- Tim Tucker
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There is no way around it: rookies in the Bassmaster Classic face a particular challenge that has little to do with fishing strategy.
That challenge involves avoiding getting so caught up in the hoopla and excitement of professional fishing's biggest event that it affects their on-the-water efforts.
Classic freshmen will find that boating spectators, a variety of distractions and the constant demands on their time become as much a strategic consideration as what lure to use or where to fish.
"I don't think anything can prepare you for your first Classic," four-time champion Rick Clunn said. "When you get there and see what a big deal the Classic is, it's easy to get all wide-eyed and forget the reason you're there, which is to catch fish."
Veteran Alabama pro was asked to outline the special challenges faced by first-timers at fishing's Big Show.
"It starts with just figuring out how to put all of that stuff in one bag," he said, referring to the limited amount of tackle that the Classic contenders can bring. "Really, it seems like such a simple thing, but trying to figure out how to pack can drive you crazy. My first couple of Classics, I stressed over that to the point I couldn't sleep, thinking what if I need this and what if I need that? I hadn't been put in that situation before.
"After five or six Classics you start thinking, to heck with it, I'll just take what I normally take. And if I have to throw a crankbait on a flipping stick, I will. You just get prepared to make those adjustments. But coming into it for the first time you want to do well so bad, you struggle with that decision.
"That will be one of their hardest challenges, figuring out what to bring, how to pack small, combine everything down. Then after that, it's the routine, the regiment of the Classic that's your biggest adjustment. People telling you exactly what time to get up, exactly what time to be on the bus, exactly when to eat supper. It's a little different.
"Then you'll deal with some distractions in between. You'll deal with the press more. You'll deal with fans more. So if you're not used to that, it can be a little overwhelming. If you're not careful, the last thing you think about at the Bassmaster Classic is fishing and it should be the first thing."
Fifteen anglers in the 50-man field will be fishing their first Classic at Lay Lake near Birmingham Feb. 23-25.
From the Bassmaster Elite Series: Bassmaster Angler of the Year runner-up Steve Kennedy, Auburn, Ala.; Jared Lintner, Arroyo Grande, Calif.; and Bill Lowen, Cincinnati, Ohio.
From the Bassmaster Tours: Derek Remitz, Madison, Ala.; Sam Lashlee, Camden, Tenn.; James Charlesworth, St. Cloud, Fla.; James Niggemeyer, Lindale, Texas; and Boyd Duckett. Demopolis, Ala.
From the BASS Federation Nation: national championship Royce Dennington, Barnsdall, Okla.; Brent Long, Catawba, S.C.; Terry McWilliams, Greenfield, Ind.; Kevin Waterman, Laplata, Md.; Chris Novack; Willington, Conn.; and Shigeru Tsukiyama, Tokyo.
From the ESPN Outdoors Weekend Series: Russell Colwell, Baltimore, Md.
So does being a first-timer carry an inherent disadvantage in the pursuit of fishing's most important title that cannot be overcome?
"I don't know if it's a big disadvantage, but there is a disadvantage experience wise because the Classic is a whole new realm of things," former Toyota Rookie of the Year Dave Wolak said. "It's like throwing yourself into the Super Bowl without ever having been there. It's definitely a shocker for individuals who aren't accustomed to being in the finals with all the press and things that are related to it.
"So the shock experience of it is a factor where as a guy like Clunn is going into it having been there, done that and won that several times. He's got a game plan in his head for handling the whole thing where (the rookies) are still dealing with the shock."
John Crews, competing in his third Classic at Lay Lake, believes that a newcomer's years of tournament experience can counter those rookie challenges in the upcoming world championship.
"I think it can be (a disadvantage), especially if it's your first year on Tour," he said. " (Dealing with off-the-water distractions) is a little bit of a challenge, but I think that also has to do with your personality. Some people's personalities lend themselves to being a little more susceptible to getting caught up in that kind of stuff."
One of the most seasoned rookies in this year's Classic is Steve Kennedy, a 37-year-old pro who has enjoyed considerable success on the rival FLW Tour while attempting for to qualify for the big leagues of BASS. Last season on the Elite Series, Kennedy went on a rampage, finishing fifth at Lake Amistad, fourth at Santee-Cooper Reservoir, third at Lake Guntersville and third at the Potomac River.
James Niggemeyer, a Classic rookie from Texas, believes that the anonymity of being a newcomer to the event should work to his advantage.
"I think it's actually an advantage because the spectator boats won't be following you nearly as much," he noted. "Kelly Jordon told me that no one is really expecting you to do well. Just go out and swing for the fences. Just do the best you can.
"I think in a way it can be an advantage, I guess, until the final day. Then if a guy is near the top, you're going to get noticed by the spectators. But the first two days I won't have nearly the boat traffic around me. I think that will be a good thing."