Until 1994, the Federation Nation anglers were just a footnote in the Bassmaster Classic history books. In fact, from 1973 until 1980, the Federation Nation was easily overlooked, represented by only one angler each year.
A young man by the name of Bryan Kerchal changed all of that in 1994. By a mere 4 ounces, Kerchal managed to defeat Tommy Biffle to claim the world championship of bass fishing for the Federation. Tragically, Kerchal was killed in a plane crash not long after his victory, but his legend was cemented as the only angler from the Federation Nation ever to win the Bassmaster Classic.
Since that time, only Dalton Bobo has come close to matching Kerchal's feat, falling one ounce shy of the victory in 1997 after a dead fish penalty. That penalty likely lost him a future career as well, only recording one top 10 finish in BASS events since that Classic.
The Federation Nation has also been the launching ground for several productive careers with BASS. Mike Iaconelli started with the New Jersey Federation Nation and qualified for the 1999 Bassmaster Classic on the Louisiana Delta, where he finished in sixth place.
Four years later, the Delta would be the location for one of the most passionate victories in Classic history as "Ike" screamed the praises of "Never give up!"
More recently, Terry McWilliams made a run for the Classic title in 2007 after boating a 17-pound, 6-ounce bag of spotted bass from Lay Lake to close out the tournament. McWilliams ended up in fourth place after Boyd Duckett made a big final-day charge on his home-state water.
Last year on Lake Hartwell, the Federation Nation anglers didn't fare as well. None of the six qualifiers made the cut to fish on the final day, with Oregon's Mike Baskett coming closest in 26th place.
As the 39th Bassmaster Classic approaches, the Federation Nation qualifiers, all of whom are making their first appearances in the big show, wonder if this will be the year they etch their name in Classic history.
Hometown: Londonderry, N.H.
Occupation: Web developer/marketing specialist
Distance from Shreveport: 1,674 miles
Strengths: Power fishing
Weaknesses: Fishing in crowds
Scott Parker has been on a crash course with the Bassmaster Classic ever since he was a kid, when he dressed up as Larry Nixon for career day in elementary school. At the time, when he tried to explain that he wanted to fish for a living, he was laughed out of the classroom.
"The Federation Nation is a must if you are a blue-collar, working-for-a-living angler who wants to try and make the Classic," Parker said. "I'm a big believer because of the youth program. If I knew that there was a casting contest when I was a kid I would have driven hundreds of miles to compete."
Since his classroom escapade, life has thrown Parker a few curveballs, but after fishing the Federation Nation since the age of 16, he finally qualified for bass fishing's big show.
The road to qualification was challenging, with the Federation Nation Championship being held on Milford Lake in Kansas during November. The conditions were almost too much for the field, with strong winds and cold temperatures shutting off the bite completely.
"It was probably the toughest tournament BASS has ever held," Parker said. "There were a lot of anglers that never had a bite all week. Fortunately, I had a pattern that didn't depend on the weather and I slowed down and fished for 3-4 bites a day."
His pattern revolved around fishing boat ramps. He would hunker down and fish one for extended periods of time, knowing that a couple of fish would go far. His 6-pound, 10-ounce total put him in second place in the tournament and he easily outdistanced the rest of the Eastern division.
That was his third Federation Nation Championship, and it was a redemption of sorts after he lost a key fish in his last championship at the Harris Chain in 2006 that probably cost him a shot at qualifying.
"You can't stub your foot," Parker said. "There is a lot of talent on this level and for two years you have to be fishing at your best. Some people think it is even harder than the Elites to make it to the Classic, because in the federation, you have to win, you have to be the top guy to even have a chance."
Even if he had to take a longer route to get to the Classic, Parker knows he has to continue to fish at a high level to have a chance at competing in Shreveport. He carried that attitude into his practice before the off-limit period began in mid-December.
"I was the last guy there as far as I know," he said. "I didn't fish, but rode the boat around and focused on getting in and getting out of places. This is a very nasty, dangerous place and I don't want to tear anything up. I wanted to make sure I could navigate the river safely."
When the Classic rolls around, the water level will play a big part in the eventual outcome. His self-stated weakness is fishing in crowds, and if the area receives a significant amount of rain, it might significantly reduce the availability of clear water. If that decreases the playing field, Parker still feels he will be able to stand up and defend his water.
"At the end of the day it is just fishing. It's the fish you are after and trying to get bit. You gotta make the bites happen," Parker said. "That said, I know enough about how to protect water and regular fishing etiquette, but it will still be a little intimidating when these guys are breathing down your neck."
Parker insists that the best weather would be for it to stay cold in the days leading up to the tournament. A warming trend could bring a large group of fish to the shallows and make them easier for the whole field to catch. A winter tournament would keep the fish in a staging pattern which would give Parker the benefit of replenishing fish.
He has staked out some traditional spots where the bass gang up in late winter and early spring and he is hoping that most of the other anglers skip right over those areas on the way to the bank. Parker is counting on the fact that the deeper fish, staging in 6-8 feet of water, will hold up better over three days than the shallow fish will, especially if they get pounded.
"I know how this game works and you need a lot of things to go right," Parker said. "If anything, I would say I represent the majority of hard-working, blue-collar fishermen out there."
Hometown: Villa Rica, Ga.
Occupation: Electrical engineer
Distance from Shreveport: 565 miles
Strengths: Shallow water target fishing
Weaknesses: Fishing in crowds
As an electrical engineer, Pittman has been fortunate enough to have an understanding boss that lets him take time off. In fact, in another three years or so, he would even like to try to make a go of it on the Elite Series level. That has to wait until his children get out of high school.
"Doing well at the Classic would at least get my name out there so I can have a chance at getting sponsors to help me get into some of the regional tournaments like the Bassmaster Opens," Pittman said.
His road to the Classic was a matter of skill and then survival. It was a long two years qualifying for the Federation Nation Championship, and when it came around, the conditions were so brutal, that no other angler from the Southern division even managed a keeper over the two days.
Pittman's one fish that weighed 1 pound, 15 ounces came after a crucial time in the tournament. Earlier that morning, his boat had broken down and he didn't get back out on the lake until 11:45.
Staying calm and focused, he pulled up on a point and caught seven fish, one of which was a keeper. Little did he know at the time, but that one fish would be enough to get him to the Classic.
Once the qualifying part was out of the way, Pittman dedicated four days during the first week in December to learn how to navigate the Red River. He had never seen the river before, but after those four days he had figured out something that he is confident will be in play when the start of the tournament rolls around.
"I know exactly what I'm going to do," he said. "If the fish will cooperate, I won't have to throw anything but a jig and soft plastics. I know that this time of year the fish might also move up and hit moving baits, so I'll be ready for these typical early-spring, pre-spawn patterns."
Pittman considers himself to be a low-key guy, but having never been on the Classic stage, only time will tell if he has the nerves to perform in the limelight. [NEXT PAGE]