CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Two years ago Dave and Jessica Wolak made a commitment to professional bass fishing. Jessica would continue working as an occupational therapist at a Veterans Administration Hospital, while Dave quit his "real job" for an attempt to make a living on the BASS circuit.
Sunday Dave Wolak sent his wife into an early retirement. The 29-year-old Warrior Run, Pa., resident held onto his lead from Saturday and collected the $250,000 first-place check in the Bassmaster American presented by Advance Auto Parts.
"This will change my whole life, there's no doubt about it," said Wolak. "This will change my wife's life. This will change my kid's life."
That kid — Jake David Wolak — is unlikely to remember the day his life changed. He's only 12 days old. And he's one more reason why Dave Wolak's bass fishing career had a sense of urgency to it.
"Everything is just surreal at this point," said Wolak, who earned the Toyota Rookie of the Year Award in 2005 on the BASS tour.
"I had a good year last year, but everything was still tough," said Wolak. "I had no sponsors at all that first year. We put everything on the line for me to fish."
When Wolak walked across the Cricket Arena stage as the last angler to weigh-in Sunday, sitting on the "hot seat" at stage left was Wolak's worst nightmare — Kevin VanDam. As the Saturday leader of the six finalists, Wolak knew that VanDam had caught enough fish Sunday to move into first place among the other five finalists. And Wolak knew VanDam's history for winning tournaments.
But in the end, not even VanDam could overcome the big lead Wolak established Saturday. Wolak caught a five-bass limit Sunday weighing 10 pounds, 8 ounces, which gave him a two-day total of 25-14. VanDam, who has won over $2 million on the BASS tour including two Bassmaster Classics, caught the biggest bag Sunday — 13 pounds, 13 ounces — but it left him almost three pounds back at 22-15.
"This makes his career," said the 38-year-old VanDam, speaking from experience. "Dave has worked hard on his own. He's a gentleman on the water.
"He can get his wife out of work, and he won't have to worry about next year. But more than anything, this gives him confidence to build on. Once you get yourself in position to win one of these big tournaments, and then you do it, you can really build on that."
Wolak caught bass Sunday by "junk fishing."
"This lake fits my style," said Wolak. "I put 10 rods on the deck and cast whatever is appropriate."
With each angler limited to 70 minutes in each of six mid-lake sections of Lake Wylie, Wolak mostly targeted clear water with a 5-inch green pumpkin Zoom flat tail worm. He caught some fish near bream beds and others near points and ledges.
VanDam took advantage of a strong topwater bite. He felt he wasted too much time fishing deep Saturday.
"It's like there are two subspecies of (largemouth) bass in this lake," VanDam said. "One of them feeds on shad and then goes out to deep structure. The other one stays shallow all year long and really keys on the bream beds. They hunt them in packs, like a wolf pack.
"That's the only reason I can think of as to why they'd stay in such warm water."
VanDam fished water that registered as high as 95 degrees Sunday.
Gerald Swindle of Hayden, Ala., was second Saturday and finished third Sunday with a two-day total of 22-5, just 10 ounces behind VanDam.
"I feel like I fished a winning tournament, I'm just not going to get the winning prize," said Swindle, who lost a 3-pounder Sunday when his line broke just as he was swinging the fish in his boat.
Swindle also concentrated on shallow water, saying he caught all his fish less than five feet deep.
Hometown favorite Jason Quinn took fourth place with 21-13. After spending much of his day in shallow water, Quinn made a decision to go deep and it paid off.
"I said if I'm going to win this thing, I've got to do what I do best, throwing that big plug," said Quinn, who lives on Lake Wylie and works as a guide here in addition to his pro bass fishing career.
Quinn had caught a limit early on a jig, but said he culled every fish he had in the last half-hour of the tournament.
"In that last 20 minutes, I don't think I made a cast without catching a fish," said Quinn.
Quinn credited a Lur Jensen Hot Lips deep running crankbait as the lure that produced his flurry at the end.