Bubble is uncomfortable for Classic hopefuls

Texan Gary Klein sits in ninth place in the Elite 50 standings. 

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — Pressure is a byproduct of tournament angling. Even legendary anglers like Gary Klein and Larry Nixon are not immune to the pressure of qualifying for the CITGO Bassmaster Classic.

Both Nixon and Klein find themselves on the proverbial bubble going into the final Bassmaster Elite 50 event of the 2005 series, June 15-18, on Wisconsin's Lake Wissota. The two semi-finalists in ESPN's Greatest Angler Debate have 45 Classic appearances between them, but both need solid performances at Wissota if they're going to qualify for the 2005 Classic in Pittsburgh, July 29-31.

"Look at the standings," Klein said of the Elite 50 points race, which represents the last avenue anglers can qualify for the 2005 Classic. "It's pretty obvious how important Wissota is to a couple of guys. I try not to look at who is where, because I know if I go out and fish the way I'm capable of, everything will work out fine."

A glance at the standings shows just how precarious a position both anglers are in. With the top 10 anglers in the Elite 50 standings qualifying for the 2005 and 2006 Classics, Klein sits in ninth place while Nixon is only slightly more comfortable in sixth.

The competition for the top 10 is extremely tight as less than 30 points separate seventh and 12th place, and a poor finish at Wissota would knock either Nixon or Klein out of the hunt.

"It's always a year-long goal of mine to qualify for the Classic," Klein said. "You fish to compete in the Classic, which is the highest level that an angler can compete at. Anything less than that is a definite disappointment."

It's been a disappointing year thus far for Klein after finishing 85th in the CITGO Bassmaster Tour standings. Fortunately, he's had success during the Elite 50 season, finishing fifth at Lake Dardanelle and in the top 25 at both Smith Lake and Lake Lewisville.

"On some levels, it's been the worst year of my career," Klein said. "I felt like I was going to do a lot better coming in."

Making matters worse is the fact that, despite an incredibly successful career and more than $1 million in BASS winnings, Klein has never won the Classic. It's the only major achievement to elude him.

Much like Klein, Nixon has been tremendously successful. He has 14 BASS victories and the 1983 Classic championship to his name. Tasting victory like that only makes him hungrier for this year's championship.

"I had a tremendous time after winning the Classic in '83," Nixon said. "It's a huge boost for an angler's career."

Nixon hasn't fished in a Classic since 2002, but his Elite 50 success in 2005 allows him to control his own destiny at Wissota. He finished in the top 10 at Smith Lake and in the top five at Lake Lewisville.

"It's getting harder and harder for me to qualify for a Classic," Nixon said. "I have a good shot this year, but there are a bunch of great anglers who are ready to take my spot if I don't fish well.

"We could have a real close tournament on our hands, which should favor the smartest guys in the field. I think I qualify as one of those."