CLASSIC PROS PONDER STRATEGIC DECISIONS

Decisions, decisions.

The sport of professional bass fishing is all about decisions. Timely decisions. Decisions right and wrong. Avoiding indecision.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the annual CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer. This world championship arguably puts more of an emphasis on an angler's initial decisions than any other tournament, primarily because the Classic pros are limited to a single day of practice instead of the typical three-day scouting sessions to preview most tournaments.

Since the Classic adopted a two-day elimination format last year, getting off to a good start is an absolute necessity if a pro hopes to contend for the $200,000 prize and most important title in competitive fishing.

When you add in the sheer vastness of the Louisiana Delta (site of the New Orleans Classic from Aug. 1-3) where the 61 pros are realistically limited to fishing a single area in a day's time, you can begin to understand the crucial nature of two immediate decisions facing them:

1. Where to spend the lone practice day.

2. Where to fish the opening round.

Two-time Classic contender and Louisiana native son Homer Humphreys was asked how critical it is to choose the right area to fish in the only practice day.

"It will determine your fate," he replied. "The Classic is all about decisions (and) making the correct decision. There are no guarantees and you have to live with the decisions you make early on."

In most Classics, the anglers avoid visiting their most productive spots (found during their scouting trip a month earlier) during the single practice day. On most Classic waters it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse where a pro doesn't want to be spotted checking his best areas during practice.

But such a strategy is impractical on the Delta. Not only does it include more than 500 square miles of fishable water, but anglers can't get from one popular fishing area to another without considerable effort. Reaching such areas as Venice, Bayou Black, Des Allemandes, Dellacroix and Bayou Boueff from the Bayou Segnette launch ramp requires at least two hours of hard running. 

And rotating from area to area during the day isn't practical because of the time commitment. Once a Classic pro commits to an area, he is there for the entire day.

"You have to go to your best spot in the Delta during practice," Humphreys said. "If you don't, you might get there the first day and find the water is chocolate because of the waves and whatever else. ...  You have to go because it may just be mud."

The initial strategic decisions should make for a Classic that has plenty of intrigue from the opening gun.

"Anybody can win this Bassmaster Classic," 21-time Classic contender Gary Klein said. "The whole key is going to be being in the right area. And I think that's the one deal that all 61 contestants are struggling with - being in the right area.

"I've felt that these fish are relatively aggressive. It you get a bait in front of them, they're going to bite it. But I think their environment is constantly changing and the fish are constantly moving with those changes. ...  That's the one thing that has everybody bothered - where to fish."

And, even though the Delta is an enormous body of water, it may be a little crowded for some anglers' tastes.

"There's a big field this time. Gosh, 61 just seems like a lot," said defending Classic champion Jay Yelas. "You have to get off to a good start, especially with the cut."

NORTH TO ALASKA. We all know that Jay Yelas is the hottest angler on the planet. And here is further proof:

On a recent trip to Alaska, Yelas finished second out of 200 fishermen in the 10th annual Kenai River Classic. While representing Yamaha, the Texan caught and released a whopping 165 inches of salmon in two days, including a 48-inch fish that was estimated at 60 pounds.

"It was the adventure of a lifetime," Yelas said. "The biggest thrill was the day before the tournament when we took a float plane two hours west of Kenai into the wilderness. Along the way we had to go over a mountain range packed with snow, and glaciers were everywhere.

"The pilot flew us through canyons the whole way with spectacular views. I had never seen anything like it. We landed on the Nushagak River and caught 10- to 25-pound salmon at will for four hours and then flew home. I tossed an in-line spinner and caught one about every fifth cast until my arm hung at my side like a piece of meat. I can't wait to go back."

Sounds like good preparation for defending his Classic title later this month.

KLEIN'S PRAISE. Although he and Shaw Grigsby dominated the recent ESPN Great Outdoors Game bass competition, Gary Klein was full of praise for the third-place team.

"The team that really impressed me the most was Rick Clunn and Denny Brauer," he said. "They both spent no pre-practice time out there. They flew in on Wednesday, which was the off-day. They fished the one day of practice on Thursday on a man-made reservoir where you can see the bottom in 10 or 12 feet in the summertime. And they finished third.

"My hat was off to those guys. I thought they did a heck of a job with what they had to work with."

GREAT EXPERIENCE. As the CITGO BASS Federation champion, Jerry Shawver earned an invitation to participate in the Great Outdoor Games. And he says his experience in Reno was something he won't ever forget.

"The Great Outdoor Games was great," the Florida angler said. "Just to get to be around and fish with the legends of the sport - especially to get to fish with Zell Rowland. My strength is topwater, and to get to fish with someone who's similar in strength is really neat. I learned a few things. The best thing was we just had a great time together.

"I don't know that the Great Outdoor Games helped me prepare for the Classic. Fishing-wise, no. Getting used to some of the other stuff, maybe. It reminded me a lot of the (Federation) championship, having the cameras on you all day long."

DID YOU KNOW? In addition to his other successes in the past year, reigning Classic champ and Busch BASS Angler of the Year Jay Yelas also caught the largest bass of the 2003 Tour season - a 10-pound, 4-ounce largemouth on Day One at Lake Seminole in Bainbridge, Ga.

PRO BIRTHDAYS. Four-time Classic winner Rick Clunn will blow out 57 candles on July 24. On the opposite end of the age spectrum, Texas pro Todd Faircloth celebrates his 28th birthday on July 25.

IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... "If I had not become a bass pro, I would probably be a self-employed real estate salesman," Mississippi pro Jeff Magee said. "I majored in marketing and business in college, and selling is really all I know other than how to fish. I would probably be very wealthy today had I not started pro fishing, but I love the sport and chose that direction for my life."

THEY SAID IT. "He's one of the biggest reasons for all of my success this year. We just clicked. It's hard to find someone you can trust completely. Everything we do on the lake during practice we share. So we're able to put patterns together pretty quick. There's been times when he has come by me while I'm fishing and tells me that he just caught a quick limit and invites me to fish there. And I've done the same with him." Louisiana pro and pre-Classic favorite Roger Boiler on his relationship with road roommate and fellow Classic contender Chad Morgenthaler.