By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: This is part 2 of a 2-part series on the 10 Alabama anglers qualified for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Guntersville. Click here to read Part 1).
Don't Sleep on Lee
Jordan Lee has done it all in college fishing, reaching the finals of the Bassmaster College Series in 2012 and winning the same event this year. He couldn't have asked for a better reward Ė a berth in the Bassmaster Classic at Lake Guntersville.
The Cullman, Ala., native has a history of success at Guntersville and despite his lack of experience on the national stage, some are pegging him as a potential darkhorse contender.
"It's one of those deals to have a tournament like that on your home lake can be good and can be bad," he said. "It can be hard to fish with an open mind on that lake just because I've fished it so much. It's bad in that sense because I want to go back to places I caught them in the past. The good thing is I know every inch of the lake. Wherever it's won I'll about guarantee I fished it before. It's good that I know the lake and understand how the fish move out there. I have a lot of confidence out there. That's the biggest plus for me.
"I'll definitely have some pressure on me. All of my family and fishing friends will be there. I'm going to want to catch them big. I've fished enough tournaments, though, where it's not a big pressure deal. It'll be more about me going out and doing the job."
As many of the Alabama qualifiers have noted, Guntersville is a lake that changes annually, especially the grass. Lee is well aware of the nuances and plans to look at the whole lake as if he's never fished it before.
"It just changes every year. That's the thing I noticed about the lake," he said. "Places I've really caught them, especially the grass fish that time of year Ö last February won't be like this February and vice versa. I've learned that the fish don't set up on the exact same places every year. The biggest thing will be fishing with a clean slate."
He's looking forward to having a dedicated practice period during the week of the event.
"Those 3 1/2 days of practice will be important," he said. "I don't think I've ever had a tournament there where I've gotten to practice that much.
Randall Tharp has a lot of confidence at Lake Guntersville, but he hasn't spent a lot of meaningful time there in the last 2 years.
"The problem with Guntersville is it's one of the hardest lakes to win on just because of the amount of big fish it has and the places they get. They could get on a nothing place that I've fished 20 times and for some reason it's just good next year. You have to find the mother lode to win. I think I do have a chance. It's just another tournament. I've told people that I don't know if I'm going to catch them good. I'm going to have to find them the week before. The good thing is I've got places where I can pull up and have a good understanding of how it all lays out."
Martens Doesn't Feel Added Pressure
Aaron Martens is coming off one of his finest years as a pro angler. He claimed the Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year (AOY) crown by closing the season with six straight Top-15 finishes. Still, the mechanical failure he experienced at the season finale at Lake St. Clair that cost him a chance at a victory has him energized to get back out on the water to prepare for his 15th Classic.
While he's not a big fan of the late-winter scheduling of the Classic, he knows he needs to be prepared for anything. He said he's fished Guntersville just once in the last 18 months, so the next few weeks will be crucial for him to acclimate himself with the place he won at in 2009.
He knows there will be plenty of attention focused on him (he'll be boat No. 1 on day 1 as the reigning AOY) since he's come so close so many times before in the Classic. None of that will enter his mind, though.
"I don't feel any added pressure anymore," he said. "I'm 41 years old. It won't bother me anymore. I like Guntersville as a lake. It's a tremendous lake and it's also tremendously big. There are a lot of places to win a tournament there. You could be on the second-best pattern there and think you're going to win and another guy could've found the spot and beats you because his spot was that good. I'm sure I'll be able to build a pattern. It's not that hard, but you have to find the right fish. When I won there in '09, I was on the right fish."
He's had an incredibly busy fall season working for sponsors and traveling. He's ready to get started on preparations now. He wasn't prepared to identify a favorite among his Alabama brethren, but he thinks the winner may come from the group.
"I'd hope so," he said. "There are a lot of guys spending a lot more time up there than me right now. I don't know who's going to win it. I don't really care, as long as it's me."
Swindle No Stranger To Pressure
The Guntersville Classic will be the 14th of Gerald Swindle's career and the third he's fished in his home state. He was 3rd at the 2005 summer Classic in Pittsburgh and hasn't finished higher than 20th since.
A former high school football player, he's well aware of all the trappings that come with competing close to home.
"It definitely has a different feeling," he said. "No matter who you are, you can psyche yourself out. For me, it's not a game-changer, but I'll still feel all of the city love and support. More than anything, you feel the intensity of being at home and what it would mean (to win) there.
"You can't say it doesn't play into it. Some people say it's hometown pressure, but there's more to it than that. There's a lot involved. You can use it to your advantage. I've always said that when some people get squeezed tight, they break. Others, when you squeeze them, they perform. Someone has to step up."
He's hoping that his history at Guntersville will allow him to be that someone.
"Growing up, I saw two different Guntersvilles," he said. "I learned to fish it back when it had grass. Then they killed all of the grass in it and I had to learn to fish it all over again without grass. Now, it's back with a third personality. I don't think any local guy will go up there and dominate unless they're throwing that A-Rig. It's such a spectacular lake that I think it washed out local knowledge."
He believes the Classic could be won anywhere from one end of the lake to the other.
Greg Vinson has a runner-up finish to his credit at Lake Guntersville. He'd like to add a victory next February.
"We don't go to many places that we can say that," he said. "There's so much water to cover. It's almost like playing a team with 50 defensive players. You're trying to play offense and find bass, but at the same time you're trying to think where it could be going down and if youíve missed something."
Tharp Excited for Homecoming
Contrary to popular belief, Randall Tharp has fished Lake Guntersville 1 day in the last 2 years and that was to film an episode of The Scott Martin Challenge with the show's namesake. But Tharp and G'ville go way back and his track record there is as good as any.
"I wouldn't be here without that lake," he said. "I really donít consider myself to have an advantage over those guys because I fish all over the place now.
"Iím fishing well. Iím fishing real confident. Iíll be 100 percent prepared this time. I know what Iím in for. I have not been to the lake, but Iíve been thinking about how I will attack that tournament and how Iím going to win it."
In trying to understand all that goes into fishing a major event around home, Tharp turned to fellow pro Jason Christie, who went through it at Grand Lake back in February.
"I talked to him about it so I know what I'm in for," he said. "All of that will be taken into account. I thrive on that pressure. Thatís why I think I do well in championship events. When the pressureís the highest, the cream rises to the top. That's why Ike and KVD are always right here."
He also listed Christie as one of his favorites to win, but he also didn't overlook the depth and strength of the Alabama contingent.
"It definitely could come out of that group," he said. "I don't think it has anything to do with local knowledge. It's just that there are more people from Alabama in that tournament. The guys that fish for a living, it'll be one of those guys. It always is. Guntersville will be no exception. Look at it how it sets up for someone like Kevin VanDam. He'll do well. I think I'll do well and I think Christie and Ike will, too. Those are the guys to look out for."
Vinson Out for Redemption
Greg Vinson is not lacking for motivation heading into next year's Classic. For starters, he was the runner-up to Tharp at the Southern Open at Guntersville in 2009 and it was that result that ultimately clinched him an invitation to the Elite Series. Secondly, he took 2nd in the 2012 Classic and is chomping at the bit to get back on the big stage to see if he can scratch his way to the top this time.
"Personally, this is the first Classic since I finished 2nd in 2012 and I'm really hungry to get back into the Classic. My entire season focused on qualifying to be at Guntersville," he said. "I'm excited about it because it's Guntersville and it's probably my favorite lake to fish even though I don't get to fish it that much. For the biggest tournament to be at that fishery and to be one of the guys qualified, and for it to be in my home state, those are all reasons to be excited.
"Any time you make the Classic, you feel a lot of pressure. You want to do well because it's a winner-take-all scenario. I had a lot of positives come out of finishing 2nd. For that reason, you go for the win. The pressure I'm going to feel is representing my home state and my fan base and everybody's who's supported me. I want to make sure I don't leave wishing I'd done more or done something different. If I prepare the way I should, then I'll be confident in the decisions I make."
Typically, the late winter is time when bass aren't active feeders, but Vinson said Guntersville is among the lakes where that's not really the case.
"I have fished it a little bit at that time of year, but typically fishing can be difficult then because of the colder water," he said. "The Tennessee River seems to be the exception, though, because the bigger fish are willing to bite."
He wasn't prepared to say an Alabamian would walk away the winner (he hopes that's the case) because of the depth of the field and the tournament's timing.
"On paper, I feel like they should," he said. "Knowing who's in it and the amount of experience that's going to be on the water, it's going to be like a rivalry game in football. Any one person can get on a good group of fish at any time. I think, for that reason, it's harder to pick a local since it's a pre-spawn deal."