Getting closer to the Classic action

It's that time of year again — my favorite time! I'm not talking about hunting season, though I love that, too. I'm talking about the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by Diet Mountain Dew and GoPro.

With less than a month to go before we launch on Lake Guntersville, I'm in full preparation mode — getting my Nitro and Toyota Tundra wrapped, making sure all my gear is ready to go and generally trying to take care of all the things within my control. I know that by taking care of those things, I give myself the best possible chance to win.

One question I get a lot at this time of year has to do with the fan boats that follow the anglers at a big event like the Classic. Some folks have asked how I prepare for that or if it's a distraction.

Well, first and foremost I want to tell you that it's a good situation to be in. I really appreciate that our fans are supportive enough to be following me and passionate enough to get out there on the water — especially when it might be really cold! It's a great way to see the action live and watch your favorite pro when it's all on the line.

The practice of getting out and following the pros in the Classic really seemed to take off in the early 1990s. I remember that David Fritts had more than 80 boats following him on Logan Martin in 1993. Last year, on Grand Lake, my cameraman counted 85 boats following us on the water. As a competitor, it's something I have to plan for, though not in the ways you might think.

For the most part, fans on the water are considerate and don't get close enough that they adversely affect the fishing. Most will stay back and watch from a respectful distance, and I appreciate that tremendously. The temptation might be to try to get a front row seat and get too close, but that could destroy an angler's opportunity to compete.

Guntersville will be a great venue for on the water spectators. It's a big lake and fairly open, so running and staying within sight of your favorite angler should be pretty easy.

Something to watch out for if you're on the water are the official B.A.S.S. camera boats following some of the anglers. Those boats are getting still or television images that will wind up on TV, online or in the magazines, and the photographers in those boats have experience at these events — we work with them all year long, year after year. They know how close they can get, and they know how close is too close. The photographers are also watching for signals from the anglers that tell them when to back away or when the angler is going to change directions. It's all done so the photographers can do their jobs without unnecessarily impacting the fishing and the outcome of the event.

Unfortunately, a lot of fans see the camera boat as guideline for how close they can get. They figure if the camera boat is close, they can get close, too. It can create some tough situations for an angler trying to win the biggest tournament of the year ... or his life. We all appreciate the support on the water — and the cheers from the crowd when we catch one are awesome — but it's important to view the action without impacting it.

For the most part, the fans don't affect the fishing. They stay far enough back to let the angler do his job. The biggest thing that I have to plan for in fishing the Classic is deciding the best way to approach my areas if there are a lot of spectator boats following me. One boat coming into an area slowly and carefully is usually not a big deal, but 50 that are all jockeying for position can create a serious disturbance.

I remember a summertime Classic where an angler was on a boat dock pattern and did really well the first day. When he launched on the second day, there were a lot of boats with him. They created such a big wake that he couldn't pitch and skip his best spots and he dropped in the standings.

I used to think that a shallow bite was more affected by all the traffic than a deep bite, but now I believe the opposite is true. In the shallows, a lot of the noise is absorbed by the bottom pretty quickly. Deep water is more affected because it's usually clearer and the fish are more sensitive. When a bunch of boats are nearly directly overhead and running their electronics, it can turn a school of bass off in a hurry.

I led the first day of the 1996 Classic on Lay Lake in Alabama, catching suspended spotted bass in deep water near the dam. Word got out about where I was fishing, and about 35 boats were waiting for me when I got there on Day 2. It killed the bite. Unfortunately for me, I didn't have a good Plan B and fell out of contention. I was out there alone in the finals and was able to catch a good bag again. It taught me a big lesson.

Now I work very hard to make sure I have a lot of spots to fish in the Classic. It's rare that one is enough unless you have a way to mitigate the impact of a lot of traffic. In 2010 on Lay Lake, I had the perfect scenario. The bridge in Beeswax Creek created a buffer that slowed boat traffic, and the spectator boats discouraged other competitors from entering the area where I eventually won the tournament. Even better, the terrific bank access gave hundreds of fans a chance to watch from the shore.

If you plan on coming out this year at Guntersville, be sure to bring a pair of binoculars but leave your rods at home, please maintain a respectful distance and turn off your electronics. And don't forget to dress for the cold weather. You'll have a great time.

I hope to see you out there!

Meanwhile, remember — it's all about the attitude.