Two of the strangest days of bass fishing in Kelly Jordon's long and distinguished career came on the Red River, a squirrelly tendril of stump-littered mud that Jordon, as much as any other contender in this year's Bassmaster Classic field, can claim as his home water.
In one tournament, he was on the fish to win, but watched one after another shake off his hook and flop across the water hyacinths; he didn't boat a fish all day.
In the second, he caught an early limit and was so confident he'd make the cut (after which weights would be zeroed) that he essentially took the day off, stopping now and then to chat with passersby. Then he looked in his livewell and saw his five fish all dead, victims of grass clogging his aerator. After dead-fish penalties, he missed the cut by 1 ounce.
"This place, that stuff happens," the Mineola, Texas, pro said before his seventh Classic appearance. "I'm still scratching my head."
Despite his past forehead-slappers on the Red River, you've got to like Jordon's odds. He lives about an hour and a half from the fishery and has been fishing it since 1996. ("I know it like the back of my hand," he says. "I've been all over that place in the past 13 years.")
Predicting Classic finishes is a notoriously fickle business. For one, it mixes the top pros with top amateurs, who often can't help but fly under the radar. For another, with no Elite Series tour points at stake, risk is the theme of the tournament. The consolation prize for not winning is losing. Jordon summed up this approach thus: "I'm either going to top 10 it, or I'm going to finish dead last."
But as long as we're trying to point to early favorites — or at least quiz anglers who know the water — Jordon, Arkansas' Scott Rook and Louisianan Greg Hackney are a fine group to grill. It wouldn't be a shock to see any of the three take home his first Classic title so close to their respective homes.
Take Rook, the 48-year-old seven-time Classic qualifier whose only tour-level BASS win came in his hometown of Little Rock, on the Arkansas River. He may live three hours from Classic site Shreveport, La., but feels so at home on the Red River that he says he's cashed a check in each of the eight or so events he has fished there.
"It's like a miniature Arkansas River," Rook said of the Red.
That is, it's chockablock with jetties, fertile backwaters, fallen timber, stump fields, lilypads and manmade structure. To figure out how to fish them, Rook will watch the sky. Even a smattering of rain in Oklahoma and Texas could significantly raise and muddy the water; a sustained run of warm weather could coax deep fish to shallow water.
Perhaps tougher to read will be the access to the backwaters, which the river silts in at whim. Figuring out where to go and how to get there — let alone whether a particular location holds hungry fish — favors the local anglers. Ditto reading the fish in the currents.
"It could be [confusing] to the average guy, but there aren't any average guys in the Classic," Rook said. "There's no slouches in there. Having a big advantage, I don't think so. I don't think anyone has a real big advantage.
"I've just got to get over the jitters of this being the Classic, and fish it like any other tournament."
Before BASS' off-limits period for Classic contenders, Jordon, Rook and Hackney all visited the Red, keeping their eyes open, fishing little. Rook noticed less vegetation than he remembered; Jordon noticed some of his favorite backwaters silted in and another marvelous pool that has become private property.
When Hackney visited, it was right around Thanksgiving, and he and his family mostly spent the trip shopping, except for a day fishing for stripers, which wasn't strictly helping his bass scouting but was big fun until one of his boys fell into the water and they all had to rush back to camp.
The next day "the wind blew, like, 50," Hackney said. "The worst cold front of the year." So he didn't get a whole lot done. But, like Jordon and Rook, Hackney has been fishing the Red for more than a decade, even if most of his experience is further south on the system, closer to his hometown of Gonzales, La.
"I'm a little nervous," Hackney said. "I know a lot about that type of body of water — that probably will put a little extra pressure on me. I put enough pressure on myself as it is. I'm pretty pumped to know that I'm fishing a tournament that's a reasonable drive from my house — it's basically four hours. That's a big deal in itself."
He describes the Red as "a target-rich environment" just crammed with fish, with enough variety in its topography to suit several styles of fishing.
"A guy's going to win fishing his strength," he said.
One non-weather factor that he fears could limit an angler's options would be a fleet of spectator boats trailing behind, thudding through a stump field.
"For me personally, I hope for the worst weather we've had all winter, just to cut down on some of the pleasure boaters," Hackney said. "This tournament could definitely play to somebody who's not being followed that much."
Rook said 50 pounds in three days will have a fine shot at winning the tournament. Hackney said the Classic's biggest bass may weigh 10 pounds. And Jordon said whatever wins will be whatever he manages to catch.
"The way I think, there are about four places the tournament can be won, and I think I know all four places," Jordon said. "I could very well be proven wrong in the Classic. We shall see.
"It'll be interesting to see who wins. Naturally, I plan on winning. But so does everyone else."