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Long wait almost over for Open pros

Greg Hackney punched his Classic ticket last year on the Open circuit. 

CELEBRATION, Fla. — Five lucky pros have known for months that their tickets had been punched for the coveted 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh, July 29-31, to be played out on the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.

Unlike the other Classic contenders, they've enjoyed the luxury of not having to wait and ponder, sweat and toil, over their fate in regards to qualifying for the most important event in professional fishing.

It was easy to recognize the Fortunate Five on the CITGO Bassmaster Tour this season. They were the laidback guys sporting the biggest smiles.

"I can't tell you what a relief it was to have the Classic already made," said Edwin Evers, an Oklahoma pro who earned his Classic ticket as one of the top-five finishers in the CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship last December. "I was able to fish relaxed this year on the Tour. That was nice."

Indeed. With a Classic invitation in his pocket, Evers won a Tour event, finished third in another and made a run at the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year title.

Open competitors from the Southern, Central, Northern and Western divisions battled through three tournaments in each region of the country last fall to reach the Open Championship. Other early qualifiers include Greg Hackney of Louisiana, North Carolina's Chris Baumgardner and a pair of Classic rookies: Bradley Stringer of Texas and Mississippi's Cliff Pace.

Their wait will end this summer in Pittsburgh when they join the other top anglers in the weeklong celebration of bass fishing known as the 35th Classic. At stake in the three-day competition on the three rivers will be a $200,000 top prize and the biggest title in competitive fishing.

"Man, I can't tell you how good it felt to already have the Classic made, especially when I got off to such a slow start," Hackney, 31, said. "I pretty much just started too early this year. I really wasn't ready to get started. I didn't have enough off time, and I had the flu at the first tournament. It seemed like everything went downhill from there.

"Finally, late in the year, the fun came back in it, and everything seemed to come together. At least I didn't have to worry about making the Classic early on."

As it turned out, a late-season push (that included a victory in the Tour finale at Table Rock Lake) would have easily put Hackney into the Classic. He finished fifth in the Angler of the Year standings.

"I'm excited about this Classic being on a river system," Hackney added. "It'll be my third Classic, and I consider myself a pretty good river fisherman."

Stringer, 31, winner of the Open Championship and a disciple of structure-fishing guru Buck Perry, gets more excited as his first Classic approaches. "I'm still kind of just walking around pinching myself," he said. "I'm more excited about the Classic than I can put into words."

The soft-spoken Baumgardner said it was "different" to be able to cruise through the Tour season without worrying about his standing in the Classic race.

"I start off every season thinking about making the Classic," said Baumgardner, who finished 78th in the Tour standings. "I think it probably made me fish relaxed this season — maybe too relaxed."

Although Evers is competing on the CITGO Bassmaster Elite 50 Tour, he admits it's difficult not to think ahead to the upcoming Classic.

"I'm really looking forward to going to Pittsburgh," said Evers, who will be making his fifth Classic appearance. "It should be a good tournament. Everybody's dream is to win the Classic."

The five early Open qualifiers can take comfort in the fact that 2003 Classic winner Michael Iaconelli used the same route on his way to victory on the Louisiana Delta.

The $700,000 Classic is the most important and watched event in competitive fishing. The winner takes homes $200,000 and a piece of angling immortality. Fishing fans both in the Mellon Arena and watching on ESPN/ESPN2 will take home a boatload of memories.

Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Toyota, Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Lowrance Electronics, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops and Cialis (tadalafil).