The right foot: A good start in the Elites is vital

A good start in any race is important, and even though the Bassmaster Elite Series is more of a marathon than a sprint, it's no exception.

With eight events in the regular season to determine the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year and 28 Bassmaster Classic berths for 2012, a strong season debut goes a long way to setting up a good season.

For starters, the angler who puts it all together on the Harris Chain (and again on the St. Johns River and at every other Elite stop this year) will earn a spot in the Bassmaster Classic. For the first time in several years, B.A.S.S. is awarding Classic berths for the winners of individual tournaments.

Gerald Swindle (winner of the first Southern Open) and Mark Tucker (winner of the first Central Open) have already punched their tickets for Shreveport pending their completion of those tournament circuits. Likewise, Kevin VanDam is in as the defending champion.

But there are other ways to get to the Classic via the Elites, and that's how most of the Classic qualifiers will get there. "All" they need to do is finish among the top 28 Elite anglers in the AOY points race.

Getting there is never easy, but a strong start helps. In five previous Elite seasons, 70 percent of those anglers who were in the top 10 at the end of the first tournament earned spots in the Classic. In every year but one (2009), the winner of that first event earned a berth.

But do you really need a top finish to make it to the Classic? No. Absolutely not, in fact.

In all five years of the Elite Series, an angler ranking 88th or worse in the first tournament ultimately qualified for the Classic, and in 2008 Greg Hackney finished dead last (109th) but still made it to the big dance at the end of the season.

Things are much tougher if your goal is an AOY title. In five previous Elite seasons, the ultimate AOY was never worse than 31st (Kevin VanDam in 2008) in the opening tournament. More often, they were much better. Mike Iaconelli was 16th after one event in 2006, Skeet Reese was ninth in 2007, KVD was eighth in 2009 and 29th in 2010 (though Reese was the AOY leader going into the postseason both years — 22nd and second, respectively).

There will be no postseason in 2011, so KVD will need to close things out during the eight-event regular season if he hopes to four-peat.

It should be a good year to be a Floridian. The last time the Elite Series opened with two Florida events (2008), then-rookie Bobby Lane led the AOY race after the first two stops, eventually finishing 15th. Terry Scroggins finished ninth in the AOY race, and the Sunshine State sent six representatives to the Classic. Those kinds of numbers aren't unusual for Texas or Alabama, but they're big for Florida.

There's nothing like little home cooking when the starting gun is about to go off.