The BASS Masters Classic is nicknamed the "test of the best" and no better venue could have been selected for this year's world championship bass tournament than the Louisiana Delta near New Orleans, La.
Forty-six qualifiers for the Classic faced a complex set of variables as they set out Thursday morning to execute the pattern to win the world title and the fame and fortune that accompanies it.
Rainy June: In June, some three feet of rain fell in the area, pushing new torrents into the vast network of bayous, canals and lakes in southeast Louisiana where salty and fresh water mix. The Classic contenders' quarry is the largemouth bass and the fishes' locations were unpredictable due to the high muddy water and other factors such as a budding hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and ongoing herbicide spraying efforts to control the growth of vegetation in the lush delta environment.
Following Tuesday's practice round, many Classic hopefuls were scratching their heads.
I spent the warmup day with Peter Thliveros of Florida, fresh off his second consecutive victory in the ESPN Outdoor Games bass competition. He caught just two bass, and only one of them was a keeper.
Changed tactics: For the first competition day, Thliveros was forced to change water and tactics. With little idea where the bass were and what they might strike, he tied on a shallow-running crankbait and started covering a lot of water.
He came to the scales Thursday with a limit of fish, then endured the pain of a nine-minute late-to-check-in penalty, effectively wiping out his first day's effort.
That's tournament fishing.
On the first day of the tournament, I rode with 1982 Classic champ Paul Elias of Mississippi. While many other fishermen drove hundreds of miles out into the delta wilderness, Elias opted for a small dead-end canal just 30 miles from the launch site.
Fifteen minutes into the morning, he hooked and landed a keeper bass on a buzzbait, then proceeded to beat the water to a froth in the quarter-mile-long canal. He generated four more strikes in the area with spinnerbaits, a swimming worm rig and his buzzer, but none of the bass got his hook.
Determined to finish the first day of the the three-day Classic within striking distance of the leaders, Elias changed up and moved to a nearby canal and added three more fish to his livewell.
"I thought I could win the Classic in this area," Elias said. It missed: As dawn broke over the second round, Elias sat in 12th place, just five pounds out of first place and he longed for the three-pounder that rolled up from a weed patch and tried to eat his spinnerbait but missed. .
That, too, is tournament fishing.
At the head of the pack, meanwhile, was Kentuckian David Walker, star of a Timex watches television commercial and one of the new stars on the professional fishing trail. He started the day with confidence and finished it in similar fashion. As others worried about the variables, mostly the weather, Walker had a solid plan.
"I know where I'm going and what I'm going to do," he said at Thursday's news conference. "I'm going to have plenty of confidence and I know that is what I have to do to do well in this tournament."
Judgment call: Kevin VanDam of Michigan made a judgment call early in the tournament and it resulted in a solid first-round performance that placed him third in the elite field.
"I got to my first spot and they had sprayed the vegetation since I saw it Tuesday," he said. "I didn't even stop to fish because it was all brown and dead-looking and from my experience I knew the bass wouldn't be biting there.".
He moved to another location and used the wind to his advantage to sack a five-bass limit.
"The wind helps oxygenate the water and it's a real key," VanDam said.
Weekend anglers can learn a lot by taking note of pro anglers' tournament tactics. Classic qualifiers truly are the world's top bass anglers, and they get to the title tournament based on their fishing instincts -- including the one that tells them when to stick with a tactic and when to change up.
That's the difference between winning a world title or going home an also-ran. And it's the difference between enjoying a good day on the water or towing home your tail between your legs.