero. I told my friends that I was going to fish the Bassmaster tournaments. Lots of them laughed and told me I couldn't compete against the pros. I went to one year of college and played baseball, but that didn't work out. I kept saving money to go fish the tournaments. As you buy new cars, nice apartments and stuff, my nest egg never seemed to grow enough. Then I got married and had five kids, it just seemed like it was never going to happen. I went out on a limb almost 18 years after I said I going to fish BASS before I got to fish my first tournament.
Classic rookie Steve Sennikoff of Texas, who qualified via the CITGO Bassmaster Central Opens.
Tim Tucker's Pro Angling Insider is a new bi-monthly newsletter with an annual subscription rate of $39.95. It can be ordered by calling toll-free 800-252-FISH. A sample issue can by seen on his Bass Sessions 2004 web site, www.timtuckeroutdoors.com.