PRATTVILLE, Ala. — Sure, winning the $80,000 first prize would be nice.
But the 90 anglers who came to the Alabama River system for the CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship had their eyes on a different prize — a chance to fish in the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Classic next February.
Five anglers outlasted a 10-man field and punched their tickets to the Classic Saturday during the third day of fishing at the Open Championship. Now, with that goal behind them, they'll focus on the cash.
And to get to it, four of the five surviving anglers will have to go through Mike McClelland.
McClelland landed a five-fish limit Saturday that weighed in at 10 pounds, 1 ounce. It was his lightest bag since the tournament began on Thursday, but was enough to give him the lead for the third consecutive day. McClelland, who hails from Bella Vista, Arkansas, has a three-day total of 39-1 which puts him ahead of Virginia pro Rick Morris who is in second place with 36-8. Missouri's Chad Brauer, who had Saturday's biggest catch (11-9), is in third place with 34-15. Randy Howell of nearby Springville, Alabama, is in fourth place with 28-4 and Kentucky's Mark Menendez slipped past the cut into fifth place with 27-9.
As he has since this event began, McClelland produced a sizable bag of bass. He's done so through a myriad of weather conditions — Thursday's fog, Friday's frigid temperatures and Saturday's overcast skies. McClelland had been throwing a variety of jigs and spinners, but reached deeper into his tackle box Saturday when a lack of current throughout the river system made catching fish more difficult.
"I did pick up a crank bait today a little bit," McClelland said. "I got up in a little more water rather than just trying to beg them to bite a jig in the trees. I fished the ledges and caught enough fish doing that that I think I can catch five fish tomorrow pretty easy if I have to."
McClelland, who made his last Classic appearance on Lake Wylie in North Carolina in 2004, said if he is to go wire-to-wire in the Open Championship, he'll have to catch another decent creel of fish. He said he's especially concerned with holding off Brauer who has fished the backwater areas throughout the tournament — areas that are less susceptible to rapid changes in current.
Brauer said he's not certain if he has an advantage, however.
"When you're starting out five pounds behind, you need everything you can get," he said. "But it might mean that my fish might be a little more consistent.
It's not like I caught a huge bag today, although I was around quite a few fish."
Morris caught a five-fish limit weighing 9-15 on Saturday and is within striking distance of the Open Championship title should McClelland falter.
Morris revealed one of the secrets of his success Saturday after securing his return to the Classic for the first time since 1998.
"I'm fishing the Tallapoosa River and it's ripping, screaming current in there," he said. "(Alabama Power) is letting that water out of Lake Martin. Today that was the only current coming down the river system ... They just kind of dropped the bottom out of it. The water dropped like two, three feet. It was tough fishing. I had one big bite (a 4-7 lunker) and that made the difference for me. I only caught five fish. I'm looking for a bigger day tomorrow."
Howell, who lives less than two hours from Prattville, said he doesn't have a true hometown advantage as he's only fished the Alabama River twice before.
But his rise from 39th on Thursday to fourth on Saturday proves he's learned how to fish the tricky system. He caught a 9-pound, 7-ounce sack on Saturday to vault into the top five.
"After Thursday, it didn't look good for me at all," said Howell, who will be making his sixth Classic appearance. "And then yesterday, getting those big bites and today stumbling onto those other ones, it was just amazing how it worked out."
Menendez, who missed a large chunk of the season while battling viral meningitis, said he was stunned by his good fortune at the Open Championship. He switched to a spinnerbait early on Saturday and landed 6 pounds, 8 ounces — good enough to send him to the Classic for the first time since New Orleans in 2003.
"I didn't know if I would ever be able to fish again," he said. "So to be standing here today saying I'm going to the Classic ... really makes me very humble and feel very privileged.
With a 27-9 total, Menendez actually tied for fifth place with Texas' Matt Reed, but survived Saturday's cut to five in a tiebreaker. Menendez caught 15 fish through three days and Reed landed only 12 which gave Menendez the Classic berth and a chance at the Open Championship.
John Murray (25-8) finished seventh, Steve Kennedy (22-3) was eighth, John Pollard (19-12) placed ninth and Jon Bondy (19-0) rounded out the top 10 anglers Saturday.
The final five fishermen will launch Sunday at 6:15 a.m. Weigh-in is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. — Andrew Canulette
Non-boaters: Start spreading the news
The retired electrician from Long Island, New York seemed poised with confidence while he sat in the boat as his pro partner weighed in his limit of fish before him. Bill Beekman entered the final day of competition on the Alabama River in the non-boater division in second place with a two-day total of 10 pounds, 11 ounces.
Beekman was just shy of eclipsing that two-day weight with just his final day's total for the tournament. With one lunker hitting the scales at almost four pounds and three other respectable bass, he managed to put together a day three weight of 10 pounds, 5 ounces for a three-day total of 21 pounds to win the non-boater division of the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship.
His weight today actually beat every single pro that fished on day three except for his boater partner, Chad Brauer. Brauer brought in a five-fish limit scaling out at 11 pounds, 9 ounces, but the next heaviest weight was day one and day two leader, Mike McClelland, with 10 pounds, 1 ounce.
Apparently it wasn't a bad boat to be in on Saturday.
"Chad was pretty quiet all morning long, and very focused," said Beekman when asked about fishing with his pro partner. "After he boated his third and fourth fish he started talking to me a little more, but I gave him plenty of room to work all day."
The gigantic fish that Beekman caught was his first fish of the day, and he admitted that landing it took a lot of pressure off of him.
"Chad was working an area for a little bit and then moved on to another spot," Beekman recalled. "I waited for him to clear the first area and then I started flippin' in the same place. This is when I hit the big one and I don't think he was too happy about that."
His most utilized bait, and what most of his fish were landed on, throughout the three-day tournament was a Green Pumpkin Zoom Superhawg. His technique was flipping, flipping and more flipping.
"I have flipper's elbow," joked Beekman after the weigh-in.
Before coming to this tournament, Beekman had never fished any further south than Clarks Hill Reservoir in Georgia.
The 57-year old New Yorker's victory earned him a fully rigged 20-foot Triton Boat and Mercury motor package valued at more than $38,000. And the rewards don't stop there; Beekman has earned entry fees into all five of the 2006 Bassmaster Northern Tournament Series and has been elevated to boater status.
The top five finishers on the non-boater side automatically claim berths as boaters and have five paid entry fees into next year's Northern or Southern Tours.
Dow Cox of Jonesborough, Tennessee finished in second place with a three-day total of 15 pounds, 9 ounces. He will receive a boat and motor package worth over $25,000. Jack Farage, the Californian who was leading the tournament after day two, managed to put together a total tournament weight of 13 pounds, 9 ounces and he will reap the financial benefits of an $8,000 check. Joe Lee out of Desoto, Texas landed a fourth place finish and a $7,000 check with a three-day total of 12 pounds, 11 ounces. And rounding out the top five was Teb Jones from Hattiesburg, MS yielding 12 pounds, 8 ounces for a cool $5,000.
The final five finishers in the non-boater division were: Bradley Dortch, Alabama (11-2) $4,000; Stanley Chandler, Florida (10-7) $3,500; Nathan Bourque, Louisiana (10-5) $3,000; Rommel Bagay, California (8-12) $2,800; and Jim Kline, Maryland (8-0) $2,600. — Scott Cooley