By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Fishing against Elite Series anglers was nothing new for the Bassmasters Opens competitors who tossed their hats into the BASSFest ring last week at Lake Chickamauga. Since 2011, when the "win and you're in" Classic qualification component was instituted for Elite and Open derbies, each of the nine Opens conducted annually has featured a substantial cadre of guys from the big tour looking for that back-door pathway into the sport's premier event.
Nonetheless, it was a different scene for the "true" triple-A guys (a smattering of the 33-member Opens contingent was comprised of FLW Tour pros, including winner Jacob Wheeler). Whether it was being asked for an autograph for the first time or looking out at a vast sea of unfamiliar faces from the weigh-in stage, many experienced things they never had before in their initial foray into tour-level competition.
Some were extremely satisfied with their performances, while others were disappointed that they were unable to tally more weight. One thing several had in common, though, was they considered the $5,000 entry fee money well spent – even if just for the experience.
A few of them share their thoughts on the event below.
> Hometown: Bartlett, Ill.
> Age: 28
> Day job: Works in marketing department for wholesale sporting goods manufacturer
> BASSFest finish: 18th
"It was a great experience. Everybody was awesome and very welcoming and the people from B.A.S.S. were all encouraging. I'd never been to Chickamauga before, but I just went out and did my thing. I worked hard in practice – I was up at 5 every morning and I was one of the last guys off the water right at dark. One of the biggest keys for me was I didn't have to share water.
"I fished the Rayovac at Kentucky Lake the week before, and what I learned was even if you have the best ledges, if they're not firing or if you're off on your rotation just a little bit, you could burn. The first place I went to had five people on it and I kind of got spun out and only caught 11 pounds the first day. Then I adjusted the next day and went out and caught almost 17.
"My thinking was that (BASSFest) could potentially be a 4-day deal and I couldn't afford to spin out 1 day. I did the ledge thing for awhile, but I didn't find anything real great – just schools of 2 1/2-pounders. Then I went in and fished some grass that was off the bank in 6 to 8 feet of water and some little humps in bays with 14 feet of water around them. I threw a 10-inch Berkley Power Worm in pumpkinseed and a Zoom Ol' Monster in plum with a 3/16- or 1/4-ounce weight.
"The thing that helped me most was I had one key place that was 5 or 6 miles north of Dayton (Tenn.), where we launched. I fished down south until noon, then I'd run back to those grass clumps on the main channel and throw a Texas-rigged Beaver on a 1-ounce weight and I caught a 4-pounder each day. I didn't catch a lot of fish there, but when I did, it was a good one.
"It was definitely worth it, and I'd say that even if I didn't do as well as I did. All the Elite guys were really down to earth and I loved being a part of it, and it was great to cash a check. One day I'd like to get there – I feel like I have the skill set and I've done pretty well over the past few years."
> Hometown: Collinsville, Miss.
> Age: 25
> Day job: Independent contractor for several companies
> BASSFest finish: 34th
"It was a really fun week, but it was also one of the most stressful weeks of my life. I missed the (day-2) cut by 2 ounces. I was sitting there watching it on my phone, seeing people who'd been in front of me fall behind and others who'd been behind jumping ahead. I was kind of ticked off that I only missed it by that much.
"On Friday (during the 1-day second-chance event at Lake Nickajack) I just went fishing and I wasn't nervous or anything. I caught a few good ones early and then I caught a 5 1/2-pounder about an hour and a half before check-in, but I still didn't know if I had enough to make the Top 10. Before blast-off they'd told us we didn't have to weigh in if we didn't think we had enough and I was sitting there watching guys pull up, wondering if they were going to weigh in or if they'd already thrown their fish back. I was actually shaking – I was that stressed out.
"Saturday went the way I'd planned for the first 2 days to go. The only difference was I never got a 4-pound bite those days, and on Saturday I had a 4 1/2. There was no pressure that day because I knew I was getting a check and I just went out and caught a limit doing what I did most of the week, which was fishing shallow. As soon as I had a limit, I went out deep and swung for the fence.
"Looking back at the tournament, I think not making that first 50-cut was actually better for me. On Friday I had a cameraman with me and that gave me an opportunity to promote my sponsors and get my name out there a little more, and that never hurts.
"Overall, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I had a blast and it was a really great experience. It made me even hungrier (to qualify for the Elite Series)."
Several lost fish on day 1 doomed Bill Weidler's chances at BASSFest.
> Hometown: Helena, AL
> Age: 44
> Day job: Engineering director for company that produces water treatment equipment
> BASSFest finish: 122nd
"For the most part it was great – I loved the atmosphere. I'm from the Birmingham area and Chickamauga's just a couple hours away, and when I first entered I thought it was going to fish like Guntersville, with a lot of milfoil and hydrilla. I'm not a big ledge guy, but I tried it for the first few days (of practice) with no luck. Then I got into Harrison Bay, which has a lot of grass, and that's where I fished.
"I started out swimming a worm over deep grass in 8 to 10 feet, and then later I started slow-rolling a spinnerbait.
"On the first day I lost 20 pounds – I threw a 4-pounder and a 6 and jumped off two other good ones. Then when we went to Nickajack I caught a quick limit, but I had something wrong with my aerator and I had four fish die. I had about 13 pounds, but with that 1-pound penalty plus being 2 minutes late, I didn't bother to weigh in.
"I'd pay in a heartbeat to do it again. I'm usually a nervous person, but I wasn't nervous there. It showed me that's where I want to be and now I'm more determined to go after it.
"It was an honor to sit there and fish against the guys I've watched on TV and I feel like if I apply myself a little harder, I could be right there. That's my goal."
> Hometown: Cockeysville, Md.
> Age: 33
> Day job: Works in information technology for the federal government
> BASSFest finish: 132nd
"It was a really fun time and it's something I wish I could do again next year, but I'm not fishing the Opens this year so I won't be able to qualify. I have a full-time job that takes up most of my time and I don't seek sponsorships, so I pay for everything out of my own pocket. With the $5,000 entry fee, I had to choose between this and the Opens.
"I'd never experienced anything like it. I was sitting on a hump on the second day listening to the birds chirp and here comes this big flotilla, and it was (Mike) Iaconelli – he was leading after day 1. He sat down next to me and we were fishing the same spot, and I actually hooked two big ones that I lost right next to the boat. I was real upset about that for 2 days, but now I can laugh about it and enjoy it.
"I thought I could come back with a $10,000 check, but I was in for a rude awakening. Figuring out this fishing thing is a long process. I've had a lot of experience fishing deep, but not with current, and I knew I was at a serious disadvantage not knowing how the fish were going to react to it. I knew I wouldn't be in the right place at the right time when they were feeding, so I had to focus a little differently and it didn't work out. I learned a lot, though, and I wish I could've had another day out there.
"I was flattered on the first day when a kid who was standing there asked me for my autograph. I told him I was just a regular guy and I pointed to Denny Brauer and told him that was the guy he wanted the autograph from. There were 10 times more fans (than at the Opens) and they were 10 times more crazy. It was awesome."