For the 50 contenders, the 2008 Bassmaster Classic on South Carolina's Lake Hartwell has already begun.
The anglers hit the water Tuesday through Thursday for three official practice days, their first look at the water since the off-limits period began Dec. 15, and their last chance to whip their game plans into shape before the start of the Feb. 22–24 Classic.
The full field will compete Feb. 22 and 23 before the top 25 face off on the final day for the $500,000 first-place prize and coveted title of 38th Bassmaster Classic champion. Daily weigh-ins will be at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C. Doors will open at 3:30 p.m. ET, and admission is free.
Practice days are for scouting, and what most contenders discovered were cooler-than-expected water temperatures and gusting wind that made boat positioning a challenge. A cold front moved in Tuesday — the low Wednesday morning was 29 — keeping bass in deep water. That leaves a big question mark for contenders who planned to tap into productive shallow-water techniques next week.
"I had a shallow pattern developed and I had some deep fish," said defending Classic champion and Bassmaster Elite Series pro Boyd Duckett of Demopolis, Ala. "There's no indication of fish moving up, but with this weather front, it's really difficult to say what will happen during competition.
"I'm pleased that the fish I found in early December are still there. I'm not getting as many bites as I'd like — I don't know if it's the effect of the cold front or what — but some are quality fish."
Elite pro Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., the reigning Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, said his practice days were his first close look at Hartwell.
"I spent two hours here back in September. I didn't even fish, I just drove around the lake real quick," he said. "The lake's lower, so it looks a lot different. I don't think the fishing's good, by any means. You have to work awfully hard to get a bite. I'm still hunting, trying to find that glory spot."
Reese said his best guess is that next week's conditions won't vary from what he saw during practice.
"We have another cold front coming in that's not going to help the bite at all, especially for the shallow fish," he said. "The cold front is just going to push the fish back some more, so I feel the tournament's going to be won on a deep, wintertime pattern."
Also on the water Wednesday, Elite pro Casey Ashley of Donalds, S.C., was contending with 25 mph wind gusts when he answered his cell phone.
"The fishing is a little tougher," he said, having to repeat himself over the noisy wind. "It's probably because of the cold fronts coming through.
"Some of my fish are still where they were when I scouted the lake, and some are on the move. Maybe next week we'll catch some deep and some shallow. It's just hard to tell right now, but I think conditions will change big-time for everybody."
Ashley is one of two Classic contenders from South Carolina. The other home-state contender is Lake Wylie's Todd Auten, also an Elite pro.
Official sponsors for the 2008 Bassmaster Classic include: Toyota Tundra, Advance Auto Parts, Berkley, Lowrance, Mercury, Purolator, Skeeter and Yamaha.