Old Joke: A lost Manhattan tourist approaches a New York City local and asks him "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The grizzled native responds, "Practice, practice, practice."
NEW ORLEANS -- Apparently, it's easier to play at Carnegie Hall than it is to win a Bassmaster Classic, because even a lengthy and perfect practice session is no guarantee of a Classic victory. Many of the top names in bass fishing have never claimed the title, despite their best attempts:
• Roland Martin qualified 25 times, finishing second once and fourth three times, but despite his nine Angler of the Year titles, his resume still lacks a Classic crown;
• Gary Klein is on the cusp of fishing his 29th Classic. Past results include a second-place finish in 2003 and five other top five finishes, but no victories;
• In 11 past attempts, Aaron Martens has finished second three times, earning him the less-than-desirable nickname "Deuce";
• Tommy Biffle has had 16 bites at the apple, but despite two runner-up finishes he still can't call himself a Classic winner.
Bill Dance never won it. Jimmy Houston never won it. It's possible to become a legend of the sport without winning a Classic, just as Dan Marino and Ernie Banks made their respective Hall of Fames without winning titles, but no one wants to go into retirement expecting to be asked, "Why didn't you ever win one?"
The cliché is that it's the easiest tournament to win, since it's a reduced field. Some anglers have taken advantage of that, saving their best performances for the world championship. For example, Kevin VanDam has won three of the 20 Classics he's fished, for a 15 percent winning percentage, twice the 7.5 percentage he has in all other BASS events (16 of 212).
Similarly, Rick Clunn's 12.5 winning percentage (4 of 31) in the Classic is more than four times his 10 for 331 (3 percent) in all other events. On top of that, there were seven Classic winners who never tasted victory in another BASS event -- Luke Clausen, Dion Hibdon, Bryan Kerchal, Robert Hamilton, Charlie Reed, Bo Dowden and Rayo Breckenridge.
So on the one hand, you can retire a superstar without ever tasting Classic victory, but on the other it's possible to win a world Championship while otherwise having a good but not great career. The following are 10 factors that must be considered, or tackled, in order to win the Bassmaster Classic:
It may sound silly, but you can't win if you don't get there.
The competition is so stiff at all levels -- from the Elites to the Opens to the Weekend Series to Federation Nation -- that one regular season foul-up, miscue or mechanical breakdown can spell the end of an angler's Classic chances for that year.
It's certainly possible to win on your first attempt -- eight anglers have done so, although just four after 1975 -- but with the exception of Bobby Murray (1971 and 1978), none have ever won the title again, despite multiple opportunities to do so.
Time management off the water
You hear it time and again from Classic rookies: "I had no idea how hectic it would be during Classic week."
Anglers used to being able to work into the night to restring reels, reorganize tackle and enjoy a certain amount of downtime are now shuttled from event to event, from one appearance to the next.
The Classic week is a carefully choreographed extravaganza, and the angler who doesn't work well within its confines is likely to suffer. Sleep is at a premium. Family time is limited. Woe is to the qualifier who allows the stresses of Classic week to affect his performance.
Time management on the water
In a tournament where "there's first place and then there's everyone else," one lost bite or one cast not taken can mean the difference between immortality and becoming an historical footnote.
Do you stay close and hope to maximize your fishing time or do you make a long run to try to get away from the crowds? This factor will play an outsized role in New Orleans, as it always has.
With the addition of the diversion canal, some suspect that the winning bag of fish is only a 15-minute boat ride away, while others still believe that 100-plus mile treks are necessary. That latter group must minimize boating time, avoid getting beached, take weather and fog into consideration, and make every cast count since they may only have a few hours to fish each day.
Anglers who've qualified for the Classic no doubt know how to take Mother Nature into account in developing their gameplan, but she is particularly relevant in a February Classic.
From wearing the proper clothing to figuring out how warming/cooling trends affect the movement of the fish, weather permeates every aspect of a contestant's effort.
At Toho in 2006, Luke Clausen overcame blinding storms on the last day to set a three-day weight record. In 1999 in New Orleans, Davy Hite dealt with crippling heat to catch 55 pounds of Delta bass.
In New Orleans, such conditions could make long boat runs painful. Even worse, a fog bank in the wrong spot could doom an angler's chances on the first day. A rainstorm could result in a sudden influx of cold, muddy water, shutting down an otherwise hot bite.
Do you stay where you know they live or do you bail for greener (and possibly closer) pastures?
A two-hour boat ride, part of which may go through the Gulf of Mexico, can be taxing. Imagine white-knuckling it the whole way and then having to get up and immediately get to work fishing. It's harder than it seems.
What about the sleep-deprived rookie who's on a winning area, but gets worn down over the course of the week and screws up a critical bite on Day Three? There goes immortality.
It's not just a matter of physical fitness. Diet, sleep and proper clothing all come into play.
VanDam is an aggressive, calorie-burning machine. Clunn has developed strong theories on diet. Why do you think they have seven Classic titles between them?
The rigors of Classic week, combined with the knowledge that the title and the $500,000 top prize can change your life permanently, have worn down more than one competent angler.
Each of the superstars have their own ways of coping -- Skeet Reese "meditates" to music in his truck in the morning, Clunn reads extensively about maximizing performance, KVD is the master of shutting out distractions -- while the also-rans always seem to have an excuse about spectators getting in the way, weather that didn't fit their gameplan or a big fish that ran the wrong way around a piece of rebar.
After Federation angler Bryan Kerchal won in 1994, four-time winner Clunn commented about how grounded the young angler seemed. Indeed, Kerchal bounced back from a last-place finish the year before to claim the victory. Apparently he had the temperment to forget the past and win.
Local anglers want to know how their heroes attack the local waters. Even under the best circumstances, this affects Classic performances.
In 1998, Denny Brauer knew that he wanted to fish shallow on High Rock Lake, but that spectators' electronics and boat wakes might disrupt his fish. Accordingly, he found an area that required a long idle over skinny water, thus reducing the spectators' impacts.
Early in his career, VanDam was tortured by well-wishers -- last year at Lay Lake he won because he found an area that he could effectively seal off to spectators. They were able to watch -- from their boats and even from shore -- but he marshalled them away from his sweet spots.
Other competitors, like Kevin Wirth, were not so lucky. Even though Wirth himself didn't have many dedicated followers, the area where he wanted to start each day was right where KVD's legions sat, thus forcing him to change his gameplan.
Even once you're off the water, spectators can make a difference. Paul Elias claimed he would have won one of the three James River Classics had fans not seen him fishing his most productive spot and then moved in at the close of the day to fish it.
One equipment breakdown can spell the end of a contender's chances. In New Orleans, an angler who knocks off a lower unit on his way to or from Venice is likely done.
GPS on the fritz? You may not get where you're going.
Matt Herren, obviously anticipating a rough and long ride, has replaced all of the screws on his boat with bolts. It's a tightrope walk, making sure you have everything you need, including backups, spares and tools, but not weighing down a boat that needs to maximize performance and gas efficiency.
But it's not just boating equipment that can fail. A bad spool of line can spell the most heartbreaking form of disaster. Foul-weather gear that doesn't live up to its billing can make for a miserable tournament and a less-than-perfect state of mind.
Fish management is key in any multi-day tournament, but it may come at a premium in the Classic.
Last year, most of the top competitors in the Lay Lake Classic spent at least some time in diminutive Beeswax Creek, and the fishing held up.
Other times, however, particularly when areas do not replenish, the first day leader ends up faltering, if nothing else then because he shared his water with another top stick.
Two years ago in Shreveport, close friends Brian Snowden and Jami Fralick shared a Red River backwater and finished third and eighth, respectively. Both believe that they might have won the event had they had the area to themselves.
Intangibles and flukes
Just because an angler has controlled those variables within his control doesn't mean that the Classic will come down simply to how well he fishes.
There are all sorts of other things beyond anyone's control. At an Ohio River Classic, Gary Klein had the winning catch in his livewell, but an altered lock schedule prevented him from getting back on time.
At a James River Classic, Jim Bitter had the winning fish in the boat, but while re-measuring it for his press observer's camera it flopped from his grasp and back into the water. He didn't fill out his limit that day.