HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — On a damp launch dock at Sanders Ferry Park, Kevin Wirth stood swathed in black rain gear, 11 anglers to his right and none to his left. Such is the lonely lot of the leader — as Wirth has been on all three days of the Bassmaster Elite Series' ninth event, the Tennessee Triumph presented by Longhorn.
But uneasy was the conscience of the former jockey, who hasn't won a BASS tournament since beating 327 other anglers in the South Carolina Invitational on Santee Cooper in 1994. Finishing eighth in that tournament was none other than four-time Bassmaster Classic winner Rick Clunn, who, at 3 pounds, 3 ounces back, may be the only angler with a realistic shot of surpassing Wirth in this tournament.
"Ultimately, we still need to catch fish," Wirth said. "No lead is safe."
Wirth's last final-day tournament lead wasn't. That was in the 2006 Bluegrass Brawl on Kentucky Lake — veritable home water for the Crestwood, Ky., angler — when Morizo Shimizu sacked the biggest limit of the tournament on the final day, vaulting from third place and dropping Wirth to second.
"I've had some tough beats," he said. "But that's how the cookie crumbles."
That tournament, along with three other second-place finishes since his last win, have tempered Wirth's enthusiasm.
"At no time did I think I could win the tournament," he said. "I still don't."
Asked what Wirth's "win drought" means, pro Steve Daniel (ninth place, 34-0) said simply, "It means it's hard to win.
"You can't have any bad luck," Daniel continued. "Ricky loves bad weather — I bet he's licking his chops right about now. Everything's in Ricky's favor. The only thing Kevin's got going for him is he's got a lead. He's got a good cushion."
Wirth fished with abandon this week, an attitude to which he credits his success. He's been having a down season, sitting at 51st in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points standings before this event.
The nine-time Classic qualifier was tired of fishing in crowds, tired of running the same drops everyone else was running. "On Tuesday and Wednesday, I thought to myself, 'Man, the hell with the Classic. I'm just going fishing,'" Wirth said. Instead, he went flipping in a creek mouth and in the process, may very well have fished his way back into Classic contention.
His Day One bag of 17-2 was the biggest in the tournament so far. He followed that with another solid sack on Day Two, and a Day Three bag that let him hold court against Clunn, giving up just 2 ounces to the old master.
"I'm in a position where I have to catch big fish," Clunn said. "Kevin doesn't have to catch big fish. He just needs to catch a limit. If he catches a limit, I'm probably the only one who can catch him."
As the morning rain pelted Clunn's raincoat, he actually said he'd prefer even more daunting weather.
"I'd like it to be three times worse, but with no lightning and no tornadoes," Clunn said.
Someone asked him how he felt about fishing his way closer to the Classic cut. Mired in 76th in the points after the Carolina Clash, Clunn has improved to 57th — even before this tournament.
But the man with records for Classic wins and appearances (31) dismissed the points race.
"I don't worry about the Classic," he said. "That's the worst thing a lot of guys do — they get up on stage and say that's the most important thing.
"That's not the most important thing. Winning this event is the most important thing."
At 4-9 behind Clunn (nearly 8 pounds behind Wirth) lurks Randy Howell, who, as he organized baits in the rain at launch, said, "I'm excited. I'm right where I want to be. I won't have a bunch of people following me, seeing if I'm going to choke."
Behind Howell sit Dean Rojas, Alton Jones, Bill Lowen and Mike Iaconelli. Eighth-place Ray Sedgwick, Daniel, Marty Stone, Todd Faircloth and Brent Chapman round out the Day Four field. While he's 11-5 out of the lead, Faircloth will overtake Kevin VanDam in the TTBAOY points race if he finishes at least fifth.
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Tennessee Triumph with weigh-in host Keith Alan, June 26-29, 2008. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 3:30 p.m. ET. On Saturday, catch "Bassmaster University" at 3:00 p.m. ET before the weigh-in. Then on Sunday, get "Hooked Up" with hosts Tommy Sanders and Mark Zona at 1 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. ET, with the final day weigh-in and real-time leaderboard content starting at 3:30 p.m. ET.