The excitement level among Bassmaster pros and fishing fans alike is reaching a crescendo as the eagerly anticipated $1.6 million CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer heads into the Bassmaster Elite 50 series April 14-17 on Arkansas' Lake Dardanelle.
The Elite 50 series also marks the first time that the cream of today's crop of bass pros will face off in limited-field events. These 50 top pros earned their Elite status through either their combined performance over the past three CITGO Bassmaster Tour seasons or through a career of excellence that placed them atop the BASS all-time money list.
It is an all-star lineup, to be sure.
"I never even considered the possibility of something like the Elite 50s where we don't have to fish for our own money and where we have a chance to win some big money and we're being paid the equivalent of an appearance fee like other sports," veteran Texas pro Alton Jones said. "Even the last-place guy after the four tournaments is guaranteed to make $20,000.
"I'm really excited about it. I just applaud ESPN for taking it to this level, and I would love to see it grow."
The format for the Bassmaster Elite 50 events will change a bit from the Tour events, featuring the BASS Showdown format. After the second day, the top 12 anglers will be separated from the rest of the field. Those dozen will fish a rotating series of six designated fishing holes. The remaining 50 anglers will continue to fish on day three, however they will not be able to fish the six-hole course and they will be vying only for positions in the standings after 12th spot. After day three, the 12 will be cut to the Super Six who will again fish the six-hole course. The Super Six will be the only anglers from the field to fish during day four.
The unique Elite 50 format pays handsomely for the most consistent performers throughout the four tournaments. The winner of each event earns $5,000, while the top angler, in the point standings, at the end of the Elite 50 season pockets a cool $150,000.
In addition, the top 10 Elite 50 pros will earn invitations to the prestigious CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer, slated for July 30-Aug. 1 in Charlotte, N.C.
Although it has never hosted a BASS event, Lake Dardanelle is expected to be a great place to launch such an innovative circuit.
"Lake Dardanelle has been a fine bass lake for a long time," said Penny Berryman, a Dardanelle resident and top female tournament pro. "Dardanelle is everything that a bass fisherman could want in a lake.
"It has a good, stable population of bass and plenty of shallow cover for them to live in. And all fishermen enjoy fishing shallow cover best of all. This lake also has a variety of cover. You can find something to suit every fisherman on this lake."
Located in northwestern Arkansas, Lake Dardanelle is situated on the extreme northern boundary of the Ouachita Mountain Province and sprawls through five counties. Lying in the shadow of both the Ozark and Ouachita national forests, Dardanelle is surrounded by picturesque landscapes in every direction.
It was completed in 1969 as part of the multi-million-dollar McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigational Project and covers 35,000 acres on its 50-mile run to the Ozark Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam. The reservoir, which is 2 miles at its widest, is captured between Russellville and Little Rock. Its 315 miles of shoreline weave a network of cozy coves and inlets along the way. Also included are numerous creeks, deep pits and backwater flats.
Two-time BASS tournament champion and former Dardanelle resident Doug Garrett predicts that the Elite 50 pros will enjoy some springtime fishing.
"The fishing on Lake Dardanelle ought to be great," he said. "It should be a fun tournament.
"The fish will be spawning. The spawn generally covers three (full) moon phases on Lake Dardanelle because you have such a diversity in the water. The bays and stuff will be dirty water where they will spawn first. Then the fish in the creeks and river system spawn at a later time.
"The fish will be in the dead grass where they will catch them on a jig and a tube bait and flipping a lizard. A pretty good-sized spinnerbait, too. It will strictly be a grass bite, but not the type of grass that we're used to fishing. It's what we call Dardanelle grass. It's nothing more than water lily that grows around the bank. That's what the bass key on and where they'll spawn."
Lake Dardanelle traditionally produces 8- to 11-pound bass in April, according to Garrett.
"The best part of the whole reservoir - the Illinois Bayou and the four strip pits - are where the (Showdown format) finals will be held," he said. "The strip pits for years and years have always been on fire in mid-April. It used to be possible to go in there and catch a 10-bass limit that weighed 50 to 60 pounds if you hit it perfect during that time. So there will be a lot of fish caught in the strip pits during the finals.
"I'd say it will take 18 pounds a day to make the cut. After that, if the pits are in great shape it's really easy to catch 20 pounds a day in there during the finals."
Daily weigh-ins will begin at 7:00 p.m. at Lake Dardanelle State Park and are free to the public.
THE CITGO BASSMASTERS ON ESPN2 Fans can catch the first event of the new Bassmaster Elite 50 series on Arkansas' Lake Dardanelle, Saturday, April 24 at 10:30 a.m. ET/9:30 a.m. CT on ESPN2.
THE BOTTOM LINE Immediately following the weigh-ins at all four of the Bassmaster Elite 50 events, fans will be able to see the results of the tournament on ESPN's The Bottom Line, the crawling list of sports news, scores and updates at the bottom of the screen on ESPN2 and SportsCenter.
NEXT STOP The Bassmaster Elite 50 series will hold the second of four events on Mississippi's Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, May 19-22.
BASSMASTER ELITE 50 CHAMPION Pros fishing in the Elite 50 series will be competing for Bassmaster Elite 50 points throughout the four showdown-style events. Anglers are awarded points based on their finishes in each of the four 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 and 2-point increments to 50th place.
PUROLATOR BIG BASS New for 2004, Purolator, the official oil filter and air filter of BASS, is instituting an incentive to the angler who catches the heaviest fish each day. Pros catching the largest fish will receive a $1,000 bonus in all four of the Bassmaster Elite 50 events. An additional $1,000 will be awarded to the angler who catches the largest fish of each tournament.
BUSCH SHOOTOUT 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 Heavyweights" 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 December. Murray's Day 3 catch of 21 pounds qualified him for the tournament.