HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — Last night, Bassmaster Elite Series pro Jeff Connella said a prayer — for his co-angler.
He knew Jim McDevitt had already won an event this season from the back of the boat, on the Harris Chain of Lakes. Heading into the final day for co-anglers in the Tennessee Triumph presented by Longhorn, McDevitt sat 1 pound, 6 ounces behind Day Two leader Willie Leaver.
"I was running out of fish, and I knew it," Connella said after the Day Three weigh-in. "I didn't want to mess him up."
Connella's situation perhaps was worse than he knew, because he was one of three pros who zeroed on Day Three. ("I forgot to pray for myself," Connella joked.) But a bit of cloud cover was enough to help McDevitt catch a three-fish limit of 6-3, overtaking Leaver's two fish that went 3-12 and securing the $25,000 first prize.
McDevitt couldn't have been more thrilled. He and Connella embraced backstage, and the retired Missouri Air National Guardsman from Eldon, Mo., told the pro: "You worked hard today. And you were being cool. You graduated from cool school. I know because I'm the dean, and you today you made the dean's list."
Connella was clearly happy for the man who shared the back of his boat all day, and who had closed his first tournament win this year in Florida behind Connella's roommate, Rick Ash.
McDevitt said he caught most of his fish on Zoom MAG II worms in green pumpkin and electric blue colors, fishing creeks the first two days and in the main river channel on Day Three. He prefished this week with Elite Series pros Derek Remitz and Bradley Hallman, who he said "had been kind of schooling me."
A bundle of unrestrained joy, McDevitt thanked a couple of interviewers after a few minutes backstage and then said, "Now the most important thing is, where's my wife's check?"
With 19-1, Leaver finished in second place, 10 ounces ahead of Terry Steele, the only other co-angler to briefly take the lead, with a 4-13 sack that pushed him to 18-7. It was another characteristically lean day for the co-anglers on Old Hickory Lake, as seven of the 50 didn't catch a keeper, and only nine sacked limits.
It broke Leaver's heart not to be among those who caught three: The truck driver from Camden, Tenn., has been drawing unemployment since a contract expired earlier in the year. He's been fishing a lot with his son, Jacob, who just turned 8 years old.
The $10,000 runner-up check was nice consolation. But, Leaver said, "I'd rather have my boy see me with the trophy."
Without catching a limit on Day Three with Marty Stone, "I left the door open. And he (McDevitt) was the one guy, I knew ..."
He looked down at his folded receipt. He did some quick math: McDevitt's 20-2 minus his 19-1.
"Boy," he said. "One fish. It would have made it close."
As the weigh-in continued, and with McDevitt having overtaken him, Leaver walked out among the spectators and found his little boy crying.
"He said, 'I'm sad for you, Daddy,'" Leaver recalled a moment later with Jacob in his arms. "I said, 'Daddy did his best. This place is tough. We'll only come back here if we have to."
The boy already is an astute angler, Leaver said, adding that he wants to raise the type of son who will go fishing on Friday nights when he gets older.
When a reporter shook Jacob's hand, and congratulated him on how well his father did, Jacob said by way of an introduction: "I caught a 6-pounder."