Best tournament of the year?

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Pay no attention to the whining about the scarceness of bass in the Delaware River. Well, no, listen to it, because it's too funny not to lend an ear.

“Today, I had one bite,” said Gerald Swindle, about his final day of practice before this Bassmaster Elite Series event, headquartered in the sixth most populous metropolitan area of the U.S.

That bite, was it a bass?

“Yeah, I caught him,” Swindle answered. “I just wanted to hold one. I laid in the [bass boat] floor and held it for a minute. It was a little 13-incher.

“Fishing here is like trying to do pottery underwater. The stuff just ain't going to form up.”

No plans for five-bass limits and 20-pound days are going to “form up” this week.

“The fish are bigger here, but I had more bites in practice at Pittsburgh,” said seven-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam, who won the 2005 Classic there with the infamously low total of 12 pounds, 15 ounces, a Bassmaster Classic record, by far, for lowest total weight in that three-day event.

But in the eyes of “The Zen Master,” Rick Clunn, who celebrated his 68th birthday on July 24th, that's where the beauty—and, more importantly, the challenge—lies in the Delaware River.

“We're the best bass fishermen in the world,” said Clunn. “If you put us in a phosphate pit full of bass, what have we proved?”

The Delaware River is more like a tidal basin where the bass feed every day for about six hours, and six hours only, when the river is at low tide—something the Elite Series anglers won't see all week.

“I thought it was okay,” said Steve Kennedy about his first few hours of practice Monday. “I caught one and shook off another one. At four o'clock the next day, I hadn't had another bite. Not another bite!

“I finally went up in a creek where I got two or three bites [Monday] and I couldn't get a bite.”

Kennedy's total after three days of practice on the Delaware River?

“I caught two, one keeper, and I shook off another five or six bites — in THREE DAYS,” said Kennedy, shaking his head in frustration.

He wasn't the only Elite Series angler expressing anguish.

“It's tough,” said Aaron Martens, the reigning Bassmaster Angler of the Year. “High tide is just wrong. Outgoing low [tide] is actually pretty good.

“But we're not going to get that this week. It's going to make for a really tough tournament.”

“I bet there are 30 zeroes [Thursday],” said Swindle, about the 108-angler field. “Maybe 40.

“Dude, I fished 12 hours [Tuesday] and never had a bite. At least 16 of us never had a bite. Skeet hasn't had a bite in two days.”

That's Skeet Reese, winner of a Bassmaster Classic title in 2009, and an Angler of the Year crown in 2007.

And Clunn is cherishing every moment. It is moments, not flurries of fish-catching, that will decide the winner of this tournament and its $100,000 first-place prize.

“It's going to be a challenge, I don't deny that,” Clunn said. “But that's the way it should be if you're going to call yourself the world's best angler.

“There's a pattern working here. There's a logical way to figure out that pattern. That's what our jobs are all about.

“This tournament will be like a lot of tournaments early in my career, where every cast might be the only bite you're going to get. You better not miss him.”

That's why this tournament will be so entertaining. It will be the ultimate test of concentration. How do you maintain concentration when you've already made a couple thousand casts that were retrieved without a bump?

“He likes these,” said Kennedy about Clunn. “These are ones where he's likely to win because, mentally, a lot of guys will be out of it.”

It's going to take more than KVD's total at Pittsburgh to win this tournament, but how much more? That was the question on the minds of many at Wednesday's anglers' meeting.

“Forty-three or 44 pounds,” said Matt Herren.

“Not that much. Maybe 40,” said Charlie Hartley.

“I can't see more than eight or 10 pounds to get a [top 50] check,” said Herren.

“Twenty pounds might make the top 12 cut after three days,” said Hartley.

“Dude, it's going to be hard-pressed for someone to tell me it ain't going to take four pounds a day to make a check,” said Swindle.

Mike Iaconelli grew up fishing the Delaware River. In the days leading up to this event, he's said over and over that this is a quality bass fishery. But Iaconelli has been faced with some hard facts from his fellow Elite Series anglers this week.

“I feel like an idiot,” Iaconelli said. “Honestly, going into this week, I thought eight or nine pounds a day would put you in the top 50. I honestly thought that.

“I know the river is fishing tough right now, but it's loaded with 1 ½-pound fish. They're everywhere. Two-pounders are a little harder to come by. Three-pounders are really hard to come by. But there are numbers here, which has me a little freaked-out right now.

“I still think the biggest bag will be 15 or 16 pounds,” he said. “My goal is 12 or 13 pounds a day. If I get that, I think I'll have a shot.”

Have a shot? To listen to the other Elite Series pros, they'd take 12 or 13 pounds for a two-day total.

Leave it to Swindle to put everything in perspective: “When I started practice, I was very optimistic, with a positive mental attitude. After the second day, this place had slid into the second position, which is ‘this is the worst place I've ever fished in my life.’ After Wednesday, it has taken a commanding lead: This is the worst place I've ever fished in my life.

“Now I understand why Iaconelli is angry, because he's got to drive up here. And now I understand why when he catches a 12-incher, he thinks it's a giant. Because if you catch one here, it is a freaking giant.

“He's angry. Now it all makes sense.”

Finally, leave it to Kennedy to make the most sense of all.

“Somebody is going to catch 'em,” he said. “Someone always does.”

And, one more time, what will “catching 'em” be on the Delaware River?

“Right at 30 pounds,” Clunn said, “give or take a few. There are 14-pound bags out there, but I don't know if they can stand the pressure.

“Somebody might catch 12 or 14 pounds, but he might not have over seven pounds [a day] the rest of the tournament.”

Thus, the ultimate challenge.