Rookies reshuffle

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PARIS, Tenn. — Bobby Lane, last year's Elite Series Rookie of the Year, seems to have found his mojo this week at the SpongeTech Tennessee Triumph on Kentucky Lake.

Last year he captured 29-1 in two days here en route to a 58th-place finish. Wednesday, he surpassed that total with a 29-14 limit and Thursday he added another 24-09 to maintain his lead over Kevin VanDam and the rest of the field.

Clearly he's learned something over the past 12 months. If nothing else, the additional year of seasoning has made him an even more formidable competitor wherever he goes.

While Lane made it look easy at times during his 2008 tour campaign, life in the big leagues can require a major attitude adjustment the first few years — anglers go from being big fish in the relatively small pond of the Opens to small fish in the biggest bass lake in the world, the Elite Series.

For the first half of the 2009 season, many assumed it was a foregone conclusion that Alabama's Matt Herren would be this year's top rookie and possibly a contender for the Angler of the Year title. But after earning three checks in the season's first four events, including two top 12 finishes, Herren seems to have hit a wall lately.

He finished 83rd at Lake Guntersville and 57th here at Kentucky Lake. With two events left in the regular season, his focus has changed from trying to stay in the top 12 overall to making sure he qualifies for next year's Bassmaster Classic.

Herren is at a loss to explain what has changed for him and doesn't intend to alter his fishing style.

"I'm fishing well," he said. "I can't change. I'm catching too many fish. I just have to fight through it."

But as Herren struggles to get back on his feet, other rookies seem to have found solid footing. Heading into this tournament, fellow Alabamian Greg Vinson was 20 places behind Herren in the standings.

Unlike Herren, though, he'll get to fish a third competition day this week. He's currently in 31st place with 37-11. That's less than 6 pounds out of the top 12 cut. He's been consistent so far, posting limits that weighed 19-8 and 18-3, respectively, but he'll probably need to improve on that if he's going to make that surge and qualify for his second Elite Series Day Four appearance.

Other than Vinson, only two rookies remain in the hunt for a Day Four slot, and the one who seems to have the best chance is Georgia's J Todd Tucker, who has put together nearly identical 22 pound plus sacks to claim 11th place heading into Day Three.

Up until now, Tucker has been something of a stealth candidate for top rookie honors. While he claimed three checks in the first five events, the best of the bunch was a 26th-place showing at Smith Mountain Lake. While he'd like to earn the honor of top rookie, he has bigger fish to fry.

"That's not as important to me as making the Classic," he said. "That's the biggest thing to me. The most important thing is to fish as consistently as I can."

Despite a 78th-place stumble at Lake Guntersville, Tucker seems to be improving as some of the other first-year Elites fade. Some of that may be attributable to the company he keeps, which includes another past Rookie of the Year, Steve Kennedy.

"Steve has taught me how to catch bigger fish," Tucker said. "When you hang around these guys and they beat you every day, it forces you to get better."

Despite a well-honed networking ability, Tucker may have made something of a rookie mistake Thursday when he loaned Kennedy the bait that enabled his friend to catch the biggest limit of the day, a bag that weighed 26-14. That enabled Kennedy to jump up from outside the money all the way into 10th place — one spot above Tucker.

"J Todd gave me a bait as we were going out this morning and I thought to myself, 'That's too big for where I'm fishing,'" Kennedy said.

But after an hour and a half in his area with only two keepers to show for his efforts, Kennedy took the rookie's advice, started casting the big bait, and caught three fish over five pounds in his first three casts. It appears that sometimes the rookies can teach the vets a thing or two.

While Tucker's generosity may prove to hurt him in the short term if Kennedy makes it to Saturday and he does not, both of them believe that no matter what happens, the good karma will return to him at some point.

"You have to have your own little circle," Kennedy said. "I don't think there are too many guys out here who can do it all on their own."

So perhaps the lesson to be learned as an angler matures is not whether to trust others, but rather who specifically they can trust.

Dave Wolak, another former Rookie of the Year, said that savvy rookies will learn additional lessons as they get more and more major league experience. He characterized his inaugural season success as the result of "a couple of fortunate decisions" and said that since then his on-the-water performance has benefitted from a number of off-the-water adjustments.

"I don't focus exclusively on fishing anymore," Wolak said. "I try to balance my life better. I was a little selfish back then. Now I make a lot more time for my family and for things like exercising."

That increased balance has made his on-the-water vision more focused. He's currently in 36th place with 36-10, a stark difference from last year's 92nd-place disaster.

"When I first got out here I wasn't used to ledge fishing," Wolak said. "This is my first check at Kentucky Lake and it's because I devoted my entire practice to fishing ledges. I knew if you go to the bank you're basically giving up. Last year I would've gone in and tried to catch a few on a wacky worm or something like that, but now I know you can't even take a check on the bank, let alone win."

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