As the 50 Bassmaster Classic anglers thrashed Lay Lake on Friday in search of fish that could make them wealthy, Dalton Bobo stood in a booth at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, peddling fishing lures.
Ten years after his brush with fishing immortality, the curse of what could have been still haunts him.
The 1997 Bassmaster Classic in Birmingham was the closest, and perhaps the cruelest, of the 36 Classics to date. Bobo, an amateur angler pitted against the world's top professional fishermen, lost by just a single ounce.
The kicker was that the day before, Bobo was penalized four ounces because one of his fish died. Those four ounces were subtracted from what would have been his winning total. It was the first year that the BASS organization raised the penalty for a dead fish from two ounces to four.
"You know what's ironic?" the Northport native said this week. "Never before that tournament or in any tournaments since have I had a fish to die on me. It was just fate. It was out of my control."
Bobo never qualified for another Classic. He fished on the Bassmaster Circuit for six seasons afterwards, never winning a tournament and posting just one top-10 finish. He now toils in virtual obscurity, making a living by fishing in second-tier bass tournaments, promoting fishing lures and conducting fishing seminars.
A Classic win in 1997 would have meant $200,000 for winning and likely millions of dollars in endorsements and personal appearance fees.
Bobo is constantly reminded of that day a decade ago.
"The only thing people remember about my career is that 1-ounce loss," he said.
In 1997, Bobo had the right stuff for a nation of amateur fishermen badly needing a hero. Just three years before, an amateur fisherman named Bryan Kerchal, a fry cook at a mom and pop restaurant in Connecticut, had stunned the bass fishing world by becoming the first amateur to win a Classic.
Less than five months later, the 23-year-old Kerchal was one of 15 people who died when American Eagle Flight 3379 crashed in a storm four miles from the Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina.
Bobo was the amateur whom others hoped would speed the healing and live their dream. Personable and confident, he had fished his way through 70,000 amateurs to make the field of the amateur national championship. He won that event on the Red River in Louisiana to qualify for the Classic.
Fans were well aware that Bobo returned home from Louisiana to find a snag. He had no vacation time remaining at the place where he had worked for 18 years. The company wouldn't grant him a leave of absence for the Classic.
"We had a lot of people who worked there who liked to fish," he said. Company officials "said they couldn't show preference and it would set a bad precedent.
"I had come that far. I wasn't about to let that opportunity slip away. I quit."
At the 1997 Classic, Bobo had the double burden of being the favorite of the thousands of amateur fishermen who came from across the United States to watch the event, and of being the home-state favorite too.
He finished the first day in third place. On the second day, he caught another limit of fish, including a deeply hooked 3-pound fish. The fish was wounded and Bobo spent much of the day running water through its gills to try to keep it alive. The bass died about an hour before the weigh-in.
On the final day, thunderstorms caused problems for the leaders, but the fourth-place Bobo quickly caught a limit of fish. After catching a 5-pounder, "I said to myself, `You might have just won the Bassmaster Classic.'"
Outside the BJCC as Bobo waited in line to weigh his fish, the word of his catch spread. His fellow competitors came by to look into his livewell. "They were coming by and saying, `Congratulations, son, you just won the Bassmasters Classic.'"
Organizers moved Bobo to the end of the line so he could weigh in last for dramatic effect. The crowd erupted when he entered the arena.
"My wife, Magaria, goes to the tournaments with me and we have a signal when I think I've got it won," he said. "I give her a thumbs-up. They brought me inside the coliseum and I picked her out of all of that crowd. I gave her the thumbs-up."
After emcee Ray Scott talked to the crowd about the odds of an amateur winning the Classic, Bobo put his fish on the sales. He needed 13 pounds, 2 ounces to beat Dion Hibdon. The scale read 13 pounds, 1 ounce.
"I couldn't believe it," Bobo said. "I looked in the crowd and saw my wife and she was bawling."
Scott remembered the moment this week. "Here was a good boy who had worked hard. He was a dreamer who put it all on the line. Here's a guy whose whole life would be different if it were not for the fickle finger of fate."