The official tournament waters for the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer change yearly and can range from the massive wilderness known as the Louisiana Delta to sedate Lake Wylie situated in the shadow of metropolitan Charlotte.
The weather during Classic week has ranged from still, humid sweat fests to wind-blown waters created by the front edge of a tropical storm. And the Classic field changes considerably each time.
What does not change, however, is the mixed bag of results and opinions that always originates from the completion of the five-day official scouting session on Classic waters each year. And that is certainly true of this year's Classic.
In preparation for the 34th Classic July 30-Aug. 1 on Lake Wylie, the 53 Classic contenders recently completed their first practice for the sport's most important event. The pros found the 12,455-acre impoundment in an unusual state - high and heavily stained from recent rainfall. The lake level was high enough to inundate adjacent lawns. That might have impacted the level of useful knowledge that the visiting pros accrued during their scouting forays.
Predictably, a small sampling of the results of that practice brought a variety of results and predictions.
Reigning Classic champion Michael Iaconelli of New Jersey: "My Classic practice was good, really good. It's almost kind of eerie. It's the second Classic in a row where I feel really good about my practice period. I had three superb practice days and two pretty good ones out of the five. I'm just real happy. I'm in the same mode I was in last year. I feel good going into it.
"There were some differences. I did not find what I would call a magical area like I had last year at the Classic. What I did find, though, was what you want to find with any practice, which is multiple patterns. What I call A, B, and C. I definitely found what I consider a primary pattern as well as a secondary pattern and a third pattern that is going to be my backup emergency deal. Anytime you go a place and you leave feeling good about three different things, that's a real good deal.
"One of the things I tried to do in practice was not only find fish and find areas, but I tried to get a real good look at those specific locations so I could say to myself, 'OK, they're here now, but what's going to happen to these fish in a month?' And I did that. It's a small enough lake where you can spend that extra time really analyzing the spots."
Unlike his winning area (a hidden slough on the Louisiana Delta) in last year's Classic, Iaconelli acknowledges that Lake Wylie does not lend itself to such well-concealed, bass-filled sanctuaries.
"That's the big difference. Last year, you could find a magical spot. You could go there and be by yourself and not see another boat for a week. Here, I don't think there are any of those spots. I don't know that there are any hidden, magical spots here. So it's going to be a little bit different.
"But by the same token, you have to go out and find the patterns. You have to find the baits that are working. You have to have confidence in those things. And I left that practice with a lot of confidence. Man, I'm stoked. It's a month away, but I wish it was tomorrow."
Three-time Classic qualifier Chris Baumgardner of North Carolina (a local favorite): "It went pretty well, about like expected. I fished shallow and deep. They were biting in both places. I think the shallow bite was a little better, actually. But that's because the water was up.
"I really struggled on how to practice out there. I know this lake so well, I didn't want to run to spots where I knew (the fish) would be because I didn't want to be seen. I fished a little bit of (his best spots), but I held off on a lot of it. I'd kind of sneak in and fish some of it. I had some locals following me around a little bit, but I don't know if anybody else was watching me. I had a few spots I'd liked to have checked, but I didn't want anybody to see me."
Baumgardner thinks that the unusually high water limited the helpful knowledge that his Classic competitors garnered during the practice session.
"It probably threw them off a little bit. When they come back it's going to be down probably. I would think that would be good for me. I would hope so. You never know."
Seven-time Classic qualifier Bernie Schultz of Florida: "It was pretty tough. There was a shallow-water bite because of high water and a lot of rain that proceeded the practice period. But I didn't devote a whole lot of time to that because I didn't believe that would be the way to win the tournament when we return.
"I devoted most of my time to offshore structure, and it was pretty fruitless. I didn't catch hardly anything out there. I still believe that's the way to win the tournament unless we have some kind of tropical weather where some kind of low pressure moves over the lake just before Classic time and floods it. The fish will go shallow if they get the opportunity. They proved that to me. That's the one thing I did learn. And quality fish will go shallow.
"I had previous experience on the lake catching fish deep years ago with a lot of success, but it didn't fish the way I was familiar with it. I thought I could get some structure stuff going, and it just didn't pan out. They had 6 to 8 inches of rain just before we got there and it was stained. That put a lot of fish shallow that normally would not be shallow. That kind of messed up the structure fishing. I never could locate any kind of good structure bite at all - and I think that's how it will be won"
Five-time Classic qualifier Skeet Reese of California: "My Classic practice was fine. I went in there not wanting to do a lot of actual fishing. I spent a lot of time trying to find some potential structure for an outside bite. I drove around and looked at a lot of different docks.
"It's a pretty self-explanatory lake. I don't think it will be real difficult to put together a pattern and catch some fish. Now, whether you pinpoint certain docks that have bigger fish, that's going to be the whole key, or a certain piece of outside structure to catch a 5-pounder. It's going to be a real interesting tournament, but I think as far as being able to pattern fish and put something together I think a lot of guys are going to at least have fun catching fish.
"But I didn't want to spend a lot of time really trying to catch fish just for the fact that I didn't want to leave there with too many preconceived notions that I can run here and catch them or there and catch them. The lake's going to change quite a bit due to the fact that it was about 2 1/2 feet high when we were there and had a lot of color in the upper part of the lake, which is historically rare from what I understand. So spending that much time fishing and trying to get on an area didn't make that much sense because I feel like it's all going to change by the time we get to the Classic. Every year it does, even if the conditions are relatively close to the same. By the time you go back a month later, the fish have repositioned and are doing different things."
Popular Florida pro Shaw Grigsby returns to action in this week's ESPN Great Outdoor Games where he will defend his gold medal in the fishing competition. It marks his first tournament since enduring triple-bypass surgery and a gall bladder operation since mid-May.
Grigsby, who has won the gold medal the last two years, will be one of four athletes featured Great Outdoor Games telecasts that begin Wednesday at 9 ET/8 CT.
In the special feature, Grigsby, his wife, Polly, and personal physician George Benchimol discuss his surprise at discovering a serious heart condition that ended his Bassmaster Elite 50 series and required immediate surgery.
"Fishing is such a part of my life," Grigsby says in the report. "I've been bass fishing all my life and competing in the tournaments since 1984. So when you have that many years out there … it's like a second family. So when you leave that behind it's a part of your life that's gone.
"It's something I'm really looking forward to, getting back, casting, being with the guys, waking up at 4 a.m., getting out at the boat ramp, tying my lures, there's so much of the process of being a professional angler, and I miss it all. I'm living a very blessed life, of course, I fish for a living, so I live a very blessed life."
You might not have noticed it, but there were actually two winners in the Jones family at the Bassmaster Elite 50 series finale in Paducah, Ky.
Not only did Alton Jones win the event but his 10-year-old daughter Kristen won her age division of the Bassmaster CastingKids contest held in conjunction with the tournament.
Did you know?
Texas will send the most anglers to Classic XXXIV with 10, followed by Missouri (six). Florida and Arkansas are next with four.
Texan Randy Dearman turns 57 on July 16. Classic contender Kevin Wirth will be 44 on July 20, while venerable Rick Clunn will blow out 58 candles four days later. On the opposite end of the age spectrum, Texas pro Todd Faircloth celebrates his 29 birthday on July 25.
If I hadn't become a BASS pro
Todd Faircloth says he would likely be working in construction.
They said it
I never bought into the American philosophy of retirement. Even as a kid, I never understood why people quit life all of a sudden. After I grew up I realized that maybe they were in a job that they didn't like and they wanted to spend the rest of their life doing something else. Then I watched several of my relatives retire and basically give up on life. It never made sense to me. I guess I'm more of the Oriental philosophy that you should be productive and continue to grow until the day you die. And what better vehicle for me to do it with than fishing, which I love and it is just as fascinating to me now as it has ever been.
Four-time Classic champion Rick Clunn's thoughts on retiring from the sport of professional fishing.
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.