Hope Floats At Oklahoma’s Fort Gibson Lake In Season Finale Of Bassmaster Central Open

Tommy Biffle will swing for the fence at his home lake.

Mike McClelland has been praying for fellow Bassmaster Elite Series pro Brent Chapman.


It’s not that pros aren’t always watching out for each other, but McClelland’s prayers are shaped by something less spiritual: a Bassmaster Classic qualification.


McClelland says he prayed for Chapman’s safe arrival in Wagoner, Okla., to compete in this week’s Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open on Fort Gibson Lake.


Prayer answered.


“I heard he’s there already,” the angler from Bella Vista, Ark., said on Aug. 31 as he was traveling to the same destination.


Now, McClelland is praying that Chapman remains healthy and able to participate in the Sept 6-8 Open. All registered anglers compete Thursday and Friday. Only the Top 12 will move on to Saturday’s finale to vie for $50,000 in prizes and a ticket to the 2013 Bassmaster Classic.


If Chapman fishes on all days he’s eligible, then he can claim the Classic seat that came with his Open win back in February in the first Central Open of 2012. But he doesn’t need it, so he’ll pass it on to the next angler on the Elite points list, who happens to be McClelland.


Chapman would become a rare Classic triple-qualifier. One qualification was via an Elite win, another through the Elite points system, and third would be the berth gained on the Open trail.


“I’ve been on pins and needles,” McClelland said. “I never count my chickens before the eggs are hatched.”


Technically, McClelland doesn’t have to compete in the Open to get a Classic seat via Chapman, but the Arkansas angler is motivated to be there anyway.


“As long as Chapman is fishing, I’ll work hard to help Jeff Kriet through the course of week,” said McClelland.


McClelland would have to be in the Fort Gibson event to help Kriet because a competitor can receive assistance only from another competitor. This Open is important to Kriet: It’s the only door to Classic 2013 left for him, and McClelland is determined to help him open it.


Other Elite pros have a shot at Classic 2013 through the Open. Jared Lintner, one place below McClelland, could get in if the winner of the Open has already qualified for the Classic (and if the Chapman-McClelland scenario plays out).


Scott Rook, next after Lintner on the Elite points list, would then become the beneficiary of what is very likely to be a triple qualification by Chris Lane. Lane has one seat as defending Classic champ, and he has another via the Elite points system. Like Chapman, Lane would be a triple qualifier if he finishes out his Open division. For Lane, that’s the Central Open, which will wrap up in October.


McClelland — who last competed on Fort Gibson Lake in the 2010 Elite event, in which he finished ninth — said the lake has always favored a shallow-water fisherman. The bass are usually inshore, perhaps because the shad seem to hang in the shallows, he said.


“The lake is full of baitfish, which makes it a very fertile fishery. It has a good population of bass. But one thing we’re up against is the full moon phase, when fish feed at night, so conditions aren’t super-favorable.”


The Fort Gibson Open may not be won in a traditional shallow-pattern fashion, he speculated.


“This may be one of those events someone will win by finding something unique,” McClelland said.


That someone could well be Elite pro Tommy Biffle of Wagoner. Fort Gibson is his home lake, and he’s won there so many times, he’s lost count: “a bunch of times,” he said. One was the 2010 Elite event; his four-day weight was 73 pounds and 11 ounces.


Biffle doesn’t need the win to make the Classic. He accomplished that Aug. 26 at the Elite season finale, pulling himself up from 38th in the standings to finish at 27th place, inside the Top 28 cutline.


But before he secured his seat, he implemented Plan B. He spent weeks on Fort Gibson, fine-tuning a strategy that would net him a win if all else failed. He was doing everything in his power to ensure he would not sit out a Classic on Grand Lake, just upriver from Fort Gibson Lake.


“If something happened at Oneida, then I’d have to win the Open. I was covering my bases,” Biffle said.


The water is low, Biffle said. The level on Aug. 31, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, was 552.15 feet, almost 2 feet below the normal conservation pool level of 554 feet. At 552.15, the lake size comes in at 331,200 surface acres.


“We didn’t get any rain from the storm (Hurricane Isaac),” he said. “So those who have been practicing there for weeks might have some advantage. They started coming even before I left for Oneida (in mid-August).


Biffle is one of the Elite pros who could help another pro into the Classic.


“I know there’s one or two wanting me to win,” he said. “There’s a real, real good chance I can.”


Fans can watch the outcome in person or online at Bassmaster.com, where free-access coverage will be available all three days.

The Thursday and Friday weigh-ins will begin at 2:45 p.m. CT at Taylor Ferry North, east on Hwy. 51 out of Wagoner. On Saturday, the Top 12 from the first two days will weigh their catches at 3:45 p.m. at the Bass Pro Shops in Broken Arrow, Okla., 101 Bass Pro Drive.