GREENVILLE, S.C. — When Alton Jones motored back into Lake Hartwell's Portman Marina, he was pretty sure he didn't have enough fish weight in his livewell to win the Bassmaster Classic.
"I thought I had an outside chance," Jones said. "I never dreamed that would be enough for a victory, based on what had been caught the first two days."
In the end, no one else's catches could keep up with Jones'.
In his 11th Classic, the Waco, Texas, pro came back from 10th place on Day One to claim the $500,000 top prize in the biggest event in bass fishing.
"This is the fulfillment of a dream I've had since childhood," he told a near-capacity crowd at the 15,000-seat Bi-Lo Center. "My grandfather taught me how to fish, and I wish he could be here to see this."
As it turned out, Jones' bag of five bass weighing 13 pounds, 7 ounces was the third biggest in the 25-angler field for Sunday's final day, and the best among the top seven finishers. His three-day total was 49-7.
The Classic victory is the fifth BASS tournament win for Jones, whose highest previous Classic finish before this year was 7th place in 2000 and 2003.
Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss., who entered the day in third place, finished second with 44-5.
"I fished one of the cleanest tournaments of my life," said Pace, who was competing in his second Classic. "But if I had to lose to anybody, it would be Alton, for a lot of reasons."
Pace later elaborated: "I look up to a lot of these guys. Alton is one of the guys I look up to because he's paid his dues. He's fished 11 Classics. To see someone like Alton win, it means something from a fisherman's standpoint. I know what it means to him."
Kevin VanDam entered the day in fourth place, 3-15 behind Jones, and moved up one spot to third, with 43-8. VanDam said he made a mistake by going back to the area near the dam where he'd caught a 20-3 bag on the first day of the tournament.
"I spent three hours where the fish were biting," VanDam said. "The rest of the day I went where I couldn't get a bite. But I felt like I needed to be where those big fish bit the first day. It was a really bad decision."
Charlie Hartley, the skateboarding Cinderella of this Classic, led on Day One and was 1-3 behind Jones going into today. But he caught only two bass weighing 3-5 Sunday and dropped into 15th place. Hartley had caught all his fish the first two days by targeting boat docks, and he wasn't about to leave that pattern Sunday.
"One dock owner I owe a lot of thanks," Hartley said. "I caught 16 to 18 pounds off of one dock."
Hartley's wife, Tracey, has nicknamed him "D.C." for "Disappearing Charlie," after his tendency to slide down a leaderboard as a tournament progresses.
"D.C. reappeared today," Hartley said from the stage. "This time he made it through two days. Maybe next time it will be three."
Bobby Lane, fishing in his first Classic, held the lead until the last three anglers weighed-in officially. He finished with 42-7, good for fourth place.
Jones predicted Sunday morning at takeoff that execution would be critical Sunday.
"I hooked five fish and I landed five fish," Jones said.
Jones said he kept repeating out loud three mantras to himself all day: 1) Catch the next bass; 2) Make every cast count; and 3) Back to the basics. When he didn't get a bit in his first two areas, he tried to focus on just catching one, and not think about catching a limit.
"I had a good practice," Jones said. "But I never dreamed I'd be sitting here on the final day."
Jones targeted bass on the inside edge of the standing timber submerged in Lake Hartwell. They were 25 to 35 feet deep.
"I wanted to fish deep, but as shallow as I could be, so I moved to the shallowest edge of the timber," Jones said. "Out to 25 feet, it was a moonscape. Then it looked like a forest."
Jones used three lures to catch his bass: a Booyah Pigskin jig and a Booyah AJ's Go-To jig, both rigged with a Yum trailer, and a Cotton Cordell CC Spoon.
"I looked at those banners (of past Classic champions hanging in the Bi-Lo Center) and I am humbled," Jones said. "Fishing is important to me.
"There are a lot of responsibilities that go with this title. I'm honored to be a spokesperson for the sport of bass fishing."