BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A little over a month ago, Terry McWilliams was among friends fishing in the Federation Nation Championship, hoping to win his way into the Bassmaster Classic.
On Friday, he was fishing among the legends, and on Sunday he sat on a stage in front of thousands of fans with the best anglers in the world chasing his weight.
For a weekend angler, it would seem enough to just be in the presence of names like Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese and new Bassmaster Classic champion Boyd Duckett, but McWilliams made it clear from the start that he came to win.
"I had a real good shot at it," said McWilliams, who finished fourth but held the lead in the Classic until Duckett knocked him off the hot seat. "I knew what I needed to win. I needed about 15 pounds a day and I was catching it in practice."
McWilliams said he lost the tournament on Day Two. After accomplishing his goal with 15 pounds, 9 ounces on Day One, which put him in eighth, McWilliams dropped to 12-4 on Saturday.
"I stumbled [Saturday] or maybe I would have finished in front of these two guys [VanDam and Reese]," McWilliams said, saying that the cloud cover affected his pattern. "I am a flipper and I like bright, summer days, and I just didn't adjust. I had my limit by 8:30, and I was only able to cull once."
The magnitude of what McWilliams accomplished over the Classic weekend is hard to place. Only three Federation Nation anglers have finished better: Bryan Kerchal finished first in 1994, Danny Correia finished second in 1986 and Dalton Bobo finished second in 1997.
"I spent around $200 all around to get to this point, and I fished in the Bassmaster Classic for half a million dollars," McWilliams said, before he rehashed his path through the levels of the Federation Nation.
McWilliams said he hopes that his fourth-place finish reminds BASS members and future BASS members that a club angler does have a shot at winning the big one.
"I hope it gets bigger and stronger in all the states," said McWilliams, who is a member of the Indiana Federation Nation club Cataract Hawg Stickers.
It is certainly a Rudy-esque story, but not totally improbable. VanDam, who was sitting to the right of McWilliams at the press conference, attested to the quality of fishing that comes out of the Federation Nation.
"I tried to qualify through the Federation Nation before I went pro and it was too dang hard," VanDam said. "It's a lot easier to make it as a pro."
The 2006 Angler of the Year, Michael Iaconelli, started his career in the Federation Nation, as did 12 other anglers who have qualified for the Classic both as amateurs and as a pro. (Russ Lane, who finished 24th this year, can make that claim.)
But the latest Nation phenomenon said that he won't be adding his name to that list. He is going to fish the BASS Opens this year because his entry fee has been paid for, but McWilliams, 57, has no aspirations of taking it much further.
"If someone offered to pay my way onto the Elite Series, I probably wouldn't take it," he said. "That would be too much time away from my grandkids. I love to go fishing and I want to keep doing it, but I want to be fishing with my family instead of these guys [professionals]."
He may never see the Classic again, but at least McWilliams has plenty of stories to tell his grandkids when they fish together. For one weekend, he stood toe to toe with the best anglers in the world, and he was only 3-8 from $500,000 and a place in history.
"I'm not disappointed at all," McWilliams said. "The money would have been nice, but you can't take it with you."