SYRACUSE, N.Y. — After he learned that he had won the Bassmaster Memorial presented by Evan Williams Bourbon — and the $250,000 that comes with it — for the second straight year, Peter Thliveros offered this Memorial in memoriam.
With his 14-year-old son, Nick, on stage with him as he accepted the trophy, Thliveros' thoughts went immediately to his nephew, Wesley Shawn Sparks, who earlier this year was killed in a collision when he fell asleep at the wheel driving home at a late hour.
"I really have to dedicate this, in my heart right now, to a wonderful kid, 23-years-old," he told the audience through tears, during a call to his wife, Valeria. "It was a tragic loss to our family. I believe he was with us today."
Nick saw his dad crying, and he started crying, and the two hugged on stage, a burly father nearly engulfing his slim son. Afterward, as his father entertained a gaggle of cameras and tape recorders, Nick described his cousin as charismatic and generous.
"He could make you laugh even if you were crying because someone died," Nick said.
By then, Nick himself didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He and his father had been on the road together for about five weeks, leaving a family vacation in North Carolina to drive north, stopping along the way at the Potomac River, site of next month's Bassmaster Elite Series event, and heading to New York.
Thliveros finished 11th on Lake Champlain, then a disappointing 28th on Lake Erie. After a couple of days practicing on Oneida Lake, site of the first stage of the Memorial, he made the daring, borderline hubristic decision to practice half a day on Onondaga Lake, in case he made the top 12.
"We found a couple of spots that weren't as obvious," said Nick, a Florida state champion bass angler in his age group. "We found stuff you wouldn't have found in an hour."
That included stumps they hit with the boat, offshore grass and a mess of pilings — "the stuff that he fishes," Nick said. But the father overestimated the fruits of that scouting. Thinking that his 18-odd-pound sack would earn him a comfortable lead after Day Three, he eased off a bit, to leave fish for Sunday's final.
He was essentially killing time near the end of Saturday when he spotted a rock ledge that he decided to fish — good thing, too, because he culled up a critical couple of pounds.
"Yesterday, he came in, and I asked him what he had," Nick said. "He said, 'I had a bad day.' I was like, 'You are a dirty liar.' I looked in the livewell. He said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I think they better watch out.' At that point, I thought, 'He's got it.' I didn't think it would be this close."
Thliveros' 20-pound, 13-ounce stringer would have been good enough for a Day Three lead had Dave Wolak not rolled up with 22-0. That stringer left Thliveros aghast, 1-3 off the lead and second-guessing himself until Sunday's blast-off.
Steve Kennedy, who trailed Thliveros by 10 ounces after Day Three, turned out to be a bigger threat than Wolak. He submitted an 18-11 bag to take a lead during Sunday's weigh-in, but that total included a deduction of 4 ounces because one of his fish died just minutes earlier, as Kennedy waited on his boat to take the stage.
"Ten minutes to go, and he was upright!" the normally sanguine Kennedy said after Thliveros bounced him offstage. "Then that color changed, and I'm like, 'He's sick. He's bad sick.' The next time I looked in the livewell he was dead.
"This is so tough, knowing I caught more. Oh!"
He had a chance to cull it for a slightly smaller fish while he was on the water, but decided at the time that the fish was likely to survive. When Thliveros weighed in an 18-3 stringer that pushed him to 39-0 and topped Kennedy by 2 ounces, Kennedy's dead fish became the difference between a $250,000 first-place bounty and the second prize of $32,500.
Thliveros acknowledged the margin to the audience.
"It's got to be destiny of some kind," he said. "That's a drop of water."
Wolak's bag, the last to be weighed, went only 13-15.
"I was doing all of the same stuff as yesterday, they were all just 2 ½ pounds," Wolak said. "The slick water was definitely an issue. It's not that they wouldn't bite but I think a lot of the fish got scared away by the trolling motor. Yesterday, I could just drift through it and be totally quiet. It was like stealth mode."
The day was an anti-climax for an angler who also was looking for his second Major win. After this season, the second for the Majors, BASS won't hold them in 2008. The three no-entry-fee tournaments with more than $1,800,000 in total payouts, they were deemed too expensive for BASS to continue.
John Murray finished with 37-10 to claim third place. Dean Rojas caught 36-0, improving to fourth place, while Wolak's 35-15 put him fifth. Jared Lintner said he broke off more fish than he had at any time in the previous two years, and slid to sixth, with 34-12.
Thliveros' best bait was his "go-to bait," a 5-inch Zoom Super Fluke soft plastic. Two of his key spots were the flat he found during his last hour of fishing on Saturday — and a group of pilings that Nick spotted from his side of the boat during practice on Onondaga. Thliveros didn't find any fish on it Saturday, but while he was exploring it Sunday, he noticed a second group of pilings 30 yards away.
"I don't know how I didn't hit them until today," he said of that second pile. There, he caught two of the five fish he weighed in Sunday. "The whole key was, I was fishing stuff that other guys missed," he went on. "I think it showed today, it would have been hard to repeat on this water, fishing the same technique."
Except for Murray's, the anglers' stringers all dipped from Saturday to Sunday in too-calm conditions. Without 20 pounds in his livewell, Thliveros' day was terribly anxious until he held aloft the trophy. Then days and months of tension turned to relief.
Nick recalled the moment when he hugged his father, after the results were official.
"I told him, 'It was all Wes, and you know it,'" Nick recalled. "He said, 'He had his finger on the scale.'"