SYRACUSE, N.Y. — For the past month, Todd Faircloth and Kevin VanDam have felt like the members of the two NFL Super Bowl teams during that seemingly never-ending series of press conferences leading up to the big game. They've been asked — over and over — every question imaginable about the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race.
Finally, it's time to play the game. The first quarter, uh, make that Day One of the aptly named Champion's Choice presented by Ramada Worldwide begins on Oneida Lake at 8 a.m. ET Thursday. The four-day tournament concludes Sunday.
Both Faircloth and VanDam are ready to quit talking and start fishing.
"I'm ready to go," said VanDam, who already owns three Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles, but the last one came in 1999. "I know what I need to do. It's going to be fun."
"I just want to fish," Faircloth said. "And, hopefully, I'll be able to get it done."
With a 21-point lead over VanDam in TTBAOY points, Faircloth would be the equivalent of a one-point Super Bowl favorite. This is only the third year for the current TTBAOY points structure, which places a premium on high finishes.
After 10 tournaments, Faircloth has accumulated 2,514 points this season. But he leads VanDam the equivalent of less than six places at the top of a single Elite Series tournament leaderboard.
In what were previously considered close TTBAOY races, Mike Iaconelli won by 57 points over Steve Kennedy (and 66 points over VanDam) in the 2006 Elite Series. Last year, Skeet Reese held a 107-point lead over VanDam going into the finale at Florida's Lake Toho, where he ended up expanding that lead to a 118-point final margin.
Reese talked openly then about the pressure he felt going into that last tournament, especially with VanDam putting the pressure on.
But that was nothing compared to this tight finish.
"I haven't ever felt like this," said the 33-year-old Faircloth. "Even during practice you could feel the pressure out there, knowing that you need to find something, knowing that you need to figure out something."
Oneida Lake has proven to be tougher to figure out that in previous years. The Elite Series anglers spent only two days last year on Oneida, which is sometimes referred to as "the thumb" of New York's Finger Lakes. The 2007 event was part of a four-day "major" that shifted to Lake Onondaga for the final two days.
Two years ago, Tommy Biffle won on Oneida with a four-day total of 63 pounds, 10 ounces. Biffle did it by concentrating on "green fish" — the largemouth bass that make up a far smaller proportion of Oneida's bass population than do the "brown fish" — the smallmouth bass.
"My main target is going to be the brown fish," Faircloth said. "I feel like that's my best shot to catch a decent bag.
"From what I saw in practice, I know some guys are going to catch some good largemouth, but I didn't figure that deal out.
"I'm going to go with what I know worked for me in practice, and hopefully the wind will let me fish where I want to fish."
Dave Wolak's father brought him to Oneida for the first time when Wolak was around five years old. The former Warrior Run, Pa., resident grew up fishing the various New York Finger Lakes. And Wolak has some fairly educated guesses as to why Oneida is fishing tougher this year than on the two previous Elite Series stops.
"Number one, the lake is getting a lot more pressure," Wolak said. "The sister lake here, Cayuga, hasn't been as good as it has in the past. A lot of the tournament trails have been coming here instead.
"Plus, it's an odd time of year (for an Elite Series stop) here. The times we were here before, there was a (yellow) perch spawn going on and the smallmouth were schooling around the perch. That's not the case right now.
"Thirdly, I think we're about at the peak of maturity for the (aquatic) grass. Actually, around September it probably peaks, but it's really growing in thick this year. That just gives the fish a lot more habitat to sit and hide out in.
"If you had a defined grass line, like you've had a lot of times here in the past, it wouldn't be as hard to find them. Now there's just grass everywhere, down to 18 feet at least."
For that reason, Wolak believes a daily five-bass limit weighing 10 pounds should be enough to make the two-day top 50 cut and 15 pounds a day should put you among the tournament leaders.
"The (two-day) cut should be between 20 and 22 pounds," Wolak said. "Fish are hard to come by, and when you are getting them, a lot of them are around two pounds. Fifteen pounds a day should be real strong, and 17 would be great."
However, Wolak wanted to make sure it was understood those predictions were made after this week's practice days, when almost every Elite Series angler agreed that fishing was tough on Oneida. It doesn't necessarily have to stay that way the rest of the week.
"It's hard to gauge a grass lake based on a couple of days of practice," Wolak said. "You saw it at (Alabama's) Wheeler (Lake). Some days they just don't bite. Whether it's barometric pressure or whatever, sometimes it's just not an ideal day to catch them.
"Maybe the (predicted) storms (Thursday) will tighten it all up for us and they'll bite."
In moving from Lake Erie, the 10th largest lake in the world, to Oneida Lake, about one-tenth the size of Erie, the Bassmaster Elite Series has put a tighter focus on its season-ending event. There are all sorts of prizes on the line this week in addition to the $100,000 check that will go to the winner of this tournament.
Whether it's a Bassmaster Classic berth or simply a top 84 finish in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, which brings an automatic invitation back to next year's Elite Series, there is some form of pressure on almost every angler in the 106-man field.
But nowhere is the pressure any higher than that being felt by Faircloth and VanDam, the two men separated by only 21 points in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, which for the first time also carries with it a $250,000 check for the winner - twice the amount Reese received a year ago.
"I don't think so," said VanDam when asked if he remembered being in a similar situation. "I don't remember seeing it this close between anybody going into the final event."
That new quarter-million total in prize money only makes the TTBAOY title that much more prestigious.
All the talking is finally over with. Now it's time to fish.
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Champion's Choice with weigh-in host Keith Alan, Aug. 3-10, 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 1 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.