The 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic, the most prestigious and arguably the most highly hyped professional fishing competition around, opens Friday morning in downtown Pittsburgh on the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongehela rivers.
By next Sunday night, a $700,000 pursue will be divvied up, with the top gun among 47 fierce competitors going home with 200 grand and a reputation sure to win additional financial spinoffs and glory.
And while it in many ways resembles NASCAR in terms of glitz and glitter and glamor and promotion, the Classic has an X-factor that will keep the drama high for its followers.
That factor is the black bass family.
The smallmouth, the largemouth, and the spotted bass now flourish in the Pittsburgh area's rejuvenated rivers, which now run clean(er) and green, not red and dead as in the Rust Belt and Steel days half a century ago.
Jim DeLesandro Jr. displays a typical largemouth bass caught in the Three Rivers area in downtown Pittsburgh.
The bass still are wild, they do not read magazines or newspapers, do not browse Web sites or watch television.
They do whatever they want to do. And that at times can include totally bamboozling anglers intent on hooking up with them.
So whoever among the 47 Classic guns finds and fires the magic bullet will win it all. All of them possess the skills, know the rules, understand too well how the game is played.
But none of them can will a fish onto a lure and into the livewell.
So the element of uncertainty likely will keep things honest. The tri-rivers may run with bass but bass will run the show.
"It's tough to say right now," said Ron Franklin as he surveyed the field of Classic pros with an eye to a top contender.
Franklin does play-by-play for weigh-in coverage on ESPN, which plans to air more than 15 hours of event-related programming.
"Ike is so hot right now, and he is such an impressive power fisherman that you have to say he will be a factor," he said about Mike Iaconelli, the Runnemede, N.J., pro who won the 2003 Classic in New Orleans.
On the other hand, Franklin said, "KVD is perhaps the best fisherman out there right now and considering he won back-to-back Elite 50 titles, you have to say he is primed for another Classic victory." KVD is Kevin Van Dam of Kalamazoo, Mich., who (among other honors) won the 2001 Classic and was Bassmaster angler of the year three times.
However, Franklin waffled a bit - "don't count out the old guard. Rick Clunn is an excellent fisherman and he has really figured it out this year. I would never bet against Rick."
Clunn, from Ava, Mo., is among leaders in terms of BASS organization tournament wins, 12; has appeared in more Classics than any other angler (28) and is a four-time Classic winner.
So much for speculation.
The pros were allowed five days of practice on the river in late June, and in the weeks closest to the big event no contestant supposedly is allowed to so much as fly over the rivers except on a commercial flight, let alone fish them or otherwise pry inside information from
About 90 percent of the bass in these rivers are smallmouth, with largemouth more prevalent in the Monongahela and Ohio, along with some spotted bass.
The conditions are going to be quite unlike the events scheduled on big turbid southern lakes and impoundments, where the growing season is long if not 24-7-365, where the bass thus grow relatively large, and where events often are planned around spawning seasons when bass are more aggressive.
In short, the fishermen who understand finesse tactics may excel in the Pittsburgh Classic's summer "northern" post-spawn conditions. Lighter lines, smaller lures, that sort of thing.
Only 25 anglers will be around for the final and third day. Those who do not make weight after two days will be reduced to spectators or commentators. A daily tournament limit is five fish, and the keeper minimum length is 12 inches.
The post-practice commentary from pros often includes a dose of grumbling about small fish, scattered fish, and concerns about even bringing five legal fish of any size each day.
Whether such remarks represent actual results or a version of Texas Hold-Em sandbagging won't be known until the first day's catches are weighed Friday afternoon.
Fifteen-time Classic qualifier Van Dam, however, does not believe complaints that the fish are not there.
"I like river fishing for smallmouth in summer, when water levels tend to be stable,'' said the 37-year-old champion.
"I like that it will be tough fishing because that is when I do my best."
Adds veteran Clunn: "I think anybody that makes the cut can win this Classic."