By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: This is part 1 of a 2-part series on the 10 Alabama anglers qualified for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Guntersville).
The anticipation and buzz around the upcoming Bassmaster Classic is already starting to build. Competitors in the 44th edition of the Classic have until Dec. 31 to do their homework at Lake Guntersville and then won't be able to wet a line there until a 3-day practice period begins a week before the event in February.
Certainly, qualifying for the Classic is a great achievement for any angler, but when the event takes place in your home state, it can add another layer of excitement, anticipation and a healthy dose of pressure.
Only one angler – Boyd Duckett in 2007 at Lay Lake – has won the Classic in the state where he gets his mail. This year, there will be nine current Alabama residents vying for the title. That's not counting Randall Tharp, who relocated to Florida from Alabama earlier this year.
Never before has the Classic field included that many competitors from the host state. In 2007 and 2010, when the Classic was also held in Alabama (Lay Lake both times), there were eight Alabamians in the field.
The 2014 group represents a broad cross-section of the 56-man field as six qualified through the Elite Series, two came from the Opens, one is the reigning college champion and another made it through the B.A.S.S. Nation. That speaks to the breadth of fishing talent and tradition in Alabama.
The most recent Classic at Grand Lake saw a ton of attention focused on Oklahoma natives Tommy Biffle, Edwin Evers and Jason Christie as well as those from neighboring states. Each was very open about their desire to win at home and there was deep disappointment when they all fell short, although Christie captured a win when the FLW Tour returned to Grand over the summer.
No doubt each of the Alabama anglers who'll be at Guntersville will be pushing hard for the win. To get to the top of the leaderboard, though, they'll have to go through not just a deep field overall, but they'll have to knock off some strong sticks from their own backyard. The Alabama crew is a veritable Murderer's Row of bass pros. There are few, if any, weak links in the below lineup.
> Coby Carden qualified through the B.A.S.S. Nation, but he's not one to overlook. He's been a force across Alabama for years.
> Randy Howell considered himself a bit of a local favorite before Lane and Tharp punched their tickets. This will be his 12th Classic and fifth in Alabama, so he's well-versed in how to manage the extraneous stuff.
> Steve Kennedy is a two-time Elite Series winner with a penchant for tapping into big-fish patterns. He was 3rd at the G'ville Elite Series in April 2006.
> David Kilgore has a comfort level during the pre-spawn at Guntersville and he just became a father again, so he'll have some added motivation.
> Chris Lane, a Florida native who now calls Guntersville, Ala., home, is the only Alabama resident presently qualified who has a Classic trophy on his mantle.
> Jordan Lee is on the verge of graduating from college. So what makes him a threat at Guntersville? Only the fact that he's fished 30 or so tournaments there, won a BFL there in 2012 and seems to know and understand how it changes from year to year.
Randy Howell knows it'll take strong preparation and a little luck for anyone, let alone an Alabama resident, to capture the Guntersville Classic.
> Aaron Martens, an Alabamian by way of California, has four Classic runner-ups to his credit, but posted one of his two Elite Series wins at Guntersville in 2009 and is still riding high after his second career Angler of the Year title.
> Gerald Swindle is another former AOY who some say possesses the junk-fishing chops it might take to survive 3 days at the Big G.
> Randall Tharp could be the odds-on favorite once February rolls around based on his lengthy run of success early in his career at Guntersville. He hasn't fished it much recently, though, which could be good.
> Greg Vinson is back in the Classic and he has some unfinished business after finishing 2nd to Lane at the Red River in 2012.
BassFan caught up with the Alabama qualifiers recently to get their thoughts on the added meaning of fishing a Classic in their home state, the challenges of attacking a lake some of them know extremely well and the inherent pressure that comes with being a local favorite.
Business Trip For Carden
Carden, who hails from Shelby, Ala., fished the Bassmaster Tour in 2003-04 so he'll be unfazed by the stiff competition at the Classic. The runner-up at the B.A.S.S. Nation championship has a strong track record on the Coosa River and at Lay Lake and Lake Martin, but hasn't fished Guntersville all that much. In fact, it's been nearly 5 years since he wet a line there. That's going to change real soon as he'll make frequent visits there over the next month to start preparations for the Classic.
"When I qualified, I told my wife I'd be going there with an open mind, but I'm going to fish to win," he said. "I'm not going just to have a good time. I want to enjoy it, but I'm going there to do the best I can to win the thing."
He doesn't think he'll be bothered by the increased attention he'll get as one of the host state anglers.
"Just to be able to be so close to home and have so many friends at the weigh-in and to represent the state, it's a thrill. Hopefully, one of the 10 of us can win it," he said. "There's not much at stake for me. Making the Classic was my dream and I accomplished that. Winning would be awesome. That's the next step. I don't feel like there will be any pressure on me. I'm just excited for the opportunity."
Asked to identify another Alabama angler in the field he would tab as a favorite, he picked Tharp.
"I think Tharp and his history there will make him one of the favorites, plus he's on a great hot streak as well," Carden said.
Howell Used to the Pressure
Howell has been there, done that in terms of fishing Classics in Alabama, where he's lived for the last 15 years, but he says he now understands all that goes into planning and preparing for a Classic, let alone one in his backyard. He's hoping to set aside all the outside distractions and focus on putting together a winning-quality pattern.
"It'll be my 12th Classic and I've been in enough of them that I understand that pressure is a self-inflicted thing," said the resident of Springville, Ala. "I'm not going to put too much on myself that I'm so stressed out. I'm going to go into it with a good game plan and strategy and do anything I can to be a contender in it.
"It's a stacked field, no doubt. Before a few of the last guys made it in, I think I was more of the local favorite. Now, I'm less of a local favorite and that's okay with me. It takes some heat off of me. A lot of work will go into this one just because of the sheer weight we'll have to catch to be a contender."
He wouldn't classify himself as an expert on Guntersville, but he has a good understanding of the lake from previous B.A.S.S. events there. For the Classic, though, he's going to wipe the slate clean because of his lack of experience there in February.
"I'm going to start clean," he said. "I still have part of the lake I feel better about and feel more comfortable in, but I plan to cover a lot of water when I do go scout it to see if there's more to the lake and try to find those places that people don't often talk about.
"The big key will be trying to find something that's not already well-known. This one Classic on this lake could really be won by anybody on any given part of the lake. We know it's one of the best big-fish lakes in the country, but it's one of the best all-around lakes from one end to the other. It's winnable anywhere on the lake. Someone could run away up a creek or a river and be by himself. It's going to be a fun event for everyone."
Steve Kennedy is no stranger to Classics, but he'd love to win one in Alabama.
Comfort Level for Kennedy
Kennedy will be fishing his third Classic in Alabama – the other two were at Lay Lake, where he posted finishes of 8th and 42nd.
He says competing around home requires a different mindset, especially during practice.
"Your approach to practice is different because you have familiar places," he said. "You have a lot of family and friends and more people that know you in the crowd pulling for you. It feels different; it's still the Classic. I don't care where it is, we're all going to be up for it."
While Kennedy doesn't consider Guntersville to be home waters, he is fairly familiar with the lake as he has fished a number of BFLs and a couple Elite Series events there. He thinks the February time frame could result in some stout stringers.
"It's about being on the right school of fish that time of year," he said. "Knowing spots is a good thing that time of year. When you get into March and April and they're spawning and moving on a regular basis, that goes out the window. You have to go fishing. There are two frames where it pays to know where the right groups are – February when they're starting to group up to move in and then late May and June when those fish are coming back out. It's all about the spots, at least that's the way I'm approaching it."
While he's still making plans to get to the lake for some scouting time, he says there's a comfort level there that stems from his success at other Tennessee River impoundments.
"What I like is it's more of a reservoir style of fishing," he said. "It's not like Shreveport (Red River). It has ledges and that type of stuff and more grass than further down the line. I'm pretty comfortable fishing the style I think we're going to have to fish there. I'm excited to get there. I just don't know the spots I need."
Kilgore Focused on Home (for now)
Kilgore has some history at Guntersville during the pre-spawn and he hopes to tap into that knowledge once the official practice session gets started. Until then, his mind is focused on home where he and his wife recently welcomed a new baby to their family.
Once things are settled down with the newborn, he plans to put in a good bit of time at Guntersville before the lake goes off limits on Jan. 1.
"I'm going up a good bit in December to look around end to end," he said. "It'll be a lot of riding around and graphing. I'm real comfortable with that lake and have fished it a lot at that time of year.
"I'll try not to run down memory lane too much, but there are times when it's helpful. If that's not working, I'll jump ship. Sometimes I have to tell myself not to get too hung up on that."
If the conditions are right, he believes many of the Classic weight records are in jeopardy come February.
"I could see the weight record getting shattered," he said. "It's certainly the time of year to do it if we get the right weather.
As for the pressure of being among the group of qualifiers from the host state, he said it won't be much of a factor in his mind.
"I just turned down the Elite Series for a third time," he said. "There was a lot of pressure to do it or not do it. I never knew how I'd respond leading the Open after 2 days, but looking back I never had a nervous bone in my body.
"The hype and everything that goes on, it's fun, but when it gets here, I'll be able to split it down the middle and say, 'This is the business side,' and then just go fishing. It is the biggest stage in bass fishing and you never know how you'll handle it, but I think I'll be fine."
Lane Can't Wait
Lane says he's going to take full advantage of the creature comforts that come with competing at the lake he lives on, like being able to sleep in his own bed during the tournament. He's also looking forward to seeing how the town reacts to hosting the sport's signature event.
"Having fished a Classic and finishing almost dead last and having to fish a Classic and be able to win one, there’s a lot that goes into the Bassmaster Classic," he said. "It's not just another event on the Elite series. There's a lot that goes on. To be able to have the comfort of my home and not need to have anything shipped or worry about what boat ramp I'm going to or worrying about getting lost, that's nice.
"Everybody's expecting the people that live close by to do really well. If you look back, though, VanDam, Ike, Skeet and Martens have all won here. I know Aaron lives here, but the rest aren't from Alabama and they're in the Classic. For me, I'm looking forward to really enjoying this event. Yes, I'll fish as hard as I can, but I'm looking forward to enjoying watching this town see what bass fishing is all about. They know it's one of the best lakes in the country, but a lot of people don't understand the excitement of the Classic."
Some may think Lane will have an edge simply because he lives in Guntersville. While it may hold some truth, he says he's never fished the lake early in the year so it'll be a new experience for him preparing for a pre-spawn, late winter derby.
"You can go off of memory here. If I can go off of memory, I will have a clean slate because I've never fished it in January, February or March," he said. "I just haven't, usually because that's about the time the season gets going and we're off somewhere else. I’ll have a clean slate. I have to get to work in the next couple weeks and find where the fish are moving to. I think certain areas of the lake will be better. You will fish a little bit off knowledge because you'll know that there's a creek channel over there and where it leads and what not. For the Classic, you’ll try to generate a pattern to run throughout the lake that will hold up for 3 days."
While he'd like nothing more than to add a second Classic trophy to his mantle, he thinks someone from Alabama will come through with the win. He's picking Martens, for the record.
"I honestly feel like the winner will more than likely be from Alabama," he said. "The odds are stacked up too good for it not to be. Unless you get the three most absolutely gorgeous days on Guntersville, then it's anybody's game.
"I'd pick Aaron right now. Everybody knows he's due. He probably wants this one more than any other one before, plus he's won here before. That said, he's the best right now and he has that confidence in his mind that he can do it again."