COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. Something major is brewing in the midst of the fifth CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series stop on Clarks Hill Lake. Tensions are tighter, pressure can be felt around the docks and urgency can be heard in the tone of angler's voices.
Why all the commotion? The Pride of Augusta tournament is the last qualifying stop before the first ever Bassmaster Major - the Bassmaster Memorial in Fort Worth, Texas, May 18-21.
A total of 51 anglers will be vying for the top prize of $250,000 at the no-entry fee event on Eagle Mountain Lake. It also marks the first time a regular-season BASS event will receive national television coverage on ESPN2 the same day of the tournament.
"It's a great bonus event, and it's one you can just roll the dice on and try to knock them out of the park," expressed Mark Menendez who qualified through a medical exemption. "I'm really looking forward to it and it should be a lot of fun."
The qualifying process is a rigorous one. There are basically three avenues of entrance to the Bassmaster Majors.
Four of the spots will be given to positions held from last year's tournament trail and this year's events. The 2005 Bassmaster Classic champion, Kevin VanDam, the 2005 Angler of the Year, Aaron Martens, the 2005 Rookie of the Year, Dave Wolak, and the 2006 Rookie of the Year leader, which is currently Steve Kennedy.
"Until yesterday I thought that I wasn't qualified," said a surprised Dave Wolak. "I'm really excited about it and I think it's great. I haven't got any of the paperwork yet, but I'm looking forward to fishing them."
The next ten spots in the Major go to the names on the all-time Top 10 Money List. From top to bottom this familiar list of anglers includes Denny Brauer, Rick Clunn, Gary Klein, Shaw Grigsby, Davy Hite, Zell Rowland, Takahiro Omori, Michael Iaconelli, Peter Thliveros, and Alton Jones.
The remaining 37 competitors will be drawn from the most up-to-date Angler of the Year standings over a three-year average. Most competitors view the Angler of the Year title as the number one goal to reach during the season. Sure a $100,000 might help with a few things around the house, but these guys want to be the most consistent fisherman on the planet.
But to be consistent in not only one year, but in 2004, 2005, and 2006 is the reason why these guys are dubbed Elite and why this tournament is truly Major.
This is why the Elite Series in Columbia County is going to be a crucial turning point midway through the season for many of the angler's careers.
"I have been thinking about it a ton for the last week," admitted Stephen Browning who is outside the bubble looking in. "I knew after I fell out in Guntersville I stumped my toe a little bit, but the thing is I didn't fall as badly as I thought I did. You fish your way out and then you fish your way back in, that's how it goes. It has been playing a big role in my thought process all week."
Charley Hartley, who is currently holding onto the 36th position in the standings, knows he has to perform on the water this week to solidify his spot in the Major.
"It is definitely weighing in on my mind," stated Hartley. "I always felt that when you were invited to a tournament where you didn't have to pay to fish for that kind of money, then you are really a pro. Hopefully I will do well; I want to make those majors so bad. If I don't make it that means I've got to go back and work for a week, which is not good."
Like the Classic, the three Majors will showcase an indoor ESPN Outdoors Expo. There will be plenty to do for the entire family including interactive games, casting contests, and vendor booths with all the latest in fishing and outdoor gear.
The weigh-ins are planned to be drive-through as well, where the 51 anglers can show off their Elite boat wraps and sponsors.