DENISON, Texas — The race to the Bassmaster Classic was so tight, that by the time the scales closed on Day Three of the Central Open on Lake Texoma only two points separated third and fourth place.
Michael Burns walked away the Central Open champion after amassing 804 points over the course of the season.
Rick Clunn came from behind to finish in second with 777 points, while Elite Series pro Jami Fralick took the final Classic berth by only two points over Terry Butcher after ending the year with 760 points.
Clunn's double-qualification means that Rick Morris will also be fishing the Classic by way of his 39th place on the Elite Series (more anglers are invited from the Elites if an Open angler qualifies twice).
The heroics started with Clunn, who made a big move into the top 10 at Lake Texoma on the strength of an 11 pound, 13 ounces bag. Friday, Clunn was confident that a decent bag was possible Saturday without the extra boats on the water. He said he was thrilled to qualify for the Classic on his own merits.
"My whole career from Day One, that's what I trained to be: the best Classic fisherman in the world," Clunn said. "I have always preached that I would continue to do this — that age would not eventually negate me from doing well and doing what I love to do. Now I'm the one that has to prove that age doesn't make a difference."
The bigger drama on stage Saturday was which angler would capture the third and final Classic spot. Winning the tournament and leading each day ultimately left Butcher two points short.
In the end, it was a last-minute decision by Elite Series pro Fralick that made all the difference, using a bit of heroics of his own to book his ticket to Shreveport.
"At the end of the day, I had three keepers and I was just trying to catch one to give myself a chance and I ended up catching three in the last 20 minutes," Fralick said. "After I weighed in, I was pretty sure I had ended up in fourth place, so I was as shocked as anybody when they called my name."
Considering the intensity of the final day weigh-in, Fralick was visibly excited to be fishing on the biggest stage in professional bass fishing come February.
"The Classic is something that I dreamed of from the time I was 6 years old watching 'The Bassmasters' on TV on the weekend all winter long," Fralick said. "My Dad would take me into town to watch when there was ice on the lakes. I remember Rick Clunn winning on the Arkansas River and I knew then this is what I wanted to do."
Even with his last-minute heroics on Lake Texoma, Fralick cited a close encounter on the second day at Kentucky Lake as the defining moment of his Classic run.
"I ran 3- and 4-foot waves wide-open to get to the weigh-in on time. I thought I left with plenty of time that day, but I looked at my clock and I had three minutes to go two miles — the only chance I had was to go wide open," Fralick said. "I got in with four seconds to spare."
Heartbreak came in the form of Arkansan Billy Mccaghren, who only landed three keepers on the final day and slipped to fifth in the Central Open standings, leaving him just 7 points shy of his first trip to the Classic.
"I'm very disappointed that I didn't get two more fish today, but I'm glad the drama part of this is over," Mccaghren said. "I'm disappointed that I didn't catch what I needed, but I got beat out by two of the best fisherman in the country. I just came up two fish short."
Mccaghren still has a huge decision to make for next year. Even though he didn't qualify for the Classic, the top 10 still received invitations to fish on the 2009 Elite Series.
"You could bankrupt yourself doing it, but how many opportunities are you going to get?" Mccaghren said. "This is my second year fishing these Opens and I already got the opportunity — I would like to do it (fish the Elites) before I get any older."
Also receiving invitations for the 2009 Elite Series were Jerry Williams (seventh in the Central Opens), Vince Fulks (eighth), Roger Boler (ninth) and Mark Smith (tenth).
Burns, who walked away from Texoma with the Central Open points title, doesn't have plans to fish the Elite Series, but couldn't wait for the Classic in February.
"It is great to be able to fish the Classic — a once in a lifetime event for me," Burns said. "I do this for a hobby, so it will be unbelievable to fish with those guys."