CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's fishing's Final Four, World Series and Super Bowl all rolled into one.
And for Jeremy Starks, next weekend's Bassmaster Classic is the culmination of a dream he's had his entire angling life. Starks, 39, of Scott Depot, is the first West Virginian to qualify for the exclusive Classic field as a professional.
"It's a bigger deal than I ever thought it would be," he said. "I've been doing interviews and doing my best to get ready for it, but there are so many things still to do."
As an established professional on the Bass Angler Sportsman Society's Elite Series circuit, Starks already had a ton of commitments lined up for the winter months.
"Winter is when most of the big outdoors shows are held, and my sponsors want me at a lot of those," he said.
"Ordinarily, getting ready for a new [tournament] season is a two-month process - changing rods and reels, getting my baits in order, getting my boat rigged and getting all the [electronic fish-finding gear] right. Being in the Classic compresses that time frame considerably."
In past years, Starks' season began with the season's first regular-season tournament in mid-March. The Classic is a late-February affair. This year's tourney, scheduled for Feb. 22-24, cut three weeks off his usual preparation time.
"In addition to the usual stuff, I've been doing a ton of interviews," he said. "And the people on Facebook and Twitter are forever talking about the Classic."
Starks qualified for the tournament last May with a victory in the Elite Series' Douglas Lake Challenge. It was the West Virginian's second win on the circuit. The previous one, at the Southern Challenge in 2008, didn't earn him a spot in the 2009 Classic because the rules for qualifying were different at the time.
"I'll have to admit, it's been a lot of fun hearing tournament announcers refer to me as a 'two-time Elite Series champ and Bassmaster Classic qualifier,'" Starks said with a smile. "And being the first pro from West Virginia to make the Classic is a special honor."
The other West Virginians to fish in the Classic, Frank Haught in 1989 and Russ Smarr in 2000, were amateurs who qualified by fishing B.A.S.S. Federation tournaments. Starks has been a fixture on the top-level professional Elite Series circuit since 2007, and has banked $424,710 in winnings.
He believes he has a good chance to make a strong showing in the Classic.
"It's on Grand Lake, near Tulsa, Okla.," Starks said. "Grand is an average-sized lake, about 40,000 acres, and it's known for being a really good winter-and-spring lake."