SHREVEPORT/BOSSIER CITY, La. - Pressure builds every year, like a Major League Baseball pennant race, when the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Series schedule continues after the conclusion of the Bassmaster Elite Series season.
The Central Open on the Red River, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, represents the first game of a season-ending Louisiana doubleheader. The third and final Central Open, originally scheduled for February but canceled due to high water, will be held Oct. 27-29 at Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin.
"To fish these next two tournaments, it's almost like an old school team tournament," said Bassmaster Elite Series pro Cliff Crochet of Pierre Part, La.
Crochet failed to qualify for the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro through the Elite Series. These final Central Opens are his only avenues to the Classic.
"For me, there's really nothing involved except for winning," he said. "It's kind of refreshing."
The floods that roared through this area in March, and then again in August, have created an unfamiliar playing field, even for the many Louisiana residents entered in this anticipated 182-boat field pairing pros and co-anglers.
"It's different because of the floods," Crochet said. "The river has a new personality."
Elite Series pro Stephen Browning of Hot Springs, Ark., liked the old personality of the Red River. Two of his three B.A.S.S. victories have come on the Red River, in the 2013 and 2014 Central Opens. But both of those tournaments were in April, so Browning was expecting a different scenario this time anyway.
"I felt like it was going to fish a lot differently just because it's fall instead of spring," Browning said. "It may help me. Instead of fishing my history, I'll fish the conditions."
Teb Jones of Hattiesburg, Miss., finished second by 1 ounce to Skylar Hamilton in the first Central Open, which was held on the Arkansas River at Muskogee, Okla., in early June. Jones has spent a few practice days on the Red River, and he confirms what everyone suspects - the Red River is different now.
"The water looks great," Jones said. "The water clarity is good. But there's a whole lot of new stuff that wasn't there before. Of the areas I'd fished before, it wasn't as predictable as I expected it to be.
"I don't expect it to be a slugfest. I think if you consistently catch 12 to 13 pounds for three days you're going to be in great shape, based on what I've seen so far."
When Browning won in the spring of 2013 his three-day total was 40 pounds, 10 ounces. In his 2014 win, it was 44-3.
The pro field is dominated by Louisiana anglers, as you might expect with the Central Open tournament schedule featuring two events in their home state. Many of the competitors' names aren't well-known outside the region, but Crochet is familiar with them.
"There's 60 or 70 people from Louisiana fishing the Central Opens (on the pro side)," Crochet said. "Some of them I've been fishing against for years. They aren't slouches."
Provided he or she fishes all three Central Opens, the winner receives a berth in the 2017 Classic, which will be held at Texas' Lake Conroe. With the Elite Series concluded, the Southern Opens division long over, and the Northern Opens concluding Sept. 23, the focus of the Bassmaster tournament world falls on Louisiana now.
It's a good, old-fashioned pennant race that's going down to the wire.
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. CT at the Red River South Marina. Weigh-ins will be held at 3 p.m. at the Red River South Marina the first two days, with the final weigh-in on Saturday taking place at the Bass Pro Shops in Bossier City, La., at 4 p.m.