PENSACOLA, Fla. — Last year at this time, a tropical depression was blowing through Pensacola leaving destruction and frustrated Redfish Cup anglers in its wake. But this year's teams have been greeted by blue skies and breezy 70-degree weather. Common sense would seem to dictate that such a drastic change in weather conditions would create a vastly different fishing tournament, but the chatter among anglers at the Net Gains event presented by ARC Dehooker was that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
"This is a beautiful place to fish, but it's also very challenging," said Redfish Cup angler C.A. Richardson. "It's always a deeper pattern than we're traditionally used to fishing, and that plays out regardless of the weather."
But even if the weather doesn't play a significant role in this year's event, the regular season standings will. The top 35 teams after this event will automatically re-qualify for the 2009 season, while the rest of the field must compete in the U.S. Invitational to earn their bid. For anglers on the bubble, that means taking risks and at times fishing out of their comfort zone to bag fish that will boost them in the standings.
"We're fishing a technique that I would never normally fish," said Bill Faulkner, who along with his partner Kevin Mihailoff sits on the bubble in 29th place. "The other day I caught a redfish on an anchor and I've never done that before in my entire life."
C.A. Richardson and his partner Ray Van Horn, who sit comfortably in 11th place, are employing an entirely different strategy based on their position.
"We fished the first three tournaments hard so we could take it easy here," said Richardson. "We've basically taken all the woods out of the bag and we're playing with a chipping wedge and a putter."
But Jim Franklin and his partner Brian Fornea's top-10 ranking has created a dilemma for the pair normally known for their risk-taking.
"In five years I've never not fished to win a tournament, so playing it safe goes against our nature," said Franklin.
But this year the duo has three major factors playing a role in how they will fish.
"On one hand we want to fish to win, but we also want to make sure we qualify for the championship and for next year's Cup," said Franklin. "If we zeroed both days, I'd be really scared."
According to Franklin, the pair is on fish in shallow grass flats that could win the tournament. But those fish are also 120 miles away, and the risk of the long run may outweigh the benefit.
"We're just going to wake up in the morning and go with our gut," said Franklin. "And always remember that you can't win the tournament on the first day."
For those anglers that decide to stay close, they'll be facing the challenge of a few hot spots populated with several Redfish Cup teams fishing in sight of each other.
"It's going to be a lot like the Port Arthur event, where lots of teams were fishing close to each other," predicted angler Sam Bertha, Jr. "Of all the venues this can be the toughest one — but it's tough for everyone."
"But Mother Nature is always the great equalizer," chimed in good friend and pre-fishing partner C.A. Richardson, who also predicted it would take 22 pounds to make the final day cut.
"The ultimate poker game has been played this week, so there's really no telling how it will play out."
Tune in tomorrow for the live weigh-in beginning at 3 p.m. CT right here at ESPNOutdoors.com.