Each morning, ESPN Outdoors reporter David A. Brown joins one of the Bassmaster Classic anglers on their drive from the boatyard in downtown Birmingham to the launch site at Lay Lake. Today's host: Jeff Kriet.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — They call him "'The Squirrel" and he's closing in on the biggest acorn of his professional fishing career — his first Bassmaster Classic victory.
Hailing from Ardmore, Okla., Jeff Kriet enters championship Sunday leading the field of 25 anglers with a two-day weight of 32 pounds, 1 ounce. The nickname, he said, comes from a behavior pattern that he has worked hard to suppress.
"Several years ago, I was a head case, bad," Kriet said. "I'd be in contention and catching them in a tournament pretty well, but I'd get spun out and have a bad day. (Fellow Elite Series angler) Greg Hackney's a straight shooter and he said 'You're like a squirrel out there looking for a nut. I can see you out there running around with that ol' tail flicking and all nervous.' If I didn't catch them, he'd say 'You squirreled, didn't you?'"
FACT BOX: AT A GLANCE
Angler: Jeff Kriet
Boat #: 8
Vehicle: Chevrolet Diesel
In the console: Empty water bottles, sunscreen, drill bits, iPod, several pens, two deep diving crankbaits, one bag of Big Bite Baits Squirrel Tail worms and dental floss.
Tunes: Hip-Hop (Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z)
Classic Record: Qualified 6 times
Breakfast: One can of Diet Dr. Pepper
Lunch: Candy bars and peanut butter sandwich
Favorite Winter Olympics Event: Speed skating and Curling
Quote of the Day: "People tell me 'I'd like to do what you do but I don't have the time or the money and I have a family.' I tell them, when I started fishing (professionally), I didn't have the time or the money and I had a 2-year-old child. I guess I just wanted it more than they did."
Reinforcing the nickname, Kriet was conducting a boat show seminar when his modest crowd of about a hundred suddenly swelled nearly tenfold. He initially thought the throngs had come for his words of angling instruction, but then he saw his competition.
"I thought 'I've got this going on — I'm bringing the crowd," Kriet said. "I was casting into this little pool and all of a sudden I see these people walk up with a little cage and a little ski boat and I realized that everyone was there to see Twiggy the Water Skiing Squirrel.
"I got upstaged by a squirrel, but I wasn't impressed with his routine. He just stood there on those skis because he didn't want to get wet. The squirrel had no game."
During our ride to the lake, Kriet's focus and determination sounded more like a wolf on the hunt than a neurotic rodent. "This is my time. I'm going to win this one."
Now, here's where it gets interesting: Kriet's lead is only two ounces — a whisper-thin margin separating him from Day One leader and two-time Classic winner Kevin VanDam.
Complicating the scenario, Kriet, KVD and Todd Faircloth (third place, three ounces off the lead) are fishing the same creek with the same basic technique — lipless crankbaits.
This will be one of the most interesting Classic finishes in recent memory, but the stress and anxiety normally associated with leading this event have magnified exponentially for Kriet. The top three anglers are all friends, but it's game time and only one person gets to raise the big trophy.
Kriet's in a pressure cooker, no question about it. No problem, though — he's got it covered.
Last year, Kriet hired a sports psychologist to help him analyze his performance issues and the factors that were limiting his success. The insight he gained proved invaluable. For example, mentally visualizing a stop sign helps Kriet dispel any negative thoughts. Also, understanding that operating at full power for a several-day
tournament plus practice days is simply not a reasonable expectation.
"The psychologist I went to also works with Olympic downhill skiers and they have to peak for about a minute and a half," he said. "They prepare and visualize well in advance, but they only peak for a short period. My problem is I got too caught up in trying to peak during practice and she's taught me to peak at the right times.
"Today's my day to peak."
Kriet's thoughts on:
WEATHER: Following a week of extremely cold conditions, Lay Lake has seen progressively warmer weather. Oddly, this change for the better took Kriet out of his preferred deep game, and he considers that a fortunate turn of events.
"Three days of practice were really bad. The worst conditions you can fish anywhere are cold and muddy waters. I think cold water fishing is my strength. I like to finesse fish deep offshore structure — that's what I'm best at.
"The thing is, if the water had been a little clearer, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing, because I like to fish deep too much. The way I'm fishing right now is no doubt the way to win. The fact that the weather did what it did made me fish to win, rather than how I wanted to fish."
SPECTATORS: Although he appreciates the interest and devotion of Bassmaster Classic fans, Kriet admits that the well-meaning attention can inadvertently impede the type of pattern he's working.
"I'm fishing an area that has some irregularities, so I may slide in toward the bank and then work it out. If I slide in, (the spectator boats) slide in and when I try to slide out, they're sitting where I want to be."
CLASSIC OPPORTUNITY: He's known as a hard worker who often comes close, but ends up a little short of victory and Kriet's had about all he cares to swallow of that medicine. A Classic victory would elevate him beyond the ranks of very good and propel him into greatness. Today, Kriet's mission is to replace the question mark with an exclamation point.
"At the end of the day, I want to come in thinking 'this is mine,'" he said. "I don't want there to be any question. I want to beat VanDam, I want to beat Todd, I want to beat everybody out there. But my motivation is this: I've had two good days, but let's make this make this your best day; let's catch them better than you did for two days.
With the top-three anglers literally running neck-and-neck, another solid performance probably will not suffice for a decisive victory. Sure, another 2-ounce margin would win all the marbles, but Kriet doesn't want to squeak by — he wants to slam the door, stomp his feet and light a match. That'll take a big kicker fish.
"I dreamed about catching 19 pounds before the tournament," he said. "I've had a feeling all week that I was going to catch a giant and what a better day to do it?"