LAKEPORT, Calif. — A half hour before the weigh-in at the Golden State Shootout presented by Evan Williams Bourbon, the dock where the final 12 anglers were parked was the calmest place to be.
The crowd of men and women and kids and dogs hubbed and bubbed on the edge of Clear Lake while fishing analysts Jerry McKinnis and Tommy Sanders broke down the week over the loudspeakers. The throng pressed against barricades, held back by a police officer with a grey moustache. The long walk down the dock buffered the noise. Only a few tournament sorts milled on the dock. And the anglers, awaiting their turn at the scales for a shot at the $100,000 first prize, bobbed on their boats.
Peter Thliveros talked on his cell phone. Scott Rook reclined on the deck of his boat, his eyes shut against the sun. Greg Gutierrez, who began the day clinging to a slim lead, chatted with John Murray in the adjacent boat. Skeet Reese bumped fists with Kelly Jordon. Pete Ponds crouched beside Steve Kennedy's boat as Kennedy knelt beside a can of Coke, and took off his thermal undershirt.
He was quaking slightly. Could have been low blood sugar, could have been butterflies. Jared Lintner noticed, and asked Kennedy, "Why are you shaking? Is it because you're about to win?""Maybe," Kennedy said, playing along. And he knew he did have a chance. The 40-pound, 7-ounce bag he weighed Saturday put him within 3 pounds of Gutierrez, and the popular wisdom said Gutierrez was either running out of fish on his spots, or was being hounded by local boat traffic.
But Kennedy, the 2006 BASS Rookie of the Year, also had broken off a 10-pounder on Sunday (though he then hooked an 8-pounder on his next cast) and hooked a 9-pounder and a 5-pounder on the outside of their lips — rendering them unusable. The 10-pounder he lost when the fish broke the split ring on his swimbait, stealing the hook. It happened to be the swimbait on his rod — the only one that he had forgotten to reinforce with bigger split ring. "It would be amazing," Kennedy said, "if I won after the day I had today."
For a moment, it was in doubt. Gutierrez, Kennedy and Reese had separated themselves from the field after three days, rendering it a veritable three-man race. Their totals on Clear Lake, perhaps the best bass fishery in the country, had yielded such massive totals that the dozen anglers who fished Sunday all conceded that at least two of them were likely to break the BASS tournament record of 115-15 weighed across four days.
Reese, starting in third, weighed in first: A 27-10 bag that propelled him to a record weight of 117-6. The Auburn, Calif., angler grabbed two fish and strutted to the edge of the stage, mugging. He enjoyed the moment, knowing that he needed at least one more big fish to hold off the charge. When he returned to the podium, he admitted immediately, "I'm a little nervous."
Kennedy stood in the wings. He straightened his cap, tucked his hair behind his ears, hitched up his belt, tried to wipe the dead skin off his chapped lips. Rough day or not, he can still do math.
When he dragged his bag to the scale, Reese didn't even wait for the weight to show before he was out of the so-called "hot seat" to congratulate Kennedy. The total came up: 32-10. A staggering total of 122-14 for four days. The two men embraced. Reese's four-minute-old record was toast. Kennedy's terrier, Louie, barked from the arms of Kennedy's wife, Julie.
Gutierrez watched all this knowing he needed double his weight to make it competitive. With only 16-3 on the scale, Gutierrez relinquished first place for the first time in the tournament, and at 108-1 fell behind Reese to third. Kennedy — normally as aw-shucks a pro athlete as probably exists on the planet — raised his first BASS Elite Series winner's trophy above his head and screamed as the crowd bellowed right back.
Fans knew they had just seen BASS history. The weight record was twice broken, and seven anglers posted bags over 100 pounds. Beneath the top three, Gerald Swindle (4th, 105-8), Murray (5th, 103-1), Jordon (6th, 102-10) and 1982 Bassmaster Classic champ Paul Elias (7th, 101-15) all broke the mark. All of them but Jordon achieved it for the first time.
Backstage, Gutierrez was swarmed by friends. A full-time firefighter from nearby Red Bluff, Calif., who works 20 days straight to accumulate the needed vacation time to fish on the Elite Series, Gutierrez had been living the dream for three days. A win, he said during the week, would have changed his life. The $100,000 payday would have helped pay his way through the Series (with its $5,000 entry fees per event) and would have given him the clout to approach potential sponsors, which he sorely lacks.
"To me, fishing is just fun, trust me," he said after the second day. "You do CPR on someone's mom or their kid, that's tough, you know? Pulling somebody out of a wrecked car, that's tough. Saying 'I'm sorry' because you lost them. But to lose a fish? It's like, oh, God, let's keep fishing."
But his fourth day was a mess. Locals chewed up several of his spots, the weather didn't break his way, and in all, he admitted, he didn't make the necessary adjustments to land big fish. The $100,000 first-place purse turned to $27,500 for third. "I knew it was coming," he said. "But damn, it hurts." He turned away.
A few feet away, Reese was going through what for him is quickly becoming a dreadful routine. Whereas Gutierrez was putting the "cinder" in "Cinderella" all week, Reese is accustomed to inhabiting rare air. His second-place finish, worth $30,000 in purse money, was for him the third top-10 in as many events of the 2007 season — and that doesn't count his bridesmaid finish at the Bassmaster Classic in February.
"Second sucks," Reese said. "I'm tired of saying it.
"I'm pleased, I guess. I'm hoping something good comes out of all these solid finishes I'm getting. If it's Angler of the Year, I'll take seconds all year long. That's still the number one goal in fishing." He may have kept a stiff upper lip, but the bottom was tucked back into his face, quivering.
Reese had plied a jerkbait and a swimbait to near-perfection, but rued an 8-pounder and 6-pounder he had lost. Kennedy, an Alabamian unaccustomed to the West Coast style swimbaits, had to reassess his swimbaits after a first day when he caught fish after fish but weighed in only 20-7. "Twenty pounds is not a bad bag," he said. "But I just didn't realize what it was going to take. I was in 51st place."
Between Thursday and Sunday, he ransacked local bait shops for more than $3,000 in swimbaits and chucked smaller ones with abandon the rest of the weekend. Sunday he threw at docks and points to achieve the winning bag.
"It's awesome," Kennedy said. "I worked hard at it. I had opportunities to weigh a lot more than what I had. A lot, lot more."
Consider him a swimbait convert. He mentioned on stage that he might leave town with at least another $2,000 worth of the baits before he was done.
"He can't say anything about me buying shoes now," his wife, Julie, said. "If he gets a swimbait in every color, I'm going to have flip-flops in every color."