Flashback: Kerchal’s death saddens bass fishing world

Bryan Kerchal, a Classic that people will not soon forget.

Editor's Note: The fishing world lost its king on Dec. 13, 1994, when a plane crash took the life of Bassmaster Classic champion Bryan Kerchal. It is believed to be the first time in the world of sports that a reigning champion had died. Kerchal's career spawned many other firsts in its short span. On the eve of the 1995 Classic, during which bass anglers will celebrate his life and mourn his loss, BASSMASTER Magazine asked Senior Writer Tim Tucker to profile Bryan's life, his career and his remarkable impact on the sport. At the time of Kerchal's death, he and Tucker were collaborating on a book that would chronicle his incredible rise to the top of the bass world.

America never really got to know Bryan Kerchal.

We knew him only as the reigning Bassmaster Classic champion. The Connecticut angler probably garnered more attention and publicity than any Classic winner before him, because his was a great story — the first amateur to break through the prestigious, pro-dominated event.

Millions more learned his name through reports that he was among the victims of the Dec. 13 crash of American Eagle Flight 3379 into a wooded area about 4 miles southwest of the Raleigh, N.C., airport. Less than five months after the biggest moment of his young life — his storybook Classic victory in Greensboro — Kerchal's life ended prematurely on a flight that originated from that same North Carolina city.

Bryan Kerchal died at the age of 23, before he could further share his kindness, spread his boyish enthusiasm, infect us with his heartfelt smile or fully tell his story. And he certainly had a story to tell.

It began 16 years ago with a boy and his grandfather on the Fox River in Illinois. Some boredom, an old steel fishing pole, a few catfish and 7-year-old Bryan Kerchal was immediately hooked.

Returning to his Connecticut home, Kerchal soon bought a new spincast rod, and the local bluegill and bass began to suffer from his newfound interest. From the beginning, friends and family swear Bryan was a natural when it came to fishing.

When Bryan was about 10, the Kerchals moved to Newtown, where local ponds captured his interest. At 14, he started fishing Taunton Lake, a 350-acre pond owned by the Newtown Fish and Game Club. "That was around the time I saw Rick Clunn win the Classic on the Arkansas River, and that inspired me a lot," Kerchal recalled during an interview last October. "So I went out and bought a baitcaster and a crankbait and started fishing Taunton Lake from the shore."

When his parents provided Bryan with a small johnboat, Taunton's bass population soon had to deal with a dedicated fisherman with an ever-expanding knowledge of how to locate and catch them. Kerchal and that boat were on Taunton almost daily through his middle and high school years.

"I went to college for a semester because my parents wanted me to give it a try," he said. "I knew I wanted to fish, so I went for a semester and dropped out. The whole time I was in school, I would read BASSMASTER Magazine all night. I didn't really have anything I wanted to learn in school.

"So I decided to drop out and try to get involved in bass fishing somehow."

Upon his return home, Kerchal's longtime girlfriend, Suzanne Dignon, convinced him to join a local bass club, and the Housatonic Valley Bassmasters had a new member. Club members had no way of knowing that they would help launch a meteoric rise like nothing before in the sport of professional fishing.

Four years later, Bryan Kerchal became the unlikeliest of Classic champions.

Kerchal's career as a tournament angler showed a hint of brilliance from the very beginning.

In his first year in the local bass club, he qualified for the state BASS Federation Nation tournament — as a non-boater. "I really loved tournament fishing," Kerchal gushed later. "I couldn't wait to fish the next one."

The next season brought even more success. Honing his skills by fishing every local tournament he could, Kerchal qualified for the BASS regional event. Fishing from the back of the boat, he caught enough weight in that tournament to qualify for the BASS Federation Nation Championship on the Arkansas River. The national tournament sends five amateurs to the Classic each year.

With the biggest tournament of his young career facing him, Kerchal traded his aluminum Tracker TX-17 for a used Ranger 371, which was better suited for the big water. With the larger, more powerful boat to scout the river, he located a concentration of bass that would ultimately help him accomplish a goal he thought was still years beyond his reach.

Bryan Kerchal finished fifth in the championship and qualified for the coveted Classic on Alabama's Lake Logan Martin. He was star-struck.

"I had a lousy Classic, but I couldn't really help it," he said. "It was the first time I'd ever fished an impoundment in my life, and I didn't know how to catch fish on it. I was nervous. I got heat exhaustion the first three days of pre-practice for the tournament. I didn't know any of the pros. I was real intimidated and nervous. I mean, these were all my heroes. They were all watching me . . . and they were all catching fish and they were all watching me not catch fish.

"It was just a real scary experience. I'd never weighed in front of a crowd quite so large, and I', a shy person; I got no sleep that tournament. I thought I was going to go crazy before it was over — the pressure was so great. I thought I was just going to snap."

Kerchal finished dead last in the 1993 Classic, his shining moment tarnished. His success story could have ended there, but didn't.

The very next season, Kerchal took the same arduous route to the Classic through the Federation Nation system of elimination tournaments. He became the first angler to qualify for two consecutive Classics via the Federation route.

That unprecedented accomplishment is impressive in itself, especially when you consider the pressure involved for Kerchal — both on and off of the water. In addition to catching enough fish to dodge elimination all the way from the club level, he fished other tournaments. All the while, he worried constantly about having the funds to continue to chase this new career that he had dropped out of college to pursue. With the support of just one significant, money-paying sponsor (Greensboro-based Wrangler Rugged Wear), Kerchal flipped burgers at the Ground Round restaurant in Danbury for the princely sum of $9.50 an hour and nursed his battered old truck to keep it and his hopes alive.

Then came his amazing August week on High Rock Lake near Greensboro.

As Classic XXIV week began, it was easy to recognize a more seasoned, comfortable and confident Bryan Kerchal. A hint of his inherent shyness remained, but this Kerchal seemed completely at home competing against his heroes under the sport's brightest spotlight.

Much of that confidence came from his continuing education as a fisherman. Through competing in six BASSMASTER Invitational tournaments, Kerchal had grown considerably as an angler. He now possessed solid skills to go with the dogged determination he had first displayed as a youngster.

Still, at 23, he was a babe in a man's world — a game in which the average age of success usually hovers around the 40-year mark.

"This time, I went (to the Classic) concentrating on just having a good time," he said afterward. "That's all I wanted to do. I didn't care what place I came in. I didn't care how many fish I caught. And it worked out. I was relaxed from the time I got there."

As the Classic began, Kerchal set about flipping and pitching to a series of docks with a red-shad plastic worm — the style and color of a worm he had found floating in High Rock Lake during a scouting trip a month earlier. He brought a five-bass limit to the scales that weighed 11 pounds, 2 ounces. Kerchal was pleased to be in fourth place, but terrified at the thought of joining the leaders at the traditional daily press conference. He had yet to conquer his fear of public speaking — though his anxiety was not evident as he handled questions from the media.

"I should have been feeling some pressure, but I didn't," he recalled. "Again, I was focusing on still having a good time, and I wasn't going to let any pressure or anything else get in the way of enjoying this Classic. I knew in my mind that I may never get to fish another Classic again, so that's what I did."

Amazingly, Kerchal did even better on Day Two of the Classic, catching a limit weighing 14 pounds, 1 ounce. And the kid found himself in the unlikely position of leading the Classic entering the final round — with former Classic champion Guido Hibdon less than 2 pounds behind.

This is one of the more pressure-packed positions in all of sports, yet Kerchal was surprisingly calm.

"After taking the lead the second day, I wouldn't believe it, so I . . . didn't care whether I caught any more fish," he said. "I was leading the BASS Masters Classic, and that was good enough for me in my book. That would be something I would never forget. Nobody can ever take that away.

"A lot of people expected me to fold under the pressure, but I really didn't feel the pressure."

By the third and final day, high, muddy water had ruined the plans of most of the Classic field, and the tournament had settled into a pattern of difficult fishing. Still, Kerchal kept probing his docks and rode into the Greensboro Coliseum with another limit weighing 11 pounds, 4 ounces. He was the only contender to record a limit all three days.

With only Oklahoma's Tommy Biffle remaining to weigh in, Kerchal stood by the Classic stage and waited. Word had circulated that Biffle had caught an enormous stringer and would make a run at the title that had eluded him in 1990. But he needed a huge catch to make the leap from 16th place.

More than 23,000 fans watched as bass fishing history took place at a pace that now seems like a blur. Incredibly, Biffle came up 4 ounces short.

"I can't explain what the feeling was like when Tommy's weight read 18 pounds, 14 ounces, and I knew he needed 19-plus to win," Kerchal recalled. "It was just a wave of excitement and energy and everything that's happened to me. Everything just rushed through me.

"I just knew I had won the Bassmaster Classic, and it almost didn't seem real to me for a split-second."

America cheered its first "amateur" champion, the first northern angler to win the southern-dominated crown and a young man with the potential to carry the sport to another level of interest and enthusiasm.

The newfound success and the responsibilities that come with it hit young Bryan Kerchal full force.

He once described the days after the Classic as like being in "a cartoon where you've got a thousand cuckoo clocks going off around your head and you're looking for earplugs and you can't find them because the noise is bothering you so much."

But in time, the chaos settled. The lucrative — but perplexing — business side was made easier through the efforts of friend Gary Giudice, acting as an agent for Kerchal. Months earlier, Giudice, who owns the Blue Heron Communications public relations agency in Norman, Okla., had been the first industry insider to recognize the potential in Kerchal. Giudice had secured low-scale boat and outboard deals with Ranger and Yamaha for Kerchal long before the Classic.

Support from his family and friends helped him through the hectic times that included countless hours spent on the telephone with prospective fishing industry sponsors, show promoters, well-wishers and the press. They helped get him organized and stay focused. Kerchal insisted on hand-writing thank-you notes in response to the hundreds of letters he had received.

The first couple of months brought some difficult adjustments, but Kerchal gradually plowed through the off-the-water obligations and began to return his focus to the fishing side of his occupation.

"I worry . . . I just want to do well on the (tournament) trail," he lamented in August. "I fished the best tournament of my life at the Classic, and I feel people have high expectations of me now."

Although his return ticket to the Classic was assured, Kerchal wanted to do well enough to silence any whispers of his "luck" in winning the Classic.

He struggled somewhat in the first two events on the Bassmaster Eastern Invitational circuit. Then came a tournament on Lake Lanier in the first three days of December when, for the first time, he reaffirmed to himself his ability to compete at this level. Kerchal finished 33rd in a tough tournament and was one of just six pros to bring a limit to the scales all three days.

He was in good position to qualify for the Classic via the Eastern trail with just one tournament remaining. That would quiet any detractors, he thought.

Just 10 days after the Lanier tournament — with a frenzied bass-fishing vacation to Mexico in between — Kerchal returned to Greensboro and faced a longtime foe head-on.

"In the past, I've thought, 'Well, I really want to be a professional bass fisherman, but the one thing that stands in my way is fear of the public speaking,' " he admitted in October. "I am still worried about that part."

In Greensboro, Kerchal worked a day-long employee-oriented event for Wrangler, his biggest sponsor. Included in his duties were helping the employees experience the Bassmaster CastingKids competition and giving a speech to a sizable audience that afternoon. According to those in attendance, his presentation approached perfection.

Although he had long worried about his ability to speak in public, Bryan Kerchal always managed to let his charm and enthusiasm overpower his nervousness. The Wrangler speech was no exception.

Early on the evening of Dec. 13, Kerchal boarded a commuter flight from Greensboro to Raleigh, where a connection would take him to New York's LaGuardia International Airport and a reunion with his girlfriend, Suzanne. After being cleared for landing at the Raleigh airport, the plane crashed on its approach, killing 17 passengers and three crew members. The cause is believed to be a combination of mechanical failure and pilot error.

And for a few days, the fishing world caught its breath.

On the last day of the final tournament he would fish, Kerchal used the weigh-in stage to express a theme that had become the Bryan Kerchal story.

"If this is your dream, kids, don't let anybody tell you that you can't do it," he said. "Because it's definitely possible for anybody in this crowd, or anywhere, to do what I have done. I think I proved that by winning the Classic this year. It can be done. So always work as hard as you can and put as much as you can into it and don't give up."

It was while collaborating with Bryan on a book that I came to know and respect the handsome young man as much for his kindness and for what he had overcome as a youth as for his fishing ability (which was substantial). Initially, the book was to center on his historic Classic victory, as well as his ideas on various fishing strategies. But it quickly became apparent that young Kerchal had an important story that he wanted to tell.

It was a story of a confusing adolescence. That is not remarkable in itself. Countless youngsters experience problems at home and turn to destructive diversions.

"When I was 14, I got into drugs, and I kind of closed off . . . and became a very unconfident person," he recalled during an interview session for the book. His pain was obvious. "I really regret it. When you're that age, you're just so unaware of (the consequences).

"I was really at the lowest point of self-esteem that you could possibly imagine. Then, when I was 18, I stopped doing drugs and said this is what I want to do. I want to fish. And if I wanted to make something of myself (through fishing), I couldn't be doing drugs."

Sharing those unpleasant memories was so like Bryan, his friends say. He did not hesitate to share his pain to help others.

"If you can get a kid fishing now, and you keep him away from drugs, anything is possible," Kerchal said. "That's something I'm going to really promote. Fishing is a real positive thing. It helps nurture and provides support — it's such a positive influence."

The fishing world was shocked by the death of its newest and brightest star.

It consoled itself as best it could, still not wanting to believe that word of the tragic plane crash was real.

For many, the healing process began on a brutally cold December evening at a funeral home in Newtown, where Bryan Kerchal was being remembered in words and tears, pictures and memories — and even a little laughter. His friends, fans and fellow competitors turned out on this evening and the following morning for the final service to share the sorrow and hopefully absorb the hope of brighter days ahead.

Among those struck hardest by the loss was Scott Canelas, a New Hampshire pro and Kerchal's traveling buddy on the Eastern circuit.

Canelas spoke for others that evening when he said, "I'm just overwhelmed. The feelings I have for Bryan are real, real deep. I only knew Bryan for three or four years, but I was just one of many, many people he touched at just 23 years old. People who only knew Bryan for a few hours have called to say they felt like they really knew him for a long time.

"Bryan was a heck of a fisherman. But as a person, he was the ultimate friend. I personally think Bryan has accomplished all these things, and now he was called to a greater place."

Among the speakers at Kerchal's funeral was Rick Clunn, the man who had inspired Bryan as a youngster and befriended him as an adult. Clunn, one of the more philosophical individuals in the sport, was asked to assess the impact of the sudden loss for the world of fishing.

"There are so many ways to look at things like this," he replied. "My initial response is to look at it just from a human level, the human experience of it. Yes, there has been a great loss — we would like to have had him around longer.

"But at the same time, his contribution in the long run, I think, will far outweigh the loss we're experiencing here in the short term. He said once that I influenced him when he was 13 years old . . . he did the same (for others), and he will continue to do so. Every time some kid reads about Bryan Kerchal, he's going to look at Bryan a lot faster than he would at me, and he'll say, 'If he can do it, then I can do it.'

"He was more believable. And he believed. That was his greatest strength. He believed in the impossible dream. Most fishermen who have been out there very long quit dreaming a long time ago. To me, that was very, very refreshing about him."

At the memorial service, Clunn revealed a poignant conversation with Kerchal that occurred while Bryan awaited his turn to take the Classic stage in Greensboro. The young man was sitting alone in his boat in the bowels of the Coliseum when Clunn approached.

"I said, 'Look, no matter how it turns out, you did everything you could do, and that's all anybody can ask. That's all you can ask of yourself,' " Clunn said. "He looked up at me and he agreed with that.

"Then he said, 'You know, the only fear I've had the last couple of days was that I may win this too soon.' When he said that, I just fell in love with him, because he showed that there was a depth to him that most people don't have their whole lives — much less at his age.

"Now, we know that it wasn't too soon. He won it at exactly the perfect time. He's answered his own question."