Elite Series rookies kick off 2012 season

Bassmaster pros face off on Florida’s St. Johns River

Fletcher Shryock competed last month in the Bassmaster Classic, so his first official week on the job as a Bassmaster Elite Series pro wasn’t the awakening it might have been.

“At the Classic, I was able to get most of the jitters out,” said the 26-year-old from Newcomerstown, Ohio. “From now on, it’s just going fishing.”Shryock is one of 10 first-season Elite pros in Palatka this week for the St. Johns River Showdown, which began Thursday and runs through Sunday. The tournament marks the first time in their careers that the Elite rookies have been up against a field of the world’s best anglers.

The stakes at the St. Johns are high: a $100,000 first prize, an instant-in for the 2013 Classic and points. Awarded on a sliding scale according to event finishes, points are important because they determine postseason and 2013 Classic qualifications, as well as the season’s Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award.

The rookies had to earn their way into the Elite Series. Nine came through one of the three Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open circuits. The tenth, Jamie Horton of Centreville, Ala., qualified by winning the top amateur competition, the Cabela’s B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Championship, a win that also sent him to the Classic in 2012.

Horton and Shryock were the only two rookies who had the 2012 Classic as their break-in period. Horton, 44, stands apart from his fellow rookies because he’s a veteran of two Classics and many Federation Nation competitions.

At age 23, Kevin Ladoux of Choctaw, Okla., and Kyle Fox of Lakeland, Fla., are the youngest of the 2012 class. Fox, who has competed in the Opens since he was a teenager, wasn’t concerned about facing big names like Skeet Reese and Kevin VanDam. He was more worried about what the fish would throw at him.

“I need to beat the fish, not the anglers,” Fox said.

And don’t get him wrong: Just because he’s a Florida native doesn’t make him an expert on the St. Johns.

“This isn’t my forte, so I am nervous about that. I’ve never been here this time of year. All this is new to me,” said Fox, who, oddly enough, won his Elite ticket through the Northern Opens. He counts that experience as good training for tackling unfamiliar fisheries.

Rookie Michael Simonton, 31, gave up a teaching career in Fremont, Ohio, to try his hand at professional fishing.

“The first two days of practice, I wasn’t catching much, so I said, ‘Well, there’s nothing to be nervous about.’ Then, after I shook off a big one in practice, I started to get nervous once I saw I had a chance to do well.”

He used to be able to talk things through with buddies competing with him in the Opens. Not anymore.

“I came down here and didn’t know a single person,” Simonton said. “I don’t know how others are doing. But I feel like I’ve become a decent fisherman and have confidence I can make some good decisions this week.”

From Caryville, Tenn., Brandon Card, 25, is tapping into his Open and collegiate fishing team experience for his Elite debut.

“Catching five fish a day sounds easy, but I know it isn’t,” Card said. “But so far, I’m pretty comfortable here; I’m treating this like any other tournament. Once I get going, I’ll probably feel more nervous.”

Jared Miller had a tough break in his first week. He threw out his back in the first hours of practice Monday. Miller, 28, from Norman, Okla., said he felt pain in his lower back, and then suddenly had trouble bending over to pick a rod up off the deck of his boat. In pain, he sought medical help.

“Maybe because I’ve been thinking about my back, it’s kept my stress level down,” Miller said.

But pain or no pain, the rookie was eager to get on the water — although he’ll take it easy. His shortened practice didn’t worry him.

“In my career, I’ve always done best in tournaments preceded by my worst practices. I’ll just go out and figure it out, day by day, keep an open mind and try new things when I need to.”

The other rookies are Casey Scanlon, 27, of Lenexa, Kan.; Chris Zaldain, 27, of San Jose, Calif.; and Cliff Prince, 32, of Palatka, Fla. — an old hand on the St. Johns River.

“I was born and raised here, and fishing tournaments on the St. Johns for 20-plus years. It’s where I learned to tournament fish, anyway,” he said.

But for his first Elite event, that could work against him, he said.

“The home-water jinx could always happen,” he laughed.

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