That is because the $449,000 Florida CITGO Bassmaster Tour event, which will pay a cool $100,000 to the winner, is accompanied by the enthusiasm that always surrounds the season opener, but also includes several new developments:
A new CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year program that will shower the top performers with a whopping $311,550 (paying $100,000 to the Angler of the Year and cash awards paid to 25th place).
Spots in the new Bassmaster Elite 50 series will be on the line during the six-event, $2.6 million CITGO Bassmaster Tour season. The Elite 50 series is the first big-money, no-entry-fee circuit in the history of professional bass fishing.
The new Purolator Big Bass Prize will award $1,000 to each pro and $500 to each amateur that weighs in the largest bass each day of every event. Additionally, the angler who reels in the biggest bass of the four-day tournament, pro or amateur, will add an additional $1,000 to his earnings.
The new Busch Shootout will award $200,000 for the season, in a format that will pay $1,000 to the pro who posts the largest catch each day of the Tour and Elite 50 events. The 10 largest daily catches of the Tour and Elite 50 season will earn a coveted spot in the $160,000 Busch Shootout, a one-day televised tournament scheduled for Sept. 18 on a mystery lake.
So you can see why the pros are anticipating this season more than ever before.
"I'm absolutely stoked for a lot of reasons," said reigning CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion Michael Iaconelli. "The changes that are happening with the sport, like the new Elite 50 circuit and the Busch Shootout, are exciting within themselves. But on a personal level, I'm excited about the new season."
Iaconelli is not alone.
"I'm excited because all of these things further elevate the sport," said two-time CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Gary Klein. "For us pros, they provide even more opportunities...to make money."
And then there is the season opener that awaits the nation's top pros on the Harris Chain. After several months away from competition, they are eager to get back into action.
No pro knows the Harris Chain of Lakes as intimately as Jim Bitter, a five-time BASS winner from Fruitland Park, Fla. Bitter believes the beleaguered chain has almost completely recovered from the problems of the 1990s.
"I think (Lake) Eustis and (Lake) Harris are probably as good or better than ever before," he said in reference to the high-quality fishing that attracted five BASS events from 1986-1990. "(Lake) Dora is probably not quite as good. (Lake) Carlton and (Lake) Beauclair are probably about the same as always.
"(Lake) Griffin is coming back pretty well. It had a tremendous spawn last year - the whole chain had a tremendous spawn due to the low water followed by rising water. ... There are enough in there to win. No doubt about that. It just depends on how much the good places get pressured.
"I think the Chain is close to being back. At (its best) it wasn't any better than (Lake) Harris and (Lake) Eustis are right now."
In Central Florida, the quality of fishing revolves around the unpredictable winter weather. In last year's Tour season opener, won by California pro Skeet Reese, bitterly cold weather delayed any spawning action and made resident bass largely inactive. Fishing was tough.
"I think the fishing's going to be about the same unless something happens with the spawn," Bitter said. "I expect we'll have a little bit of the spawn like we did last year, but I don't know if we'll get a major one or not.
"This time of year a guy could get lucky and catch a 7-, 8- or 10-pounder every day or two of the four days and end up with a pretty good limit of fish. But I think you've got to worry about catching a limit of fish, and I think a limit of fish each day will put you in the top 12.
"I think 40 pounds ought to win it unless we have a major spawning move. And then it's going to take tremendous weight because this chain is capable of it. If we have a major move, we'll have some spawning in all of the lakes at one time. And guys will catch some 20-plus pound sacks."
In terms of fishing techniques, Bitter expects that bass will be caught with "probably a little bit of everything, just like last year. There will be some cranking, some Carolina-rigging, Texas-rigging, spinnerbaits. Somebody may even catch them on topwater."
Daily weigh-ins take place at Venetian Gardens on Lake Harris at 3 p.m. Anglers launch beginning at 7 a.m. at Hickory Point.
THE CITGO BASSMASTERS ON ESPN2
You can catch the first event of the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail on the Harris Chain of Lakes in Leesburg, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 7 at 10:30 a.m. ET/9:30 a.m. CT on ESPN2.
SCHEDULE - CITGO BASSMASTER TOUR EVENT 1
Registration - Wed., Jan. 28, 3 p.m. Lake Sumter Community College
Briefing - Wed., May 21, 6:30 p.m. Ramada Inn East
First day launch - Thurs., Jan. 29, 7 a.m. Hickory Point (Little Lake Harris)
Day 1 weigh-in - Thurs., Jan. 29, 3 p.m. Venetian Gardens (Lake Harris)
Second day launch - Fri., Jan. 30, 7 a.m. Hickory Point (Little Lake Harris)
Day 2 weigh-in - Fri., Jan. 30, 3 p.m. Venetian Gardens (Lake Harris)
Third day launch - Sat., Jan. 31, 7:30 a.m. Hickory Point (Little Lake Harris)
BASS Sponsor Expo - Sat., Jan. 31, 10 a.m - 6 p.m. Venetian Gardens (Pat Thomas Ball Field)
CastingKids Competition - Sat., Jan 31, 10:30 a.m.- 1 p.m. Venetian Gardens (Pat Thomas Ball Field)
Day 3 weigh-in and cut - Sat., Jan. 31, 4 p.m. Venetian Gardens (Pat Thomas Ball Field)
Fourth day launch - Sun., Feb. 1., 7:30 a.m. Hickory Point (Little Lake Harris)
BASS Sponsor Expo - Sun., Feb. 1, 12 p.m.- 6 p.m. Venetian Gardens (Pat Thomas Ball Field)
Day 4 weigh-in - Sun., Feb. 1, 4 p.m. Venetian Gardens (Pat Thomas Ball Field)
BASS SPONSOR EXPO (ADMISSION IS FREE)
A popular component of the CITGO Bassmaster Tour events this season is the highly interactive and family friendly BASS Sponsor Expo area. Sponsors present interactive exhibits and provide a fun family experience for all ages. The Expos take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and from 12 p.m. until 6 p.m. on Sundays.
The CITGO Bassmater Tour will roll into Jasper, Ala., for the second event of the 2004 season. Smith Lake will play host to the anglers with competition Feb. 5-8.
The top 25 anglers in point standings from the CITGO Bassmaster Tour will earn a berth in the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer, however, there are already 12 anglers who have already qualified for the 2004 Classic through the CITGO Bassmaster Open divisions. These 12 include:
CITGO Bassmaster Open - Southern Division Tim Horton David Walker Denny Brauer
CITGO Bassmaster Open - Central Division Edwin Evers Tim Carroll Steve Sennikoff
CITGO Bassmaster Open - Northern Division Art Ferguson III Kevin Wirth Chuck Economou
CITGO Bassmaster Open - Western Division Bink Desaro John Murray Skeet Reese
CITGO BASSMASTER ANGLER OF THE YEAR
Pros will be competing for CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year points throughout the 2003 season. Anglers are awarded points based on their finishes in each of the six Tour events. The tournament winner receives 300 points. The scoring decreases in 5-point increments to fifth place, 4-point increments through 10th place, 3-point increments through 15th place, 2-point increments to 99th place and 1-point increments for the remainder of the field.
PUROLATOR BIG BASS
New for 2004, Purolator, the official oil filter and air filter of BASS, will reward the angler who catches the heaviest fish each day. Pros catching the largest fish will receive a $1,000 bonus while the amateurs can look for a $500 reward per tournament day. An additional $1,000 will be awarded to the angler (pro or amateur) who catches the largest fish of the tournament.
Another new program for 2004 is the $200,000 Busch Shootout contingency program. Qualifying Tour pros will receive a $1,000 bonus for the largest sack brought in per tournament day.
The top 10 "Busch Heavy Weights" from the Tour and Elite 50 events will be joined by anglers with the top weights from the 2004 Classic, the 2004 Federation Championship and the 2003 Open Championship to compete in the single-day Busch Shootout tournament, Sept. 18, on a mystery lake. The winner will receive $100,000, with everyone else taking home a $5,000 check.
Arizona's John Murray was the first to qualify for the Busch Shootout tournament by having the heaviest sack at the 2003 CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship on Toledo Bend Reservoir last November. Murray's Day 3 catch of 21 pounds qualified him for the tournament.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR AWARD
Newcomers to the Tour this season have the opportunity to earn not only a $10,000 bonus, but also the title of Rookie of the Year. Mark Kile was the top newcomer in 2003, with a 12th place finish based on Angler of the Year point standings at the end of the 2003 Tour season.
At the conclusion of the 2003 season, Takahiro Omori was awarded the Horizon Award for the angler who posts the greatest improvement over the 2002 season. Omori finished 40th in 2003, a 98-place improvement from the previous year. The award, which will be given out again in 2004, includes a check for $25,000.
BASSMASTER ELITE 50
New for 2004, BASS introduces the $1.6 million, no-entry-fee Bassmaster Elite 50 series. Fifty anglers, including the top 20 active anglers on the BASS All-Time Money List, the top 27 in cumulative points from the 2002, 2003 and 2004 Tour seasons, and the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year, the 2004 BASS Rookie of the Year and the 2003 CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion, will compete in the four-event series with the winner taking home a $100,000 check.
Currently 2003 Classic champ Michael Iaconelli is the only angler with a guaranteed spot. Anglers are sure to be jockeying for position in the points and money during the 2004 Tour season with hopes of gaining entry into the series.
BASS RECORDS AT LEESBURG
Last BASS event hosted/winner January 2003/ Skeet Reese (15-2)
Seven previous BASS events hosted at Leesburg
2003 Skeet Reese (15-2)
1992 Mike Folkestad (14-10)
1990 Larry Nixon (31-7)
1989 Jim Bitter (19-11)
1988 Larry Nixon (25-8)
1987 Lonnie Stanley (16-6)
1986 Roger Farmer (24-8)
Heaviest wining weight: Larry Nixon 31-7 (1990)
Lowest winning weight: Mike Folkestad 14-10 (1992)
LAST TIME IN LEESBURG
California's Skeet Reese won his second BASS event and the 2003 Tour season's first event on the Harris Chain with a four-day total of 36 pounds, 12 ounces.
BASS IN FLORIDA
The Leesburg event will mark the 47th event conducted in Florida, second to Alabama (59) for hosting BASS events.
ORIGINS OF THE TOUR
While BASS has conducted tournaments since 1967, records for the CITGO Bassmaster Tour presented by Busch Beer begin with the 1994-95 season, as that was the first year the pro-am tournaments earned points toward the Angler of the Year award
The heaviest total weight tournament in CITGO Bassmaster Tour history took place in April 2002 on Alabama's Lake Guntersville, where the field of pros brought in an astonishing 5,645 pounds, 4 ounces of bass.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass-fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.
BASS MILLIONAIRES CLUB
Seven anglers will begin the 2004 Tour in the BASS Millionaires Club. Those are the anglers who have racked up over $1 million in career BASS prize money. Those seven anglers are:
1 Denny Brauer $1,715,664
2 Rick Clunn $1,527,769
3 Larry Nixon $1,521,733
4 Jay Yelas $1,242,732
5 Shaw Grigsby $1,208,555
6 Kevin VanDam $1,173,450
7 Gary Klein $1,153,544
Two anglers to watch in 2004 are Ron Shuffield and Roland Martin. Shuffield and Martin are poised to join the BASS Millionaires Club by the end of the 2004 Tour season with all-time winnings of $969,996 and $967,421 respectively.
The CastingKids program, presented by CITGO will be held in conjunction with the BASS Sponsor Expo Saturday, Jan. 31 from 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Pat Thomas Ball Field. Children between the ages of 7 and 14 can participate in the contest with the chance to earn a scholarship.
The event and instruction to youngsters will be facilitated by the local BASS Federation.
2004 CITGO BASSMASTER TOUR SCHEDULE
Site: Harris Chain of Lakes - Leesburg, Fla.
Jan. 29-Feb. 1
Site: Smith Lake - Jasper, Ala. Feb. 5-8
Site: Lake Guntersville - Guntersville, Ala. Feb. 26-29
Site: Table Rock Lake - Kimberling City, Mo. March 4-7
Site: Lake Eufaula - Eufaula, Ala. March 18-21
Site: Santee Cooper Reservoir - Manning, S.C. March 25-28
2004 BASSMASTER ELITE 50 SCHEDULE
Site: Lake Dardenelle - Russellville, Ark.
Site: Tenn-Tom Waterway - Columbus, Miss. May 19-May 22
Site: Alabama River - Prattville, Ala. June 2-5
Site: Ohio/Cumberland/Tennessee Rivers - Paducah, Ken. June 16-19
BASS ON THE INTERNET
For information and news about BASS events, www.bassmaster.com is available to members of the media and the general public and provides daily wrap-ups and standings from each event as well as schedules of events and other BASS news. Working media can access stats, stories and photos at www.espnoutdoorsmedia.com. Please apply for a password today.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Skeeter Boats, Mercury Marine, Yamaha Outboards, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.
Associate Sponsors include G3 Boats and Bryant Heating and Air Conditioning.
Local Sponsors are: Lake County, Fla.; City of Leesburg; Lake County Water Authority; Leesburg Chamber of Commerce
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.