BUFFALO, N.Y. — For the past 28 years, Robert Suhr has worked as a tooling manager in Michigan's infamous automotive industry. But at the Empire Chase presented by Mahindra Tractors, it took Suhr only two days to design the right tools to take the co-angler title.
Suhr, from Roscommon, Mich., was like a machine himself, holding onto his Day One lead and winning the weather-shortened contest with a whopping two-day total of 38 pounds, 3 ounces of smallmouth bass, to win a $50,000 Triton-Mercury boat rig.
Suhr edged the second place finisher, David Ottman, by a full pound. Troy Sprague took third place with a 36-11 pound stringer. Harry Potts' 34-7 was good for fourth, while Brendan Walsh took fifth with 34-5 worth of smallmouth.
Just like the metal stampings and seals installed in automotive seats that he helps develop, Suhr read the proverbial manual and invested in his own R&D to build his plan for this tournament. In addition to a Lake Erie trip with his son in June and participating in the co-angler side of the Elite Series one week earlier on Lake Champlain, Suhr took a two-week vacation to western New York to visit his wife's parents, weaving the two fishing tournaments into their excursion.
Ultimately, it was here earlier this week on Lake Erie that Suhr learned the new technique that would forge a tournament win.
"I learned how to dropshot here," Suhr said. "I'd never done it, and it really played the biggest role in this win for me."
At most Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments, even the pros would be thrilled to have the staggering bags presented to Saturday's large crowds by these co-anglers. (Suhr's total would have placed him 13th on the pro side, just ahead of Angler of the Year leader Skeet Reese.)
If the right school was found, lunker smallmouths attacked anything with the name Berkley Gulp across the bag.
Both days it happened that Suhr was in the boat when Elite pros Terry Butcher, on the first day, and Scott Rook, on the final day, found those schools. "I just want to thank both those guys for helping me do this," Suhr said.
Suhr wasn't the only one with heavier-than-average tournament stringers. Ottman landed a 5-11 pound smallmouth to tie the big bass competition on the co-angler side. Offering insight into his strategy, the angler from nearby Oswego, N.Y., worked off his Elite Series pro, Jeff Kriet.
"We were both dropshotting all day," Ottman said. "He was throwing a Gulp minnow and I had on a leech." Ottman explained how the wind on the lake helps stir up the leeches that stir up the gobies that these smallmouths absolutely love. Ottman's experience fishing the region's lakes and his job in the fishing department at an outdoors outfitter helped him gain his edge.
But Sprague, from way over in Lincoln, Neb., was also able to find the big fish. "My pro, (Eric) Nethery, was a little upset that he couldn't get to his hole on the first day because of he was too late and the surf was too much," Sprague said. "But once we got there today, it was on." Nethery boated a 22-6 pound bag on Saturday, the biggest of the tournament so far. "I'm coming back here next year for sure," Sprague said.
Rounding out the top five, Walsh hailing from just up the river in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was impressed with pro angler Mike McClelland's efficiency on the final day. The duo both had caught their limit by 10:30 a.m.
"I fish here a couple times a week and we actually landed on the same spots I fish," Walsh said. For Walsh, who works the Cave of the Wind at Niagara Falls, it was his second Bassmaster Elite Series tournament.
In the end, it was well worth both of Day One's 42-mile mile runs alongside Butcher that still rang in Suhr's lower back on the final day. "We had to stop six times just to catch our breath," Suhr said. But as Suhr stood with one arm cradling his co-angler Elite Series trophy and the other his wife, he felt no pain.