Big worm brings big money

DECATUR, Ala. — On a day when America went wanting once again for another Triple Crown winner, ABC Sports announcer Brent Musburger warned millions watching on television the Belmont Stakes would be a race won at the end, not at the post.

Turns out prohibitive favorite Big Brown wasn't even in the picture by the time 38-1 longshot Da'Tara had pulled off one of the bigger upsets in sports history.

What does horse racing have to do with bass fishing at the Elite Series' Southern Challenge in Alabama?

The same thing — you can't claim a win until the final fish has been caught and weighed in.

For Pevely, Mo., co-angler Bob McMullin, it was well into Saturday afternoon when the co-angler tourney was won — in McMullin's first BASS co-angler start, no less — along with its $25,000 first-place check.

"It feels great," McMullin said. "I just won $25,000 in a boater tournament on Kentucky Lake a month ago, so I'm on a roll."

But this week's Southern Challenge event wasn't won without an assist on Saturday from McMullin's fishing partner for the day, Elite Series pro Kelly Jordon.

"Kelly, he gave me a plastic worm that helped me catch the fish at the end that boosted my weight up and put me over the top," said the retired 65-year old angler.

"He had caught several bass on it, a 10-inch Lake Fork Tackle blue flake worm.

"It was a really hot bait."

That is exactly why KJ, who finished in 38th place on the pro side of the ledger, wanted McMullin to use one of his plastic worms.

"He was fishing with a little worm and I said 'Hey dude, you need to catch a big one,'" Jordon said, offering McMullin one of his baits.

At first, McMullin politely declined Jordon's offer.

When KJ politely responded back that he was offering his co-angler the bait that could help him win the event, McMullin thought differently and accepted the offer.

Moments after tying it on, he was glad he did, promptly landing a 3-pound bass.

"I think it was his first or second cast with that Lake Fork Tackle worm that he caught his winning fish on," Jordon laughed. "I said 'There you go.'"

All the way to the winner's seat, it turned out, after the fish boosted McMullin's five bass limit to 13-12 pounds, good enough for a winning three-day tally of 37-2.

Turns out, McMullin's win was simply doing what he came to Alabama to do — to be versatile and adapt to whatever each day brought.

"When I came down here, I didn't know really what to expect other than to throw crankbaits, jerkbaits, and traps above the grass," he said. "I figured that once I got out there and saw what the conditions were, I would adapt."

Fishing with Bernie Schultz on Day One, Randy Howell on Day Two, and Jordon on Day Three, McMullin said that despite years of "dawn-to-dusk" fishing experience, he still learned something new this week.

"I learned that when you're on fish, not to leave them," McMullin said. "Kelly had us on fish today and we didn't move until later in the day. He was on solid fish and that was the key.

"With Randy yesterday, it was basically the same thing.

"And on the first day with Bernie, he moved around a little bit more than the other two, but it was still basically the same thing to stay there and pound them.

Fishing on the Decatur Flats virtually the entire tournament, McMullin's pros had him in position to find fish just about anywhere, even from the back of the boat.

"My hat's off to the pros that I fished with," he said. "They kept me around fish — you can't catch them if you're not fishing around them."

While the Southern Challenge may have been McMullin's first co-angler rodeo, it certainly isn't going to be his last.

"I'm entered in the Ft. Madison (Elite Series event) and I'm about 20th on the waiting list for next week at Kentucky Lake," McMullin told BASS emcee Keith Alan before a rowdy and applauding crowd on a hot Southern summer day.

"But if you guys need someone to fill a spot next week, give me a call and I'll make it."

Brian Hickey of Cadiz, Ky., will definitely be in his home Bluegrass State next week.

And he was nearly in the winner's seat in 'Bama on Saturday afternoon, weighing in five bass at 11-15, good enough for a three-day total of 34-15, just 2-13 behind the winner.

"It's still awesome and I feel great, but the hardest part of this for me is knowing that some of the fish that I caught may have cost the pros that I was fishing with," Hickey said, following his bump from the co-angler hot seat on the weigh-in platform.

All five of his bass today — caught while fishing with Elite Series pro Kotaro Kiriyama who made the final 12 cut — came on a 10-inch plastic worm fished on the grass flats.

Hickey isn't kidding about how bad he felt.

In fact, after getting his limit Friday and culling one fish, he spent several hours simply watching Rojas fish.

Today, after getting his limit, he again spent much of the day watching Kiriyama fish.

"I kind of got to feeling bad every time I caught a fish, because it could hurt guys trying to make the (Elite Series) cut or even make it into the Classic," Hickey said.

Hickey, who won $10,000 for his runner-up showing, referred specifically to a 2-pound fish he caught Friday while fishing with Dean Rojas. Much to Hickey's chagrin, Rojas missed the cut by less than a pound.

"I'm really, really super-competitive and I didn't think I would feel this way," he lamented.

Brian Talmadge, the third-place finisher, came to the scales with five bass weighing 13-14 for a three day catch of 30-11.

The 33-year old Pell City, Ala., angler walked away from the stage with a different feeling than Hickey's, thanks in part to claiming his $5,000 third-place check.

But it is also because Talmadge got a ringside seat today, fishing with four-time Bassmaster Classic champ and living legend Rick Clunn.

"It was different, because he doesn't talk too much, although he will answer questions and tell you what he's doing," Talmadge said. "He is the Zen master, which is cool."

Talmadge who has also fished as a co-angler with the likes of Kevin VanDam and Edwin Evers, offered a comparison: "They are both great, too, although they are maybe a little more intense," Talmadge said.

"Rick is more laid back and chills more. He takes care of his business, but he wants you to catch fish as long as you respect his water."

On Saturday, Talmadge was able to do both — thanks to one particular bait.

"My day was great, although I started off way behind," he said. "I used an XCalibur XR-50 and I threw it all day long, at least until I loaned it to Rick for an hour. When I got it back, I shot for the fence."

The XCalibur bait, in the Royal Shad color, helped Talmadge catch his five bass where the grass began to drop away from the flats towards a ledge.

In the end, while Talmadge would like to have notched his second career BASS co-angler win — he won last year at Guntersville — he laughed that he had accomplished his main goal this week.

"(I won) enough to get the wife some new furniture," Talmadge said. "That's what she wanted me to do this week."

Not accomplishing his goal on Saturday was second round leader Jimmy Dudley, who came into the day with nearly a 2-pound lead.

He left Saturday shaking his head about a tournament he let get away: literally.

"I'm sick," Dudley weakly smiled after weighing in one bass at 2-14.

"I had probably the worst day today that I've ever had fishing. Whatever could go wrong did go wrong."

Dudley isn't kidding.

"First thing, I was throwing a Rat-L-Trap on braided line, which I knew I shouldn't do," Dudley said.

"I caught a 3 1/2-pound bass, but it came off about halfway back to the boat. Then 15 minutes later, the same thing happened when I lost a 3-pounder right at the boat on the same Trap."

Pretty bad run of luck, right? Hang on ... it gets worse.

After switching to 12-pound monofilament with more give, Dudley threw the same Rat-L-Trap out and hooked an even bigger fish.

"I fought it back to the boat and it was 5-pounds," he said. "I tried to gill it (instead of lipping it because I didn't want a handful of hooks) and it closed its gills.

"It opened its gills again and I was reaching for it when it jerked its head and my line snapped.

If you're keeping score, that's 11.5 pounds of bass caught (and lost) in a 45-minute period early this morning.

For the record, Dudley finished in 11th place, some 9-1 from claiming the win.

"I guess I need to go back to school to learn how to get one out of the water," said the glum Dudley.

"My grandson lost a 12-pounder and I told him to cheer up that day, that he would get over it. Later that day, he told me 'Papa, I don't think I'll ever get over this.'

"Now I know exactly how he felt."

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