Scott Depot native ready for next weekend's Bassmaster Classic
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's fishing's Final Four, World Series and Super Bowl all rolled into one.
And for Jeremy Starks, next weekend's Bassmaster Classic is the culmination of a dream he's had his entire angling life. Starks, 39, of Scott Depot, is the first West Virginian to qualify for the exclusive Classic field as a professional.
"It's a bigger deal than I ever thought it would be," he said. "I've been doing interviews and doing my best to get ready for it, but there are so many things still to do."
As an established professional on the Bass Angler Sportsman Society's Elite Series circuit, Starks already had a ton of commitments lined up for the winter months.
"Winter is when most of the big outdoors shows are held, and my sponsors want me at a lot of those," he said.
"Ordinarily, getting ready for a new [tournament] season is a two-month process - changing rods and reels, getting my baits in order, getting my boat rigged and getting all the [electronic fish-finding gear] right. Being in the Classic compresses that time frame considerably."
In past years, Starks' season began with the season's first regular-season tournament in mid-March. The Classic is a late-February affair. This year's tourney, scheduled for Feb. 22-24, cut three weeks off his usual preparation time.
"In addition to the usual stuff, I've been doing a ton of interviews," he said. "And the people on Facebook and Twitter are forever talking about the Classic."
Starks qualified for the tournament last May with a victory in the Elite Series' Douglas Lake Challenge. It was the West Virginian's second win on the circuit. The previous one, at the Southern Challenge in 2008, didn't earn him a spot in the 2009 Classic because the rules for qualifying were different at the time.
"I'll have to admit, it's been a lot of fun hearing tournament announcers refer to me as a 'two-time Elite Series champ and Bassmaster Classic qualifier,'" Starks said with a smile. "And being the first pro from West Virginia to make the Classic is a special honor."
The other West Virginians to fish in the Classic, Frank Haught in 1989 and Russ Smarr in 2000, were amateurs who qualified by fishing B.A.S.S. Federation tournaments. Starks has been a fixture on the top-level professional Elite Series circuit since 2007, and has banked $424,710 in winnings.
He believes he has a good chance to make a strong showing in the Classic.
"It's on Grand Lake, near Tulsa, Okla.," Starks said. "Grand is an average-sized lake, about 40,000 acres, and it's known for being a really good winter-and-spring lake."
Starks expects to find bass in large schools, bunched up in deep areas of the lake.
"Jerk baits will play a big role in the tournament. It will surprise me if two-thirds of the top 10 fishermen aren't throwing jerk baits or maybe some cold-water crankbaits. Whether the fish bite well or not will depend on the weather," he predicted.
"We might have 50-degree water temperatures, or we might have 36-degree temperatures. If temperatures are relatively high, it's going to take big weight to win the tournament - maybe as much as 20 to 22 pounds of fish a day."
Starks has plenty of experience at wintertime fishing, and for that reason he thinks he might do well.
"I think it's a realistic goal to make the final-day cut, which in the Classic is the top 25 anglers," he said.
His busy pre-Classic schedule has kept Starks from fishing as much as he would have liked, and he plans to spend as much time on the water as he can before he leaves for Oklahoma.
"It's not like I haven't been fishing. I just haven't been fishing as much as I would have liked," he said. "From the end of August through the end of the year, I spent 44 out of 120 days fishing. I even fished through deer season, which is unusual for me. There's no replacement for time spent on the water."
Starks even made a trip out to Grand Lake to "get a feel for the place" before the mid-December cutoff period for pre-tournament fishing.
"I fished it, but mostly I was looking for the lay of the lake. Chances are it will fish differently during the Classic than it did when I was out there," he said.
To avoid putting too much pressure on himself, Starks tries not to spend too much time thinking what it might be like to win bass fishing's most prestigious tournament.
"It's a life-changing event for anyone who wins," he said. "And not just because of the [$500,000] first-place money. Financially, there's so much more money to be made just from being a Classic champ through appearances, endorsements and long-term deals.
"It's best not to think about all that stuff. It's better just to relax, go out, fish the tournament and see what happens."
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.