Ask anyone who has followed the Bassmaster Classic over the years to list the top three Classics of all time, and there's one that's always going to make the cut — the 1994 Classic on North Carolina's High Rock Lake (See BASS Insider video below). This year marks the 15th anniversary of that tournament.
The event started in pretty ordinary fashion. Former television fishing host and BASS master of ceremonies Fish Fishburne jumped out to the Day 1 lead with a limit of five bass weighing 14 pounds, 10 ounces. Hot on his heels were 1997 Classic champ Dion Hibdon and Georgia pro Mickey Bruce. Three and a half pounds back in fourth place was a young qualifier from the BASS Federation Nation named Bryan Kerchal.
The 23-year-old Kerchal worked as a short order cook in Connecticut and was living his dream fishing the Classic. Impressively, he had also qualified the previous year, though he finished in last place. Things were so tough for him in that Classic that BASS founder Ray Scott said "If you don't do better you're going to have to go back to flipping burgers" as Kerchal walked across the stage on the final day.
It must have stuck with the young angler.
In practice for the '94 Classic, Kerchal struggled. He couldn't seem to find any bass. Then, as he continued to work the water and wonder what it would be like to finish last two years in a row, he spotted a used plastic worm floating near his boat.
"Why not?" he must have thought as he threaded it onto a hook and made a cast. Soon his practice turned around. The red shad Culprit worm was working, and he had a plan for the tournament.
On Day 2, Kerchal made his move. He bagged another limit — this one weighing 14-1 — and took the lead. BASS legend Guido was more than a pound back in second, and the smart money was on him to win his second title.
But in the final round, Hibdon could only bring three bass to the scales, and Kerchal held off a strong charge by Tom Biffle to win the championship by just 4 ounces. He became the second youngest winner in Classic history and the first (and so far only) Federation Nation qualifier to win the world's greatest fishing tournament.
He was the right man at the right moment. Shy and self-effacing, he was a popular and modest champion. Federation Nation enrollment grew by leaps and bounds. Companies were eager to have the likeable and handsome young angler endorsing their products. His schedule got busy. He frequently had to fly from one location to the next to meet his personal appearance obligations, and he hated to fly.
On December 13, 1994, Kerchal was in North Carolina meeting with one of his sponsors. After the meeting, Kerchal boarded a small commuter plane that would take him on the first leg of his journey back to Connecticut.
American Eagle Flight 3379 was flying from Raleigh to Greensboro when it crashed into a wooded area just four miles from takeoff, killing 15 of the 20 persons onboard, including the Classic champ.
His death was mourned by Federation Nation members, angling fans and everyone who shared his dream of competing as an amateur and winning their sport's biggest prize.
After 15 years, his loss still resonates within the Federation Nation where their most cherished trophy — the one that goes to the winner of the Federation Nation Championship — is named in his honor.
Tomorrow we cover the number 14 and come from behind victories in the Bassmaster Classic.