PITTSBURGH When BASS founder Ray Scott established the CITGO Bassmaster Classic in 1971, one of his goals was to create a world-championship tournament with a level playing field on waters that posed a healthy challenge.
Fishing from identically rigged Triton boats with Mercury outboards, the 46 top Bassmaster anglers compete in the Classic under regulations that give each the same shot at winning the sport's biggest title. And after sampling the fishing in the Three Rivers area during the official five-day scouting period last week, anglers realize they are likely to be challenged during the 35th annual Classic in Pittsburgh, July 29-31.
And that adds to the intrigue of Classic XXXV.
The pros have nearly 100 miles of water to attack in pursuit of enough largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass to take the $200,000 winner's purse and earn the title and prestige of Classic champion. After five days on the rivers, anglers now know what to expect when the Classic arrives in three weeks.
Some left Pittsburgh discouraged and baffled, but relieved to have time to analyze their practice efforts before returning.
"I don't think practice was particularly good for anybody," 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle said. "Some guys caught three keepers a day and they're probably ahead of the game. Some guys weren't catching any. Even if you catch five keepers, they won't weigh a total of 5 pounds. They're as skinny as Kevin Wirth.
"But we're going to crown a winner regardless of the fishing. That's important to remember."
"For me, it was pretty lousy," added Aaron Martens, the reigning Angler of the Year. "It's the worst Classic practice I've ever had. For the first time, I don't know where I'm going to fish in the Classic."
Veteran Missouri pro Stacey King, who is preparing for his 11th Classic appearance, reported that his best day produced three keeper bites. Still, it was time well spent. King says he learned to negotiate the rivers and narrowed down the waters to three probable starting points for the Classic. He will use the lone practice day during Classic week to visit one or two of those spots to further fine-tune his plans.
Meanwhile, four-time Classic champion Rick Clunn doesn't necessarily believe the complaints and dismal reports coming out of practice week. In the past, some of the pros have been known for sandbagging in pre-Classic days, said Clunn.
"I detected a little underlying (current) that some guys had better practices than what everybody was complaining about," he said. "I didn't do real well in practice, but the fishing was … not my style of fishing. It's setting up to be more of an Aaron Martens type tournament a real finesse-type thing."
One Classic contender with no complaints was former Kentucky Derby jockey Kevin Wirth. The 42-year-old pro admitted enjoying a good practice highlighted by a day that produced a 13-pound, five-bass limit anchored by a 4 1/2-pound smallmouth.
Still, Swindle will be praying for rain during the next three weeks.
"The thing that might help is if they got some rain and the water came up, because there's not a lot of current in the rivers right now," he said. "They're low and clear.
"If they got enough rain to bring the rivers up without making it high and muddy and out of its banks which would be horrible and if it got up enough to get the current moving, the bass would get on structure and guys could pick them off."
The 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic will receive unprecedented coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 this year. A total of 15 ½ hours of programming will be devoted to Classic tournament coverage from July 29-31.