Pittsburgh, Pa. — Part of the lore and allure of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic has always been the storybook participation of the fishermen who climb through the BASS Federation amateur ranks to earn a shot at winning professional fishing's crowning event.
No other sport allows such amateur dreams to get so close to reality. In 1994, the late Bryan Kerchal turned that dream into a real life drama by winning the world championship and putting hope into the hearts of weekend anglers everywhere.
This year's Federation contingent will enter the 35th annual Classic in Pittsburgh, July 29-31, with a familiar feel for it.
First there's Gerry Jooste, arguably the most successful amateur competitor in history. As the top qualifier from the Central Division in the recent Federation Championship, Jooste became the first Federation angler to earn four Classic appearances.
Perhaps most impressively, he came all the way from Zimbabwe to do it.
Jooste's Classic track record includes finishing 15th in 1997, 39th in 1994 and 24th in 1995. "I never expected to make it this year," he said. "I never got in a groove."
Also returning for another shot at fishing's brass ring is Pennsylvania's Ed Cowan, winner of this year's Federation Championship held in Florida. He finished 13th in the 1991 Classic.
Since then, Cowan, a 46-year-old owner of a heating and air conditioning company, has come agonizingly close to nailing down a return trip to the coveted Classic. He's competed in the Federation Championship six times, placing second in his division a frustrating three times. In 2000, he finished just two ounces behind division winner Russell Smarr.
"It's been a while, but I got back to the Classic," said Cowan, a member of the North Jersey Bass Anglers and Quickfire Bass clubs. "That makes it even sweeter."
Having the Classic experience under their belts bodes well for Cowan and Jooste.
"I think it should be a big help," Cowan said. "I went the first time as a Federation angler just wanting to make a good showing — representing all the guys in the clubs and not realizing just what the importance of winning the thing was. Second place doesn't mean beans.
"I think for any rookie it's a big thing. Now, I've fished the Classic and quite a few Federation Championships, and they have a similar format. This is actually the eighth tournament like this that I've fished. I'm not a rookie any more."
After his first Classic appearance, Cowan jumped on the BASS circuit for two seasons. Overall, he's cashed a check in eight of 26 tournaments, including one top-10 performance. That experience should come in handy while competing against the world's brightest fishing minds in Pittsburgh.
"Oh sure, Federation guys know they can win it," he said. "You know what? If you're a good enough fisherman to qualify for the Classic, you can win it. I don't think anybody ever qualified that wasn't capable of winning it."
Although Cowan lives in Pennsylvania, he's unfamiliar with the Classic waters — the Allegheny, Monongahela and (specific pools on the) Ohio rivers.
"We had a divisional on the Ohio River a couple of pools down in 1999," he said. "That's how I qualified for the 2000 Federation Championship. I've never fished those pools where the Classic will be held, but I can't imagine they're a whole lot different. With a system like that, the pools don't tend to vary a whole lot.
"I've never been on the other two rivers, but I can't imagine they're a whole lot different from the Ohio."
In contrast to Jooste and Cowan, the other three Federation representatives will be experiencing their first Classic extravaganza: South Dakota's Jami Fralick, Dave Palmer of Oregon and North Carolina's Jeff Hager.
"The fact that I'm going to the Classic just hasn't hit me yet," Fralick said, "but I'm really looking forward to it. Very few of the pros have ever fished the Three Rivers area, and I'm a river fisherman."
It has certainly hit Hager, who is already making plans for his Classic strategy.
"It's not too far off," he said. "I've been working on it. I've been trying to talk to some people and get some idea of how I'm going to go about catching those fish up there. I've ordered some charts from the Corps of Engineers."
Hager, a 50-year-old general contractor, volunteered as a camera boat driver in last year's Classic on Lake Wylie.
"I think I may be a little more comfortable with it because of that," he said. "I know they're going to be busy days with a lot going on. It's pretty fast-paced, but being around it in Charlotte and seeing how things work, I think I'm ready."
Hager admits that he's allowed himself to think about becoming the second Federation angler to be crowned a world champion.
"It would be the pinnacle for me," he said. "Just to get to go as an amateur is a pretty good honor, but I want to go up there and do well. My goal is to do well the first two days, and if I get myself in a position to win, that would be great."
Cowan says that he's already accomplished his biggest dream by winning the Bryan Kerchal Memorial Trophy that goes to the winner of the Federation Championship.
"I came close at other Championships, but even when I missed (making the Classic) by 2 ounces I wasn't really that disappointed because my goal all along was winning the Championship and getting that Bryan Kerchal trophy," said Cowan, who named his youngest son after his close friend. "Consequently, that gets me in the Classic, but it meant more to me to win that tournament than to qualify for the Classic. I wanted that Bryan Kerchal Memorial Trophy in my home."
Cowan fished second in the Eastern Division in 1994, losing a berth in the Classic to Kerchal, the eventual winner. Kerchal was killed in a commuter plane crash just a few months later.