BOSSIER CITY, La. — Maybe you can tell the newbies from the vets in the boatyard before launch on Day One of the Bassmaster Classic, and maybe you can't. But to see what a relaxed angler looks like on this 30-degree morning, glimpse returning champion
Alton Jones on the deck of his boats, joking about the 12 pounds he gained in the off-season.
"I wanted to fatten myself before the Classic," Jones told fellow competitor Dean Rojas. "I knew it was going to be a cold-weather deal. Everyone else had to put on long underwear this morning. I get to stay agile. It's a physical edge."
The Elite Series vets know to stay loose, to stick to their routine. Shaw Grigsby, who's fishing his 11th Classic but his first since 2003, fastidiously went through his morning rituals on the parked boat, checking his oil, packing his lunch away, fastening his electronics to the deck, and picking around the smoked sausage on his breakfast sandwich.
He finds a peace in the old habits. "What really gets you," Grigsby said, "is when you get rushed.
"Anybody — anybody — has a shot of winning the Bassmaster Classic," Grigsby continued. "If you're here, you can win it."
Baumgardner, an amateur qualifier through the Federation Nation, reached up and shook Kiriyama's hand. "Good luck, man," he said. "Get 'em. One at a time."
A moment later he stood near his boat, shifting back and forth, left foot, right foot. Maybe it was the cold, but the cold is nothing new to an angler from Pittsburgh. Maybe, too, it was nerves. The Classic, the most prestigious tournament in the sport, bestows $500,000 on its winner.
"Just one at a time until there's five," Baumgardner said. "I'm fishing against the fish today, not against the guys. If the good Lord give me some shine, I'll take it."
If the anglers were to be believed in the week before the Classic — and that's always a big if — this tournament on the Red River will require a measure of fishing against the guys. Also beside them, around them, on top of them, over them. Anglers will be jostling in backwaters, and trying to overcome spectator boats clattering against submerged stumps.
"Everywhere there's a big school of fish, there's going to be a big school of boats," Jones said.
Terry Scroggins, the Elite Series pro, explained that things only would get harder after Day One: "Nobody knows who's going to be leading, so they don't know who to follow."
One angler to downplay the threat of spectators was Dean Rojas. "It's not like it's real easy to get around," he said. He and Jones both said they wouldn't hit more than two or three main spots all day, and commit to them.
In such a deliberate tournament, the difficulty he foresaw was one of patience. No run-and-gun here; the Red defies an angler to dash into its knotty backwaters. He leaned in close and spoke quietly when he said, "Slowing down will be key."
That's all the harder, one imagines, for any angler feeling the pressure of the event.
"Today is the Bassmaster Classic," Rojas said. "It's the foundation for the whole weekend. You have to get off to a good start. Half the field will be eliminated today."
He used to feel the pressure more distinctly. But in 2004, Rojas led the Classic after the second day. Since then, he said, he doesn't feel the same butterflies.
"Now I love it," Rojas said. "The anticipation. The high-profile event. We live for this. This is what we do."
Moments before takeoff the dock was abuzz. A camera helicopter whizzed overhead. Flocks of ducks dotted the sky. Music blared — "Rolling on a River" was a nice touch — while ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" broadcast live from a set overlooking the launch.
Hundreds of spectators lined the fence outside Red River South Marina & Resort and the surrounding grounds; once the last of the 51 anglers' boats were in the water, they closed ranks on the ramp itself, forming a human wall, huddled against the cold.
It was easy to tell the anglers who didn't have or didn't use their boat covers: Theirs were the decks covered with a thin layer of frost.
Scott Rook, an inveterate river fisherman, was among those. He motored away bundled in a coat, a camo face mask and glasses. His path on the deck of his boat was evident from the streaks and bootprints in the frost. On the starboard side of the bow, someone had written something more deliberate. Big smeared letters in the frost read, "WIN."