HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. -- Wirth wins one, wire-to-wire.
After a 14-year drought without a win, nine-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Kevin Wirth finally pulled out his first Elite Series victory -- in the Tennessee Triumph presented by Longhorn -- by holding off a late-charging Bill Lowen on a cloudy, windy day on Old Hickory Lake.
"It's been long, and it's been hard," the former Kentucky Derby jockey said as he stood at his livewell, the last man to weigh his fish. "Fourteen years. Let's put 'em on the scale."
The weight of 26 other top-10 and five runner-up finishes lifted from the slender 45-year-old's shoulders when his fish registered. His 10-pound limit, anchored by the first two fish he caught on a buzzbait after a week of flipping shallow, pushed him to 55-10, well past Lowen's 50-5 -- and to the $100,000 first-place prize.
"Yeah!" Wirth screamed. He thrust his fist in the air and gave Lowen a hug. When that excitement ebbed, he was left wiping his eyes behind his sunglasses.
"I can't hardly hold my emotions here," Wirth told the weigh-in crowd at Sanders Ferry Park. "There's been many a day you think this isn't the right thing to be doing. This makes it all worthwhile.
"Dreams do come true."
So accustomed to heartbreak is Wirth that he began the day almost consoling himself this would still be a successful tournament by counting the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points he would earn, even if he were to zero on Day Four. That didn't happen, obviously, but Wirth, who began the week in 51st in the points, immensely helped his odds of qualifying for the 2009 Classic.
Lowen, who began the day in fourth, leaped to second place on the strength of the day's biggest bag, 14-9. He was doing well enough by 11 a.m. that thoughts of winning the tournament had crept into his head, giving him trouble tying on baits.
The impounded river reminded him plenty of growing up fishing the Ohio River, and he would have been a stronger threat to win this event had he not bottomed out with an 8-9 bag on Day Three, when he left his dominant spot and cruised to another -- where Wirth happened to be.
"I stubbed my toe," he said of the small bag. "I felt I was wearing out my stuff. The grass is always greener on the other side, you think."
Like Wirth, Rick Clunn also helped his chances at making a record 32nd Classic, but it took an act of God to get him back in the mix. The ninth event of this season was to take place on the Mississippi River, until heavy flooding in Iowa prompted BASS to relocate it from Fort Madison, Iowa, to middle Tennessee.
Clunn was then able to follow his ninth-place finish on Kentucky Lake with another tournament that suited his strengths as an angler: targeting shallow ledges in a traditional summer pattern.
"If we had gone where we were supposed to, we'd be throwing at lily pads," Clunn said on the morning of Day Four, "and I'm no better at throwing at lily pads than anyone else."
But as at Kentucky Lake, Clunn faded from second place after Day Three. He blamed conservative fishing -- the sport's equivalent of football's "prevent defense" -- for not making a bigger push on Day Three, the only one on which he made up ground on Wirth. But that turned out to be mere ounces, and he needed pounds.
"This particular creek, I'm frustrated with," he said on stage. "I've had three national top-10 finishes here, but I can't finish with it." He had a backup creek picked out, he said, but found out a night earlier Wirth had been fishing it.
"I lost it several years ago because I had like seven stretches," he said later. "Before I could protect all of them, I'd lost my best one. I decided to stay on my top three that I could defend, and I ended up losing a good stretch. I'm not sure what the strategy should be in that situation."
The rest of the top 12 shook out much the way it had begun: Randy Howell (third, 50-0) enjoyed his best Elite Series event of the season, and lobbied on-stage for more "junk fishing" tournaments. Dean Rojas (48-12) finished fourth, and Alton Jones (48-10) tied Clunn for fifth.
Brent Chapman (47-11) moved from 12th to 7th place on the strength of a 14-6 bag, followed by Ray Sedgwick (44-14) and Mike Iaconelli (44-3).
Todd Faircloth (42-14) capitalized on Kevin VanDam's uncharacteristic 36th-place finish to make the Angler of the Year race a squeaker heading into the final two events, in upstate New York. With his 10th-place finish, Faircloth closed the gap to within 16 points of VanDam, gunning for his fourth Angler of the Year title.
Steve Daniel (42-4) and Marty Stone (42-3) rounded out the top 12.