NEW ORLEANS — There are hundreds of thousands of acres available to the competitors at the 2011 Bassmaster Classic on the vast Louisiana Delta, but despite the wealth of choices some areas proved more popular than others.
Just like the 2010 Classic on Alabama's Lay Lake, when most of the top finishers duked it out in diminutive Beeswax Creek, this year once again it appears that the best bags will come from anglers who can whisper at each other all day.
The 2010 Classic was of course won by Kevin VanDam, his third world championship, leaving him one short of Rick Clunn's record of four. If the 2011 event were to be canceled after this first day, VanDam wouldn't claim the tying fourth title, but he's currently within striking distance of the lead, in third place, 1-4 behind leader Aaron Martens and just 3 ounces behind close friend Scott Rook. All three anglers were within sight of one another from start to finish today.
Martens, who has two young children, described it as being like ring-around-the-rosie.
Of course there is history between these three. While VanDam has claimed three Classic titles, Martens has finished second three times, most recently in 2005 in Pittsburgh, when VanDam claimed his second title.
"I'd like to try to make it four," VanDam said when reminded of that fact.
Rook too has suffered at KVD's hands. When VanDam claimed his first Classic title in 2001, Rook was the runner-up.
VanDam will have a chance to tie Clunn's record this week, but first he'll have to outfish Martens and Rook. Even if he accomplishes that, several of the other top contenders are in the area as well.
Derek Remitz, in 22nd with 12-15, was also within a long cast of the other three from start to finish. Those four played musical chairs all day, with no reported altercations or harsh words. There was conversation, to be sure, but nary a harsh word among them.
A number of other competitors fished around the outskirts of that fearsome foursome. Classic rookie Keith Combs fished within sight of them and is in 19th with 13-2. He made the tactical error of starting elsewhere to catch a quick limit. He accomplished that feat, but had no big fish among his five. He went to the hotspot and only caught three more, but they were all quality fish. He said he's dialed into the same pattern as the leaders.
"It may all look the same in there, but there are some key spots in there," Combs said. "There are a couple of casts you can make that'll get bit, but it's a very specific deal."
VanDam agreed: "It was real obvious real early who knew what they were doing."
Federation Nation qualifier Brandon Palaniuk also spent the day off to the side of the center ring, and like Combs is within striking range of the leaders, perhaps just a single bite away. He's in 11th with 14-10.
He wanted to start in the juiciest spot, but got there after the others and elected to respect their water.
"I went off and did my own thing," he said. "Unfortunately, I think the bigger fish are over there where they are."
He reported that the pros showed him deference and did not try to move into his area as the day progressed.
Two anglers who fished in the key area who will not return tomorrow are Tracy Adams and Steve Kennedy. Adams weighed in only two fish -- by the time he arrived, Martens was already culling. Out of respect to the leaders he'll try another area tomorrow. Kennedy started near the others, then made an aborted trip to Venice at mid-day, only to return to his starting area. With a paltry 2-6, he'll make the run to Venice tomorrow, where he'll be out of the way of the leaders.
At noon, Rook wondered whether he too would be a also-ran this year. He had only two fish, but then caught a three-plus and two others in a hurry. After he filled out his limit, he caught more fish sporadically throughout the day, culling up to his final weight. He is confident that the area is the best spawning zone on the Delta right now.
"It's about 1,500 acres with mixed grass, milfoil and coontail. There are also thousands of big cypress stumps," he said.
The large spawning flat has ditches running through it that serve as obvious migration routes. The best areas feature slightly deeper water and healthier grass.
All of the anglers in the area admitted that it's a known big fish area. Reports of double-digit bass abound and KVD said that if everything goes right a 30-pound stringer isn't completely out of the question.
Ultimately, while their proximity confirms that they all believe the area to be the likely winning spot, it could also prove to be their undoing. Martens admitted that it could be nerve-wracking to watch his closest competitors catch one or more outsized largemouths over the next two days.
"I'll be stunned if it's not won there," VanDam said.
While he may not be stunned come Sunday, the identity of the winner is still certainly up in the air. VanDam even said that it could be someone currently outside the top three. Don't bet on it, though.