CELEBRATION, Fla. In professional fishing, there is no other event like the CITGO Bassmaster Classic. It is the most anticipated and prestigious world championship staged each year.
And of the 47 anglers participating in this year's Classic, July 29-31 in Pittsburgh, there are three who consider the event to be even more momentous for them.
While all of the anglers are in pursuit of the $200,000 top prize and a piece of fishing immortality, Dave Wolak, Ed Cowan and Michael Iaconelli have personal ties to Pennsylvania and consider the state their stomping grounds.
Wolak, 28, is the reigning Toyota Rookie of the Year from Warrior Run, Pa., and enters Classic XXXV with plenty of momentum.
Joining him from the Keystone state is Cowan, 46, a resident of Greeley making his second Classic appearance as a representative of the BASS Federation ranks.
And Iaconelli, the controversial 2003 Classic champion, grew up in Runnemede, N.J., but is a native of Philadelphia. As much as anything, Iaconelli considers himself a Philly boy and this his Classic.
"I was born in Philadelphia, lived there until I was 6 years old, and I grew up in south Jersey literally 15 minutes across the bridge," he said. "Being from Philly's real important to me."
All of the home-state pros are excited about the upcoming Pittsburgh Classic.
"Hopefully we'll have a big Pennsylvania crowd there and I know my family and friends will be there," said Wolak, a former physical therapist that took the CITGO Bassmaster Tour by storm this year. "It would mean a whole lot more if I won something there. Just the fact that my family and friends can drive that distance (five hours) and I can have more of a following, that's a good thing. There's no stepping down from there."
But, like other anglers, Wolak said he had only "fair" results during his five-day official scouting visit to Pittsburgh three weeks ago.
"I did a lot of navigating, so a lot of my time was eaten up just driving around," he said. "A lot of the fish I caught were short. I probably caught seven to 10 legals in five days. But I didn't sit there and drill one spot to see potentially how many fish were there.
"It's definitely tough fishing. I'm gauging myself for it to be tough."
Cowan comes into the Classic with momentum from winning the BASS Federation National Championship.
"Having it in my home state makes it a little more special," he said. "The last time I made it was in '91 on Chesapeake Bay, so I have qualified for the two Classics that were closest to home. "
When Cowan was asked about the pressure associated with being a home-state favorite, he responded, "What pressure? I'm a Federation guy. They all say we can't win and if we do, they'll just say it's a miracle anyway. So there's no pressure."
Still, Cowan says there are a few fans who favor the underdogs.
"I hear I'm a favorite. That's what they're saying, but I had never fished those pools before until last week. Federation guys are always favorites because we have a bunch of fans — more so than the rookies, anyway."
Based on his practice performance, Cowan believes the fishing will be challenging. If so, he believes he has a good chance at the title.
"I fished the Ohio River before so I had a pretty good idea of what it was about," he said. "I pretty much found what I was looking for. I feel like I can catch into the teens … and (if the winning weight is) in the teens, I think I have a pretty good shot at winning. I can catch 3 to 6 pounds a day."
Meanwhile, Iaconelli has plenty of momentum, thanks to his blistering pace on the recently completed Bassmaster Elite 50 Tour.
"I think it's great having the Classic in Pittsburgh," he said. "I'm excited about it. This is as close to a home Classic as I'll ever have, especially with the Classic moving to February. It's as much a home fishery as I'm ever going to have."
Iaconelli, 33, admitted that what he hooked in practice didn't boost his confidence. But it didn't dampen his enthusiasm, either.
"The fishing was tough, but at the same time I think it was productive," he said. "A lot of it was not necessarily catching keepers; it involved learning the waters, learning what areas will have summertime conditions when we get back there. Just making some educated predictions about what's going to happen when we come back … That's the most important thing you can do with the Classic practice week."
The 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic will receive unprecedented coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 this year. A total of 15 ½ hours of programming will be devoted to Classic tournament coverage from July 29-31.