GOING THE DISTANCE; MILEAGE MAY VARY
The road to the Bassmaster Classic can be grueling. Not just the qualifying, but the actual bumpy, paved road. Some of the competitors, whose drive times vary from an hour to more than a day and half, are having their long roads turn even longer by snow.
While some altered their departures to dodge snow, reigning Classic champion Kevin VanDam is among those who headed into the teeth of the storm that's crossing the Midwest on Wednesday.
"I'm going to hit it dead on," VanDam said Tuesday. "I wish I could have left earlier. That wasn't an option for me with the schedules I've got." At 1,040 miles, VanDam's trip is among the top 10 longest. It's usually a 17-hour drive, he said, but snow accumulating on several hundred miles of his path is sure to slow his progress.
"I know it's going to be an interesting day," he said. "It's inevitable, whenever you have a brand new, clean boat, there's a snowstorm where you get a salty, messy boat. "I'm used to driving in it at least. It's the other guy I've got to worry about. I'll look at it and try to time it to get where I don't get in the worst part of it." Other anglers, like those in Oklahoma and Arkansas where the impending storm had grocery store shelves empty, left for their 10-hour drives on Tuesday to beat the snow.
The 50 competitors would like to get settled in to New Orleans by Thursday for the three-day practice period starting Friday.
Sean Alvarez, who qualified for his first Classic through the Bass Federation Nation, was delayed by snow -- twice. First, the Eastern Division champion waited for a snow storm to pass his Rutland, Vt., home, and then he was held back several more hours because his wife's car was stuck in a snow bank along his driveway, blocking his escape. Contacted Tuesday afternoon, he was only hours into his 1,591-mile journey.
Battling 16-degree temps -- "it's warmed up a bit" -- he asked to be excused three times as he hit toll booths south of Albany, N.Y. "The windows of the car are frozen shut, so I have to open the door," he said. "Boy, these states make a lot of money on tolls." Alvarez said if he had left Monday as planned, he would have hit a significant storm. He is fortunate he isn't towing a boat; his new Triton awaits in New Orleans. "I can drive a lot faster. I drive more comfortable," he said. "The draft (from trucks) pushes the boat like you wouldn't believe."
As a safety manager who just got back from Mexico and will leave the Classic for work in Ohio, he's well-traveled and knows his limits driving. He has a bedroll in the back of the truck and will stop for sleep somewhere, maybe twice, in the middle of his 26-hour drive.
He's positive of his detailed practice plan and takes having the fifth-longest trip as a good sign. "That's means I'm to going to end up in the top five," he said, stopping to pay another toll. The toll is shortest for Greg Hackney, who will need a little less than an hour to make downtown New Orleans from his home in Gonzales, La., only 58.2 miles away.
Cliff Pace is the next closest, only two hours away in Petal, Miss. Both are picked to do well in the 41st Classic, having local knowledge of the water and relatively easy trips in.
In 2009, Skeet Reese showed quick travel wasn't necessary for success when he came 1,941 miles from Auburn, Calif., to win the Classic in Shreveport, La. His trip this year is 330 miles more, but his travel won't take him the estimated day and a half. Reese was home Tuesday afternoon, out picking up his girls from school.
He hired a driver to take his rig to New Orleans while he flies in to meet the black and yellow Wednesday.
Brandon Palaniuk is the long-drive champion anyway. The Federation Nation National Champion's hometown of Rathdrum, Idaho, is 2,384 miles from New Orleans, topping Reese by 114 miles but only another hour of travel as estimated by Google maps.
Yet Palaniuk won't be facing two 18-hour days on the road this week. He already made the drive to prefish the Classic in December and is in Florida now practicing for the Elite Series event on the St. Johns River. "It was nasty," he said of the trek that took him through Wyoming and horizontal snow. "You couldn't even see that there was a road there. You just see the reflectors."
Palaniuk said he made four trips across the country in 2010, and four back, so his 9-hour drive Thursday to the Big Easy won't seem so big, more easy. "I'm not going home until after the Elites are done," the 23-year-old said. "I'm going to live out the back of my pickup all the way until Elites are through in June."
The title of world traveler goes to Morizo Shimizu, who hails from Osaka, Japan, some 7,118 miles from the Classic venue. Still working on his English, Shimizu had difficulty imparting where he was Tuesday. It was either Palatka, site of the St. John's River Elite event, or Sarasota, or possibly Patagonia.
He certainly knows where he's going to be Friday, and he's thrilled about his first Classic. "Yes, very excited," he said, followed by a long infectious laugh. "November I fish in the practice. Louisiana Delta ... hard fishing for me. But I had some good area."
He and a friend from Japan will hit the road to complete his trip halfway around the globe to fish the Classic. "Maybe tomorrow. I driving it now. I go to Louisiana," he said, again laughing exuberantly. "I'm very happy. Ready for Classic."
For the 50 competitors, getting into the Classic was one thing; getting to this Classic is something completely different.
Going the distance: Mileage may vary.