You probably wouldn't notice David Walker's 11th-place finish in the final Northern Open on Chesapeake Bay. It's just a name on a list. There are 10 before it and 95 after it.
But for Walker, that 11th-place finish meant everything. "It's been a long, point-calculating year, and I'm glad it's over," said the bass fishing pro from Sevierville, Tenn. The 11th place earned him a fifth-place finish in the Northern Open standings, which gave him what he'd been working for all season: an invitation to the 2011 Bassmaster Elite Series.
Walker's story is one example of the mostly unseen world of professional bass fishing. The typical fan looks at the standings to see who won – maybe checks on a buddy or two – and moves on. But every place in every tournament fished carries an enormous amount of weight. T
he difference between 10th and 20th in a tournament could mean the difference between a dream realized and a dream lost. Two pounds could be the difference between going to the Classic and going back to a 9 to 5 job.
Like most good bass stories, Walker's includes that one pivotal fish that either makes it in the boat or doesn't. Lucky for Walker, his make-it or-break-it bass traveled 500 miles and gave him a second chance.
Walker's been on the big stage before. He's been in the Classic six times and finished third twice, including 2001 in New Orleans where he missed two fish that he's convinced would have given him the victory. That tournament is a big part of the reason Walker, who has been fishing the FLW Tour for the past four years, decided to try and work his way back to the Elite Series.
"There is no event in the world like the Bassmaster Classic," he said. "It is hands down the premier tournament for professional bass fishermen. And to be that close to winning it all ... you just don't forget it." The top seven in the final standings of the Northern, Southern and Central Open seasons get an invitation to the Elite Series, so once he decided he wanted back in BASS, Walker committed to the entire Southern and Northern schedules. The top two finishers in the Open standings get invited to the Classic, but Walker said the plan was to go through the Elites. If he finished high enough to qualify for the upcoming Classic, it would just be icing on the cake. But it didn't start out well.
In his first BASS tournament in four years, Walker finished 85th out of 200 in the Southern Open on Lake Okeechobee. It pretty much ended his chances at qualifying through the Southerns, but it did teach him something valuable. "I figured out that I can't fish to win," Walker said. "I know that sounds funny, but there are two schools of thought when you're on the water. Instead of going for winning fish, I needed to catch as many fish as possible and try to cull up all day. I had to stay focused on the bigger picture."
In the second Southern Open his philosophy worked perfectly and he finished 11th on Smith Lake. But even with things going right, he knew qualifying through the Southerns was a long shot.
That left the Northerns, which were scheduled back-to-back-to-back from the end of July to the middle September. Walker identified the Detroit River – the second event -- as his best chance at a good finish, and Chesapeake Bay – the third and final event – as his worst. "I had never even heard of Chesapeake Bay," he said.
He also heard the Northerns were the easiest path to the Elites because they didn't always fill the 200-angler field. "That was definitely not the case," Walker said. "I showed up to Lake Champlain and not only was the field full, it was full of Elite Series anglers." Walker stuck to his plan and nailed an eighth-place finish at the event, putting him in a good position with his favorite body of water still to come. A good finish on the Detroit River would give him the leeway he needed to struggle on Chesapeake Bay. After an average Day One in Michigan, Walker was in 22nd but he wasn't worried. This is the way the last couple of tournaments had gone for him. Start slowly, in the middle of the pack, and move up the board every day.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan when Walker hooked up with a 6-pound smallmouth early on Day Two. "I fought it for a long time," he said. "It would come to the boat and then dive over and over. Both of us in the boat got a really good look at it multiple times. It would have been the biggest smallmouth of my life." It "would have been," but it wasn't. Eventually the bass worked its way off, leaving Walker with just a memory and a story.
He tried to put the loss behind him, but didn't get anything close to that size the rest of the day. Walker ended up in 37th place, which wasn't a dream killer but it was outside the top-30 cut. He had no chance to move up, and his Elite Series hopes would require a high finish on what felt like the one body of water in America he didn't know at least something about.
After the Detroit River event, he was sitting in eighth place, one spot out of the Elite Series cut. "Losing that fish just haunted me," Walker said. "I was just sick about it and had no idea what to expect in Maryland."
Chesapeake Bay was living up to Walker's poor perception. The fishing was bad and the information was confusing. "People were saying it would take 20 pounds a day to win, but if you catch one you're doing good," he said. It didn't get any better when the tournament started. He caught three fish for 6 pounds, 13 ounces on Day One and sat in 47th place. "I couldn't stop thinking about that fish I lost," he said. "I just knew that was my chance at the Elites and it was gone. I was really disgruntled." Then the fish came back. Walker was having a decent Day Two, with four fish in the livewell by 2:30 p.m. and about a half hour left to fish. His best spot was close to the ramp, and it was getting beat up by boats checking in. To get out of the traffic more than anything, Walker decided to move to a secondary spot that he thought might hold a big bass.
Five minutes into his new spot, Walker hooked up with and landed a 5-pounder -- one bass that almost equaled his Day One limit. "I looked at it and thought, 'That's the fish. I got it back,'" he said. "We were going crazy in the boat. It was a high-five moment. I knew at that point I'd be in good shape." It turned out even better than he had hoped.
Almost all the weights had gone down on Day Two and his 11-6 moved him comfortably inside the cut to 18th place. With the pressure mostly off, Walker boated another 11-6 on the final day and moved up for an 11th-place finish. There were 10 guys in front of him and 95 behind him. His name wasn't mentioned in the recap of the event but he was right where he needed to be. Six others qualified for the Elites that same day and 14 more will qualify over the next 30 days as BASS finishes up both the Southern and Central Open seasons.
As it turned out, the lost fish on the Detroit River realistically could have cost Walker a shot at the 2011 Classic -- he was only 53 points from second place. "That would have been awesome to qualify for the Classic, but I'm not unhappy about where I finished," he said. "It's a pretty good achievement to finish in the top seven when so many guys are gunning for the same thing."
Walker said he'll finish out the Southern Open season on Lake Seminole next week even though he doesn't have a shot at the Classic and he's already qualified for the Elites. "This is how I make a living – I've got to be fishing," he said. "I'm really looking forward to this season. I'm ready to fish with these guys, and I want to get back to the Bassmaster Classic."