Give Marty Stone this: He's right when he says he doesn't run from the fact he's having the worst season of his 10-year professional angling career.
Stone, currently mired in 87th place in the Angler of the Year points race, went so far as to write "apology letters" to his sponsors. In return, he received letters from the likes of Advance Auto Parts, Mercury and BassCat assuring him that they still believed he would turn things around. That alone was as humbling as his lowest-earning year as a pro.
"It's like you're spinning your wheels in sand," Stone told ESPNOutdoors.com. "I have literally given every ounce of energy I have to finish in 87th place right now."
As the final event of the Bassmaster Elite Series, the Sunshine Showdown on Lake Tohopekaliga will determine a flotilla of end-of-the-year awards, and determine who is the best among the best.
Then there's the group for whom Toho is the last chance to turn around a season that some of the established anglers on the tour would otherwise prefer to finish as quickly as possible.
Dean Rojas fished until the final day on the second two Major events of the year, but after the 10 points events this season, he sits in 41st place — after finishing fifth in 2006.
Denny Brauer dropped this year from 14th to 57th thus far, and Russ Lane, from 15th to 70th.
Greg Gutierrez slipped from 46th, just a few spots shy of qualifying for the Classic, to 84th.
Any lower than that, and Elite Series anglers don't automatically re-qualify for the tour.
"This is the first year I've had to think about fighting my way to maintain my position in a league," said Gutierrez, a two-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier. "It's not like I didn't find fish. I just had one bad day a tournament: one good day, one bad day, one good day, one bad day. I started questioning my presentation, questioning my application of baits, trying to redo my hooksets. It just got into my head, I'm sure. I think I overthought the process, instead of just letting fishing be what fishing has always been for me — fun and fishing."
Every meltdown has a story, but Gutierrez' is particularly sour. After the third event of the season, a third-place finish at Clear Lake, Gutierrez found himself perched at 11th in the Angler of the Year standings. At that point, he said, he began to believe this might be a breakout year for him. "I played safe and fished for points," he said, "when I should have gone out to do well."
He finished 71st in the next event, at Clarks Hill Reservoir, and 73rd the following weekend, at Lake Guntersville. Then, before the next event, he practiced with a fishing buddy who had been staying for a few days on a houseboat on Smith Mountain Lake. That violated BASS rules, and Gutierrez was disqualified before the tournament began.
"I didn't realize I made a casual error," he said. "I even questioned it then. I was going, 'There's no way.' It's not a poorly written rule. It wasn't [tournament director] Trip [Weldon] being a bad guy. It was Greg misreading the rule."
That goose egg dropped him from 34th in the standings to 66th.
"Unfortunately," he said, "the punishment levied on me was severe."
The reasons for other declines are harder to pinpoint. Gerald Swindle, the 2004 Angler of the Year and 13th in the points last season, finds himself in 49th at the moment, on the outside of a Classic berth looking in. Even though it wasn't a points event, missing another cut at the Bassmaster Legends tournament in Russellville, Ark., last month affected Swindle, who began 2007 by getting disqualified from the Classic and never seemed to recover fully.
"I've had like three or four tournaments in a row where I lost a couple of big fish and I don't know what's going on," he said behind the weigh-in stage at Lake Dardanelle. "I was catching them all this morning, everything's looking good. I started culling, I get me a 3-pounder on, I fight him up to the boat — my freakin' drag's locked on my reel. He breaks my line right when I'm trying to lift him.
"Like two casts later, I get a 4-pounder on a popper jumping three or four times? I jump him off at the boat. I told my guy, I said, 'I'm fixin' to freakin' have a meltdown.' I said, 'I'm about tired of all this [stuff] going everybody else's way.'"
Stone's lousy 2007 season is more similar to Swindle's than to Gutierrez'. The 2005 Angler of the Year runner-up fell to 63rd last year, and unless he improves to at least 84th, he won't automatically qualify for the Elite Series tour next season.
"I have not been able to get a break," Stone said. "I have yet to weigh in a 6-pound fish this year. And look where we've been."
What galls him most is that this year, he said, has been the most dedicated of his career. Never before has he practiced more or studied fisheries harder. Further, his equipment and sponsorships have never been stronger. "I've never had it this good ever in my career," he said. "It should be just Cadillacing for me. And I've had this year."
One misstep he has observed in himself to overcome? Five times this year, he said, he has avoided water that he knew other anglers would be fishing. At other times, he fished to get an abundance of small bites rather than five great fish.
"No one at the end of the day is holding that rod and making decisions in the boat but me," he said. "I'm going to take care of the only things that I can control — the attitude and the energy I put into this sport. When I quit feeling like I can win, I'll walk away. And I haven't lost that feeling yet.'
Swindle likewise said he's trying to think happy despite his dismay.
"Something good's gonna eventually happen," he said. "I don't think it's a mindset. I'm not negative. It's just one of those years. If I was a drag racer, I'd be having a flat every time we went on the field, burning the clutch up or something.
"The biggest thing is not to get down. It would be real easy to just go ahead and say the year's lost, let's hang it up. But I can't do that. Every day you think, well, today's the day I'm going to make that one big thing happen."
Realistically, Swindle's fishing to make the cut for the Classic. Gutierrez, on the other hand, will be fishing for his BASS career. A full-time firefighter, Gutierrez has to designate his 2008 vacation days at the end of October. Working his way back to the Elite Series through other tournaments may be an obstacle that, with family and his day job, he may not be able to accomplish.
"You're talking about 110 people fishing at the top of the world," he said. "There are millions of people who dream about being there every dadgum weekend. I'm not any different from them."