SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Todd Faircloth looked like he'd seen a ghost after he was the first angler across the weigh-in stage Thursday at the Bassmaster Elite Series Champion's Choice presented by Ramada Worldwide.
But the 33-year-old Jasper, Texas, native must have looked even worse two hours earlier, when he had only one bass in his livewell at 3 p.m. Faircloth just knew that his 21-point lead in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race was history.
"I said this morning that Angler of the Year can't be won today, but it can be lost," Faircloth recalled. "That's what was going through my mind. I felt like — with one fish at 3 o'clock — I had lost Angler of the Year."
However, Faircloth managed to fill out a five-bass limit in the next 90 minutes. And while those five bass weighed only 10 pounds, 9 ounces, they were just 4 ounces fewer than the limit Kevin VanDam weighed-in a few minutes later.
"Every time that Todd has opened the door for me, I haven't been able to capitalize on it," VanDam said.
By finishing three places ahead of Faircloth in Thursday's standings, theoretically, VanDam was able to shave six points off Faircloth's lead. But the 2008 TTBAOY race may come down to Friday on Oneida Lake.
By being in 59th and 62nd places, respectively, VanDam and Faircloth are on the verge of missing the top-50 cut, which takes place after Friday's weigh-in.
In essence, Thursday's rain-soaked day on the lake was a wash in the TTBAOY race.
"That's a bad thing," VanDam said. "It's one less day."
A single bass caught by either man Friday could very well decide the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race and the $250,000 cash prize that goes to the champion. In this, the 11th tournament of the season, the most prestigious trophy in professional bass fishing could come down to one day and one fish.
"One or two bites makes all the difference in the world," VanDam said. "I'm going to go out there and swing at them again tomorrow."
A glance up and down the Day One Champion's Choice leaderboard quickly reveals how important one good bite can be. If VanDam could have replaced one of his 2-pounders with a 4-pounder, he would have jumped 20 places in the standings to 39th place with 12-13.
Under the same circumstances, Faircloth would have moved up 21 places to 41st place with 12-9.
But Faircloth was simply relieved to have escaped a disaster. Just 2 pounds fewer and he would have dropped 28 places to 90th place.
Faircloth truly would have lost the TTBAOY race Thursday if he hadn't been able to scratch out a limit in the final two hours. Only 10 anglers in the 106-man field failed to catch a limit.
"I thought I had two or three really good deep spots that had a lot of potential on them," Faircloth said. "Tuesday (during practice) I pulled up to them and caught 3- and 4-pounders real quick.
"I just backed off of them, idled around and saw there were a lot more fish on those spots. I felt really good about it."
"That just told me right away there was a big group of fish there," he said. "I never had a bite. I fished it two different times.
"My deep fish just did not cooperate today. I don't know if it was because we didn't have any sunshine to get them down there on those rocks real good. I could see them on my graph, but I could not get them to bite.
"I'm still puzzled about that."
Faircloth moved to shallow water in filling out his limit Thursday afternoon. With more rain and clouds expected Friday, he planned to start shallow.
"I'm definitely going to fish shallow early and see if I can catch a limit doing that," he said. "Maybe later in the afternoon, I'll go back to that deep stuff.
"I know there's the potential for me to catch 16 to 18 pounds out there. I saw that in practice. But if they don't bite, you can't catch them."
The best thing going for Faircloth is that VanDam, three-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year from Kalamazoo, Mich., is just is puzzled as he is.
"This is for all the marbles," VanDam said. "Today was the worst day I've had all week.
"I'm just blown away by how the fish treated me today. They were not nice to me."
The mark to keep your eye on Friday is 50th place, which three anglers now share at 12 pounds even. Based on Day One, the Day Two top-50 cut weight would be 24 pounds.
If neither Faircloth nor VanDam can make the top cut, the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race will be decided Friday. If VanDam squeaks into the top 50 and Faircloth doesn't, Friday night will be the longest of Todd Faircloth's life.
VanDam still has to overcome that 21-point deficit to win the TTBAOY title. But it would be hard to bet against him if Faircloth's boat were on his trailer Saturday and VanDam still had another day to fish Oneida Lake.
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Champion's Choice with weigh-in host Keith Alan, Aug. 3-10, 2008. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 5:00 p.m. ET. On Saturday, catch "Bassmaster University" at 4:15 p.m. ET before the weigh-in. Then on Sunday, get "Hooked Up" with hosts Tommy Sanders and Mark Zona at 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. ET. Live JWC weigh-in video starts at 5 p.m. ET with the final weigh-in and real-time leaderboard of the season starting at 7:30 p.m. ET.