Fame is fleeting, and Tonja Woytasczyk knows her 15 minutes are about up, but she’s liking the ride.
In her first bass fishing tournament, the 48-year-old from Tarkington, Texas, caught a 12.04-pound bass from Lake Sam Rayburn and became the first woman to win a Big Bass Splash, earning $122,000 in the process.
“I’m enjoying the recognition. It’s sort of mind blowing,” said Woytasczyk, who even had someone ask for her autograph. “It’s been wild since I won … I’m just an ol’ country bumpkin.”
Her older brother, Walter Land, took her to several spots before they landed the winning fish north of the 147 bridge. He caught a small bass on a secret bait before she hooked into the lunker just after 8 a.m. on April 22, the first morning of the three-day event.
“She hit pretty close to the boat,” Woytasczyk said. “She didn’t want to come up. All I saw was mouth. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a big mouth.’ ”
More accustomed to saltwater fishing, Woytasczyk has landed several 10-pound bass, but she and Land worried the 12-pound test line would break. Walter finally netted the beast about the fifth time she worked it up to the boat.
“He got it in the bottom of the boat and he was shaking,” she said. “He’s like, ‘We’re in the money. We’re in the money.’”
In the livewell it went, and they fished several more minutes before realizing it was a bonus hour, so they drove the 35 minutes to the Umphrey Family Pavilion to weigh it in. The bucketmouth easily won the 8-9 a.m. hour and Woytasczyk wore her tournament T-shirt to double her prize to $2,000.
Bob Sealy, the founder and emcee of the Big Bass Splash, said this year’s event paid out a guaranteed $575,000 in cash and prizes, including 15 places each hour. The event, which benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, drew more than 3,100 contestants who paid as much as $260 for three days' entry fees.
Sealy was familiar, and impressed, with Woytasczyk’s family. Tonja’s brother, Norman, 53, won last year’s Big Bass Splash, and Walter, 55, finished second in the 2013 Splash.
“Super lady, great family,” Sealy said. “I created this 44 years ago, and there’s never been a woman to win. She is the first. And that’s the largest bass weighed in by a woman, so that was quiet a deal.”
By weighing early on the first day, Woytasczyk had a long wait before finding out she won, and that gave her great anxiety. She needed sleeping pills to even get a measly three hours.
“I’m not going to sleep, I’m not going to rest,” she said. “Once you put that on your mind, you sure can’t sleep.”
Since entered for all three days, she went out fishing and weighed in a $325 bass Sunday. She was at the weigh-in Sunday as time wound down, sweating every angler who brought in a fish. After the crowd counted down the final seconds, Woytasczyk relieved all that tension with a little cry.
“She kind of got emotional there when we called the tournament was officially over,” Sealy said. “We kind of agitated her a little bit. There were some tears.”
Here’s the YouTube video of those final, tense moments.
“I was a nervous wreck,” she said. “It was like I was in a daze. (Bob) would ask me something and I was like, ‘Huh?’ Everybody was toting up fish and you think all of them are bigger.”
The closest was 2.27 pounds back, leaving Woytasczyk with the grand prize, a 2016 Triton 21 TRX, a 2016 RAM Truck and $10,000 cash. In all, Sealy said she took away $122,000. She gave the truck to her husband, Jimmy -- “It’s his birthday coming up” -- and she plans to trade in the Triton for a saltwater boat, and the cash will be used to cover taxes, although she gave enough to Walter to buy a new depth finder.
“That Uncle Sam is going to love me -- won’t be no refund this year,” said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison guard. “I give all the credit to my brother, a good guide. He knows the honey holes.
“Anyone can catch the big fish -- man, woman, kid. You just got to fish. I probably won’t never catch nothing that big again, but I’m pretty thrilled. My brother told me, ‘You’re like a celebrity. Everybody’s talking about you.’”