The Bassmaster Classic has always been considered the Super Bowl of professional bass fishing. It has traditionally been the overhyped finale to a summerlong season of fishing tournaments in lakes across America.
This season, however, the Classic is more like the Daytona 500.
For the first time since 1971, the Bassmaster Classic will be held at the beginning of the season, just like NASCAR does with its biggest race. The three-day tournament is today through Sunday on Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee.
The tournament will be a stone's throw from the new Bass Anglers Sportsman Society headquarters, which moved to Kissimmee in April 2005. BASS was headquartered in Montgomery, Ala., since 1968.
The change in schedule was made to take advantage of the 22,750 square foot lake's plentiful supply of largemouth bass this time of year. Previous midsummer Classics haven't produced many big bass, something the tournament, and especially ESPN's audience, want to see.
Lake Toho should produce some lunkers. In the winter of 2001, professional Dean Rojas - who will compete this weekend - set a four-day total BASS record of 108 pounds, 12 ounces of fish weighed at the lake. And this year's tournament will be held close to a favorable moon phase, which should bring big, spawning females into the shallows.
The 51 anglers qualified for the tournament hope to break Rojas' record and collect the $500,000 grand prize. Palatka native Terry Scroggins is the overwhelming favorite.
The 37-year-old grew up fishing on nearby St. Johns River and is familiar with Kissimmee's lakes. This is his third Bassmaster Classic, and he doesn't mind a little pressure.
"It's a pretty neat deal," said Scroggins, who finished 13th at last year's Classic in Pittsburgh. "You've got 50 of the best fishermen in the world you're going against, so for those guys to give you the respect that they think you're one of the best is pretty neat. But really, anybody can win this thing."
The field is certainly full of experienced fishermen. There are seven who have won Classics, including 2005 champion Kevin VanDam, 2003 champion Michael Iaconelli and Rick Clunn, who won the 1977 Classic on Lake Toho. Clunn is fishing in his 30th Classic. Aaron Martens, the 2005 Bassmaster angler of the year, is also among the field.
Only two Florida fishermen qualified, Scroggins and Palatka's Preston Clark, who partnered in tournaments from 2000-03 and teamed to win 60 tournaments and more than $150,000.
Clark finished second to Dave Wolak for rookie of the year during the 2005 season. He finished 15th at the 2005 Bassmaster Classic, his first.
"I feel like I know (Kissimmee's lakes) well enough to win, without a doubt," Clark, 41, said recently. "And that's what I'm going there for. When I went to Pittsburgh (for the 2005 Classic), my goal was to catch a fish, to be able to walk across the stage every day, and I never really allowed myself to really think about winning it. But I'm going down there to try to win this thing.
"If I can't win it, I hope that Terry does."
The only disadvantage the Florida duo may have is weather. Scroggins was hoping for a cold front, which would have made fishing conditions tougher, but it appears bad weather will hold off.
"The weather will kind of dictate what I do," Scroggins said. "It looks like it's going to be warm and clear, which isn't the best situation for me. That allows you to sight fish, and these guys can all do that. I think I'd do better with a cold, overcast day, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen."
WHEN/WHERE: Today-Sunday; Lake Tohopekaliga, Kissimmee.
IF YOU GO: Launch site is Kissimmee Lake Front Park (101 Lakeshore Blvd.). Weigh-ins are at Orange County Convention Center (9400 Universal Blvd., Orlando).
TV: ESPN2; Sunday weigh-in is on ESPN.
TIMES: Boats launch each day at 6:30 a.m. at Lake Front Park. Weigh-in on Friday is 7:30 p.m., Saturday is 4:30 p.m. and Sunday is 5:30 p.m.
FORMAT: Anglers may weigh up to, but no more than, five bass per day. The winner is determined by the most three-day combined weight of fish caught.
FIELD: There are 51 anglers who qualified through various tournaments in 2005.
PURSE: The winner receives $500,000. The total purse is $1.2-million.
CONTACT: The official Bassmaster Web site is bassmaster.com. For more information, call 1-800-345-9898.