MONETA, Va. — Casey Ashley doesn't remember if was fifth or sixth grade, but he fondly recalls the time his schoolteacher instructed students to write a paper about what they wanted to be when they grew up.
"We all wrote our papers, and our parents came to the school and read the papers out loud for everyone," Ashley said. "All the kids wanted to be doctors and lawyers. And then my mom and dad got up there and had to say their son wanted to be a professional bass fisherman — no education required."
Some 15 year later, Ashley is now schooling Bassmaster Elite Series pros on the finer points of Smith Mountain Lake.
Ashley, a 23-year-old rookie from Donalds, S.C., positioned himself Saturday to take a giant career step forward, seizing the lead in the Blue Ridge Brawl presented by Advance Auto Parts. Ashley took control Saturday with a 14 ½-pound limit for a total of 47 pounds, 9 ounces, and moved ahead of his friend and roommate Boyd Duckett, who led the tournament's first two days.
"It's awesome," Ashley said. "This is all I've ever wanted to do. Ever since I was a little kid I've watched these guys fish. And to be here in position to fish on the last day…"
His words trailed off into the Virginia heat Saturday afternoon while Ashley considered the gravity of his position. It's heady stuff for a young pro who was still in diapers when superstar Rick Clunn, one of the veterans Ashley competed against this week, was winning his third Bassmaster Classic in 1984.
"The main thing to do at this point is stay calm," Ashley said.
That's easier said than done, but Ashley does have experience despite his rookie status. He made the top-12 cut earlier this season at Clarks Hill Lake, where he finished eighth.
This time he goes into Sunday's final with a strong lead. He owns a more than 4 ½-pound advantage on Dean Rojas, who has 42-15.
But Smith Mountain Lake has repeatedly showed its stingy side this week. The leaderboard has changed every day, the anglers struggling to figure out a consistent pattern for bass that are in transition between the spawn and their summertime habits. Anglers have found fish in every stage this week, catching them on everything from prespawn to summer patterns, and they're scattered everywhere.
"It's tough out there," Ashley said. "I had six bites. That's it. I really don't know what I'm going to do [Sunday]."
Rojas won't have to ponder his strategy. He'll do the same thing he's been doing for most of the past two years' worth of tournaments, throwing his namesake Bronzeye frog in shallow pockets and coves.
"I've asked myself a lot if I'm doing the right thing by throwing the frog so much. Should I keep throwing [the frog] all the time?" Rojas said. "But why wouldn't I? Look where it's gotten me over the past couple of years, and look where it's put me here."
Less than 1 ½ pounds behind Rojas is Duckett, the reigning Bassmaster Classic champion and the tournament leader for the first two days. Duckett fell back to third place Saturday as his strategy of fishing deep fell apart.
"I probably should've fished differently, but I got just enough bites to keep me out there in the deeper water," Duckett said. "I think this thing I'm doing is over. The alternative here is boat docks. As far as I fell, I really need a 20-pound bag to have a chance, so maybe that's the smart thing to do."
If Duckett wasn't still in contention, he might be a cheerleader for Ashley. The two anglers have shared accommodations this week on Smith Mountain Lake, and Duckett has been a steady source of encouragement for his young rookie friend.
"I'd love to see him win it," Duckett said. "He's never won one, and he's a first-year Elite pro. I'd like to beat him, but if I can't, I'd like to see him win it. It would be huge for Casey."
Skeet Reese, the leader in Angler of the Year points, solidified his standing by qualifying for the final in a third-place tie with Duckett. Behind Reese are 2004 Classic champion Takahiro Omori (5th place, 40-1), Terry Scroggins (6th, 39-14), John Murray (7th, 39-10), Matthew Sphar (8th, 39-7) and Morizo Shimizu (9th, 38-8).
John Crews, from nearby Salem, Va., pleased a partisan crowd when he made a big move from 39th with a 15-14 stringer to make the cut in 10th.
"It would be kick-ass to win it here at home," Crews said. "That's all I can say. It's a great lake. I love spending time on this body of water."
Rounding out the top 12 are Dave Wolak (37-14) and Mike Wurm (37-10).