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Battling nerves to pursue bass on the big stage

As I was perusing the Internet a couple of weeks ago, I ran across an article promoting the Bassmaster Classic. For those of you that may not know, the Classic, as anglers refer it to across the world, is the championship tournament for B.A.S.S.

Is it a big deal? Yes! The winner will pocket $500,000. Not bad for a week’s work. What struck me, though, is where this year’s Classic will be held at the end of February — Grand Lake ‘o the Cherokees.

I have a special connection with this Northeastern Oklahoma impoundment. This is where I fished my first professional tournament. As I read the article, my mind drifted back to that fateful event. Let me set the stage for you.

I had been hosting a fishing and hunting television show for just over a year. The show aired nationally on The Outdoor Channel. This network was also airing shows for the popular Central Pro-Am bass circuit. As part of their negotiated package, the tournament organizer guaranteed a spot in each tournament for someone from The Outdoor Channel.

As I sat at my desk one day, the phone rang. It was the program director from the network.  They wanted television hosts to compete. My stomach dropped.

I was quite aware of the Central Pro-Am. During this time period, this particular circuit was a regional stomping ground for some of the best anglers in the business. Many of the current B.A.S.S. and F.L.W pros either got their start on the circuit or still competed on a regular basis. It’s one thing to talk about fishing on TV; it’s a completely different thing to test your skills against some of the best around.

There were six events scheduled for that season. The program director started listing the dates off to me. As he listed them I made up excuses. “Nope, sorry, I’ll be filming in Georgia that week." "Uh, no, I’ll be in New York for that event.” My list of reasons why I couldn’t compete got me out of the first five events that season.

Then he got to event number six in late August. I couldn’t think of any reason why I couldn’t compete. The event was being held on Grand Lake ‘o the Cherokees. He said he would register me. Done. I felt sick.

The summer flashed by, and before I knew it, I was hooking up the boat to the truck and heading to Oklahoma. My brother offered to go with me. I was thankful. If anyone would understand the pressure I was under, it would be him. So far, The Outdoor Channel hosts had finished dead last in each of the five previous events. Would I be the sixth?

When we crossed the state line and were just a few minutes from the lake, I thought I was going to lose my lunch. The official practice period was two days before the event started. Every gas station, hotel and restaurant had $50,000 bass rigs sitting around. What the heck was I doing here?

To compound my problem, I had never seen this lake before. Sure, I did as much research as I could find in magazines, newspapers and the Internet, but actually being on the water is a much different experience than reading about it.

My brother and I checked in to the resort and went out to eat. I couldn’t really stomach much of anything. Everywhere I looked, there were well known names in the fishing world. These guys are all hyper-competitive and stereotypical type “A” personalities. Everyone here thought they were the best and they looked like they could accomplish the task at hand.

I trembled, shook and continued to feel queasy.

The practice days went well though. My pre-tournament research had yielded the fact that many tournament anglers do well here fishing shallow, even during the horribly hot Oklahoma summers, and the fish seemed to like white. Enough said.

I rigged up my crankbait rod with a Strike King series 4S shallow running lure in bright white. I scoured the lake to find shallow cover that looked appealing. During the practice time, I located several very unique boat docks that were holding fish. I caught some of them and could see others cruising around.

At this time, I didn’t have the fancy, super-complex GPS graphing units that grace most bass boats these days. My dad had bought me a hand-held unit just before I left. My brother and I were marking waypoints like crazy hoping I could follow this contraption on tournament day.

Finally, the pre-tournament meeting was at hand.

This is where I will leave off for this week. I will finish my tale next time as I continue to reflect upon Grand Lake ‘o the Cherokees.

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