BUFFALO, N.Y. — In the launch site parking lot sat a grim reminder of how important decision-making (and boat driving) will be during the next four days of the Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase presented by Farmer's Insurance.
That's where Scott Campbell's boat sat on its trailer, with its 250-horsepower outboard motor laying on the back deck, completely free from the motor mount brackets. Luckily for Campbell, the break occurred during practice.
Under sunny skies, 70-degree temperatures and a light breeze, the Elite Series anglers launched at 8 a.m. Thursday. That wind is predicted to pick up to as much as 15 miles per hour this afternoon. And anything over 10 mph can be a problem on Lake Erie, the fourth largest of the five Great Lakes, but still the 10th largest lake in the world.
"I think its in the back of everybody's mind," Grant Goldbeck said. "Do I fish close, or do I fish a good ways away."
Edwin Evers broke a motor bracket on his boat during the first day of the Empire Chase here a year ago. That didn't keep him from winning the tournament, which was shortened to three days because of high winds.
Evers' three-day, five-bass limit per day total was 65 pounds, 7 ounces — just short of a 22-pound average per day. Evers sealed the victory with 23-10 the final day, which was the Berkley Big Bag of the tournament.
Pre-tournament predictions this year are for even bigger bags.
"I think it will take 24 or 25 pounds to lead today," Goldbeck said.
"The lead today will be a lot, something around 23 or 24 pounds," Mike Iaconelli said. "Honestly, I think it's fishing a little bit tougher than last year. But it's such a phenomenal fishery that you're still going to see big weights."
But you're unlikely to see big weights from anglers that don't make at least a 40- to 50-mile run across Lake Erie. With this being the next-to-last event of the Bassmaster Elite Series this season, there's another dynamic working in the daily decision-making process.
With the (Bassmaster) Classic cut coming up, a lot of these guys are real nervous about making that long run," Goldbeck said. "They're thinking maybe I ought to just get some fish locally and play it safe.
"But everybody knows you've got to really travel to get the big ones."
The top 36 in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings qualify for the Classic. The focus here will be on the top of those TTBAOY standings, where Kevin VanDam currently holds a 16-point lead over Todd Faircloth. Mike McClelland is 115 points back in third place, and defending champion Skeet Reese is fourth, 136 points behind.
If you need to make a move in the standings, whether for that $250,000 TTBAOY title or a berth in the Bassmaster Classic, Lake Erie definitely offers the opportunities to do so. But catching a big sack of smallmouth bass won't do you any good if you can't make it back to the weigh-in site on time.
Last year, Kotaro Kiriyama made a 40-mile run to his primary area, caught over 20 pounds of smallmouth on seven casts, then turned around and headed back. It took him four hours to reach the weigh-in site. Kiriyama navigated that trip successfully all three days and ended up in second place with 61-7.
The Elite Series anglers weren't too happy about the 8 a.m. launch times this week. On a circuit where 6 a.m. launches are the norm, the late launch will be a big factor in making decisions about how far to go each day.
"In the tournaments I've fished up here, it always starts blowing in the late mornings," Goldbeck said. "Now this kind of throws you a little curveball. The big waves may already be up on the run out."
It's mostly in the travel time, not the fish-catching, when the wind is a factor. In fact, Goldbeck thinks the fish bite even better during rough water.
"It just takes longer to catch them, but I do think they chew harder when the water is rough," Goldbeck said. "But you've got to go to your (GPS) waypoint, motor upwind of it, put out the drift socks, drift over the waypoint, then pick up and do it again."
Iaconelli thinks he learned something during last year's tournament that will help him this year.
"I practiced (this week) for the wind," Iaconelli said. "I practiced three different areas of the lake, accounting for different directions of the wind. I feel like I'm in a good position, no matter what it does."
But there were plenty of other Elite Series anglers that weren't so confident about the wind. They may struggle to get that image of Campbell's boat out of their heads all week.
The daily 8 a.m. ET launches and 5 p.m. weigh-ins will be held at the NFTA Boat Harbor, 1111 Fuhrman Road in Buffalo.
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Empire Chase with weigh-in host Keith Alan, July 31-Aug. 3, 2008. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 5:00 p.m. ET. On Saturday, catch "Bassmaster University" at 4:15 p.m. ET before the weigh-in. Then on Sunday, get "Hooked Up" with hosts Tommy Sanders and Mark Zona at 12.00 p.m. and 4:20 p.m. ET, with the final day weigh-in and real-time leaderboard content starting at 5:00 p.m. ET.