At age 23, Bryan Kerchal is still young enough to believe in luck, so he keeps a lucky whistle in the right front pocket of his fishing pants. Appropriately enough, the whistle is green and shaped like a largemouth bass, and each time Kerchal catches a keeper, he pulls the whistle out and blows a few notes to the world.
He blew it a total of 15 times during the three rainy, muddy water days of the Bassnaster Classic on North Carolina's High Rock Lake July 28-30, and those 15 catches earned Kerchal one of the most dramatic Classic victories ever in the 24 years of the event.
Kerchal's 15 bass weighed 36 pounds, 7 ounces, and won him fishing's most coveted title by a mere 4 ounces over veteran Tommy Biffle, whose 18-pound, 14-ounce final day charge left him in the runner-up spot for the second time in four years.
More importantly to many, perhaps, is that Kerchal's victory may well have marked a turning point in professional bass fishing, for he is the first BASS Federation Nation representative to win the Classic.
Although he fished six BASS Invitationals this past year, he actually qualified for the Classic through the Federation ranks, winning the BASS Federation Nation Championship in Pine Bluff last April.
Even so, this was Kerchal's second Classic appearance, for he was also one of the five Wrangler anglers in the 1993 Classic. He used his year on the Tournament Trail as a learning experience, and as Denny Brauer noted, "he learned well."
Brauer finished third behind Biffle with a 13-bass, 34-1 total. He was followed by Ron Shuffield in fourth with 31-2; and Dion Hibdon with 30-13.
In the beginning, quite a few of the contestants as well as many of the more than 100 invitation-only sportswriters present were ready to concede this Classic to David Fritts, winner of the 1993 Classic and practically everything else since. Fritts had not only made a shambles of the 1993-94 Bassmaster Angler-of-the-Year race with his $180,000 year, he was also coming back to his "home" lake, where he'd won more than a dozen previous tournaments.
Unfortunately, Fritts fell victim to his own fame. He hadn't even bought a North Carolina resident fishing license for the previous two years due to his hectic schedule, and when he did go out on High Rock, he was surrounded by such a flotilla of well-wishers that it was hard to even find him.
Graceful to the end, the personable Tar Heel angler surrendered his Classic crown with a three-day total of nine bass weighing 21-8 that left him in 21st position.
If it wasn't in the cards for Fritts to win, early speculation was that this Classic almost certainly would go to one of the other "crankers" like Rick Clunn, Paul Elias or Larry Nixon. That's because High Rock has underwater structure in abundance — channel drops, ridges, humps and stumpy flats — and many contestants had found them during the late June early practice period.
What the pros also found, however, was that timing seemed to be more important than lure selection. Five anglers could fish the same spot without a bite, but the sixth might boat 20 pounds there. Kerchal had just such an experience.
One day during the preliminary practice session, the Newtown, Conn., angler was tired after fishing six days with hardly a strike, and he decided to pull into a quiet cove and take a nap. When he awoke half an hour later he felt rejuvenated and relaxed, so he rigged a plastic worm and went fishing again. His first bass was a 5-pounder, which was quickly followed by two more over 4 pounds.
Basil Bacon, competing in his ninth Classic despite a heavily bandaged right hand injured in a fall, described High Rock as the "best small lake he'd ever fished" because it had so many different fishing options. He went into the official practice day with two steady patterns he'd managed to establish. Elias, likewise, went into the official practice day confident because of a successful pre-practice visit.
No one really gives up any secrets during Classic practice, however, which this year was shortened to a single day, and many pros do not even visit their prime spots. Nonetheless, quite a few came back glum and uneasy after their first official day on the water.
One of Bacon's two patterns was absolutely dead and the other was questionable. Nixon caught bass shallow on spinnerbaits and deep on crankbaits and couldn't decide which was more reliable. Shaw Grigsby said he hadn't put together anything and was scrambling. Fritts had about 10 boats following him, and admitted he was feeling a lot of pressure to perform well in front of his hometown fans.
Practice had been punctuated with rain, and more was predicted throughout the week. That meant High Rock would not only rise but also become muddy, shrinking the 15,000-acre lake and creating even more crowded conditions. At the same time, however, the rising water would normally push bass into the "new" cover, opening more opportunities for the flippers and pitchers among the contestants.
Although such changing water conditions are nothing new to the touring pros, they were new to Wrangler Angler Gerry Jooste, the first angler from outside North America to qualify for a Classic. Jooste, 36, is a bass boat builder in Harare, Zimbabwe, and the lakes and rivers he fishes in Africa don't fluctuate at all, except during the dry and rainy seasons. He doesn't fish boat docks, because there aren't any. And his home lakes aren't overrun with jet skis and speedboats — his biggest problem is avoiding crocodiles and hippos.
With the one practice day and the following press/photo day completed, then, the stage was set for this 24th annual edition of the Classic, and everyone was primed for a major shoot-out.
Representatives from Ranger, Outboard Marine Corporation, Delco Voyager, Rubbermaid, Chevy Trucks, Lowrance, MotorGuide and Parts Plus all expressed their optimism for an extremely competitive tournament, for no less than eight former Classic champions were in the field.
None, however, were more optimistic than the representatives of the Greensboro Sports Commission, host city of Greensboro and host state of North Carolina, and Wrangler, whose home office is located in Greensboro. All were anxious to showcase the attractions of the Tar Heel State and justify their selection as the Classic site.
They needn't have worried, for the first day of competition provided enough energy and excitement for any Classic, regardless of location. When the final boat had pulled through the Greensboro Coliseum, the surprise leader was an instant crowd favorite, Claude "Fish" Fishburne — the clown prince of fishing — who brought in a five-bass limit weighing 14 pounds, 10 ounces.
During his seven days of pre-practice, the red-haired Georgia pro had mapped 60 places he felt would give up one good strike apiece. In this opening round he had visited 15 of them, and caught bass on everything from spinnerbaits to jigs. He anchored his stringer with a 5-pounder, and acknowledged losing a 3-pound bass.
Dion Hibdon also managed a big bass, a 5-8 lunker, that helped propel him into second place with a 12-pound, 8-ounce total. Hibdon actually went more than three hours during the day without a strike, so it became apparent early on that just a single big fish anytime during the tournament would have a major impact on final finishing positions.
Mickey Bruce held third with 11-15, and Kerchal followed in fourth with 11-2. While Bruce was working the backs of several creeks, Kerchal was pitching a red shad Culprit worm under three separate sets of boat docks in Second Creek. Dion Hibdon's father Guido, flipping Guido Bugs, worms and jigs around any type of shallow cover he could find, stood in fifth with 10-7.
No one was really out of it, however. Biffle sat in 16th place after bringing in just three bass weighing 8-7. Shuffield likewise brought in three and found himself in 24th with 7 pounds; Clunn held 20th with 7-12; Nixon and 1974 Classic champ Tommy Martin were in 30th and 31st.
This was the day Fritts discovered just what a hometown hero he is, for at one time he had 64 spectator boats following him. For the day, he brought in just two fish and sat in 28th place. Right behind him was Grigsby, who said he spent more of the day singing instead of fishing; he'd been paired with former Three Dog Night rock group member Ray Ludkevicz, now host of an outdoor radio show.
Kerchal began blowing his good luck whistle in earnest the second day, despite thunderstorms that forced many competitors to shelter, and rapidly muddying water that eliminated literally miles of fishable shoreline. Staying with his Second Creek dock pattern, the Wrangler angler pitched his way into the lead, catching his 14-pound, 1-ounce limit by 9 a.m.
That gave him a two-day total of 25-3, but while every BASS Federation angler in the world stood up and cheered for their new hero, no one breathed easy. That's because an absolute army of seasoned pros sat poised and ready, right behind Kerchal, led by old Shoe Leather himself, Guido Hibdon, whose 13-8 limit put him just 1 pound, 15 ounces behind at 23-15.
Hibdon had reported losing several bass the first day. Another got away this second day, but not in the usual way. He had boated a 3-pounder, but the bass twisted free of his Guido Bug, hit a lunch cooler and bounced out.
Davy Hite, who as a youngster once sat in the stands watching a BASS Masters Classic and who won the 1994 Alabama Invitational, held third with 22-12, while Ron Shuffield jumped 20 places into fourth with 2l-2. His rod broke as he set the hook on his biggest fish, a 5-11, but he was able to land it nevertheless.
As dramatic as Shuffield's leap up the ladder was, it wasn't nearly as spectacular as that made by , Brent Riley.
Riley, a sawmill supervisor from Ridgeville, S.C., had struggled to the scales the first day with one bass weighing 2 pounds, 1 ounce and sat in 35th place. This second day he fished exactly the same water — but he could barely lift his catch bag; his five fish pushed the scales down to an even 19 pounds and jumped him into fifth place.
He was crankbaiting and had caught his biggest fish (6 pounds, 3 ounces) on a Poe's 400. Then he lost the lure on a stump. Two hours later, he hooked the plug again with another crankbait, brought it in, and caught two more bass with it. As it turned out, Riley's stringer would be the heaviest of the Classic.
Dion Hibdon, flipping bushes, docks and logs with a jig and Guido Bug, reported losing three fish and fell to ninth. Denny Brauer, pitching and flipping a 3/8-ounce Denny Brauer jig with a new Strike King Pigtail trailer, moved from 15th the first day to 10th with a two-day total of 19-8.
Biffle remained in 16th with two more bass weighing 8-14. He was fishing a black/yellow Rattle Back Jig with a prototype black/chartreuse crawfish trailer. Unlike most everyone else, he was fishing the main Yadkin River are, where he managed to locate small pockets of semiclear water along the shore. He was pitching to green willows and other bushes in water 1 to 3 feet deep.
Topwater expert Zell Rowland climbed from 13th to seventh, bringing in three bass weighing 11-9. Rowland was also pitching and flipping jigs, but after landing a 4-pounder on his first pitch of the morning, he spent eight hours catching his next two.
Woo Daves' one fish of the day also showed how fickle the action could be in the changing conditions. He threw out one of his Mister Twister Woo Worms, then decided to take off his rain suit. When he picked up his rod again, the bass, which weighed 5-7, was starting to swim away.
No one, however, found the bass more fickle than Fishburne, who came to the weigh-in stand without a keeper and fell from first all the way to 22nd. He was still working on his list of 60 different fishing sites, he joked, but he suspected someone had sabotaged the list and sent him off on a wild goose chase.
The final morning of the Classic dawned overcast and cool but with the promise of clearing skies and soaring temperatures. Kerchal slept well, but very quickly he found himself in trouble. His primary spot — a pier on a point in Second Creek — had muddied overnight and the bass refused to bite. It was well after 9 a.m. before he put his first keeper on board.
Despite the difficult fishing, Kerchal never varied from his pattern. He worked each of the three sets of docks slowly and deliberately, pitching his Texas-rig Culprit under the boards and around the pilings time after time. The 6-inch worm was rigged with a 3/16-ounce slip sinker and a 2/0 Gamakatsu hook, and fished on 15-pound-test Berkley Big Game line.
When he completed one set of docks, Kerchal moved to the next and then the next, then back to start the sequence again. For the day he caught just six keepers, his last one coming about 1 p.m. He also caught about that many small fish, with depths ranging from as shallow as 2 feet to as deep as 8.
In addition to worrying about catching his own limit, Kerchal also had to worry about those behind him. He was justifiably nervous, as anyone in his position would be. He was not a professional angler — he was a short-order cook working evenings in a restaurant named the Ground Round. He kept a Wrangler cap in the glove compartment of his boat to collect the autographs of his competition.
He also knew the quality of that competition. With each bass he put into the livewell, he blew his good luck whistle as if his career depended on it. Each time he did, his entourage of about 10 spectator boats cheered.
While Kerchal was thus struggling, Biffle returned to his upriver spots to confront his own demons, committing himself to a go-for-broke run for the title. In the same place where he'd taken his largest fish the second day, he brought out a 6-8 giant and, later, another nearly as large.
While the buckbushes and willows were in less than 3 feet of water, he was just a cast away from slightly deeper depths. For the day he had just five keeper bites; for the tournament only 10. It was not to be his year.
But because Biffle had been hiding far down in the field, he was not the one Kerchal thought about. Instead, his fears centered on Hibdon, Hite, Shuffield, Riley and Peter Thliveros, the Jacksonville, Fla., pro who held down sixth entering the final day.
One by one, however, as these pros came to the weigh-in stand in front of 23,000 screaming fans, they were eliminated. Hibdon had just three fish weighing 5-14 and fell to sixth. Hite caught only one and dropped to 14th.
Shuffield, who had been fishing docks and isolated bushes with a 7/16-ounce black/blue Stanley jig and Uncle Josh trailer, brought in a five-bass limit, but it weighed only 10 pounds and he fell to fourth. Brauer, who was running and fishing everything everywhere, came in with the second-heaviest stringer of the day at 14-9, but he'd had too much ground to make up, and he settled for third.
In the end, Biffle's catch fell 4 ounces short. And so, bassdom crowned its first Federation angler as king. Chances are, he'll wear the crown well, too. And as defending champion, he is guaranteed a return trip to Classic XXV. Whether he repeats as champion may well depend upon how often and how hard he blows that good luck whistle.