Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — "This one's for Bryan."
That's what Pennsylvania's Ed Cowan, 46, said when he realized that he'd be taking home the Bryan Kerchal Memorial Trophy as the 2005 BASS Federation Champion.
Cowan bested 14 other finalists on Walt Disney World's Bay Lake to claim the top prize of $15,000 and a trip to the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in his home state. The 35th annual Classic will be contested in the Three Rivers area of Pittsburgh, July 29-31.
Cowan was emotional when he referred to his late friend, Bryan Kerchal, who earned two trips to the Classic in 1993 and 1994, winning bass fishing's most prestigious championship the second time around and becoming the only Federation angler to take the honor. Tragically, Kerchal was killed in a commuter plane crash just a few months after winning the 1994 Classic.
Cowan fished second in the Eastern Division in 1994, losing a berth in the Classic to Kerchal.
"I told Bryan that since he had beaten me, that he had to go beat all those pros, too," Cowan said. "And he did it!
"It took me 11 years to win a tournament for Bryan."
The emotion of the moment belied the fact that Cowan made the fishing look very easy. On each of the four days of competition, he brought a five-bass limit to the scales. His final three days included the best catch of the tournament (Day 2), best catch of the day (Day 3), second best catch of the day (Day 4) and Purolator Big Bass (Day 3 and 4). He finished the final two rounds with 30 pounds, 10 ounces, easily outdistancing South Dakota's Jami Fralick (26-5).
"I fished as close to perfect as I can," the amiable Cowan said. "I didn't lose a fish the whole tournament."
Cowan used crankbaits on a mid-lake ridge to take his winning catch. He moved to offshore structure after struggling to catch quality fish in the weedy shallows, and the switch paid off handsomely.
"Today the fish were suspended off the ridge," Cowan explained. "They were about 12 feet deep over 15 to 18 feet of water. I caught almost all of my fish in the middle of the day. My big fish came at 11:55 and my next biggest came on the next cast."
Cowan's big bass weighed 5-8 and took Purolator Big Bass honors for the day, earning the Keystone State angler $1,000 for the second day in a row.
His Day Two catch (20-6) was the best of the event and earned Cowan a spot in the Busch Shootout, the $200,000 event for anglers posting the heaviest catches during the Tour, Elite 50, Open Championship, Classic and Federation Championship.
Cowan's Classic berth is not his first. He also won the Federation Championship in 1991 and finished 13th in that year's Classic.
Will he approach the world championship of bass fishing differently this time?
"The last time I wanted to make a good showing for the Federation," Cowan said. "This time I'll be fishing to win. I won on the Ohio River to get here (the Federation Championship). I'll catch 'em on the Ohio."
Experience was a definite advantage at the Federation Championship for another angler as well. Zimbabwe's Gerry Jooste has been to three previous Classics, finishing 15th in his last appearance in 1997. This time around, Jooste became the first Federation angler to qualify for four Classics.
"I never expected to make it this year," Jooste said. "I never got in a groove."
The Zimbabwe boat builder finished sixth overall, but benefited from a lackluster set of performances in the Central Division. His two-day total of 21-13 was nearly four pounds better than his closest divisional rival.
"I was planning on expanding my business, but now I'm going to spend that time getting ready for the Classic."
Jami Fralick of South Dakota finished second overall behind Cowan with 26-5, leading the Northern Division and earning a spot in the Classic. Like the other qualifiers, Fralick is excited about the opportunity.
"The fact that I'm going to the Classic just hasn't hit me yet," he 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."
Rounding out the Federation's Classic qualifiers for 2005 are Oregon's Dave Palmer (26-0 and third overall) from the Western Division and North Carolina's Jeff Hager (23-5 and fourth overall) from the Southern Division.