The ESPN Bassmaster Elite Series returns this weekend for the Pride of Georgia event, the tour's fifth trip to Thurmond Lake after taking a year off in 2009.
With so much on the line -- a first prize of $100,000 -- fans might think the lake is off-limits to public boats during the event. That's not the case, according to the series' senior publicist, Doug Grassian.
"Some fans actually take to the water and follow guys around. It's a public body of water, so that's fine with us," he said. "Some tournaments, there will be 50 to 100 boats following the leader around."
Fans can also get access to the professional anglers via events throughout the weekend. Daily launches each morning Sunday-Thursday at Wildwood Park in Appling. Daily weigh-ins are set for 3:30 p.m. at the same location.
Fans can also participate in expos that will feature interactive activities, such as a casting challenge.
"The professionals are very accessible from an autograph standpoint," Grassian said. "If they miss the cut, they hang around the expo, and fans can go up and talk to them."
The field will be cut to the top 50 anglers after Day 2, then cut to the top 12 for Sunday's finale.
In the field for the event is Skeet Reese, of California, the runaway leader in this year's Angler of the Year standings. Also in the field are the winners of the past three Bassmaster Elite events held at Thurmond Lake: 2008 champion Kenyon Hill, of Oklahoma; 2007 winner Mike McLelland, of Arkansas; and Davy Hite, of Ninety Six, S.C., who won in 2006.
The contingent local to the lake area include Hite and Wagener, S.C., angler Jason Williamson.
The professionals have spent the past three days charting areas and trying out equipment.
Grassian said that even with only three days to practice, professionals will get plenty of time on the water before the tournament days.
"They'll practice from dawn to dusk, 12 hours a day almost. No matter what amount of time you give them, they'll figure out a way," he said.
Grassian believes Thurmond Lake offers a unique quality compared to other Bassmaster Elite venues.
"When you talk to the anglers, they tell you there are a number of different ways, different strategies on this lake," Grassian said. "Another positive about holding tournaments here is you get fantastic crowds, really engaged crowds who seem to know what's going on. Most of them have favorite anglers they root for."
The tournament will be taped and televised at 10:30 a.m. June 6 on ESPN2.
Beda Johnson, the executive director of the Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the economic impact of the event might appear to be smaller than other events because only about 100 anglers are competing. Also, the anglers typically camp or rent a place along the lake, so the county does not see as much improvement in overnight stays.
The effect is greater, though, because of the huge following the series brings.
"The impact is smaller than some of the other things we do, but they bring all kinds of people with them, an entourage if you will," Johnson said. "Plus, all of the (anglers) use probably more gasoline in their boats than the average visitor does in a car.
"So that's how we see significant economic impact."
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