GEORGETOWN, S.C. – It’s been 23 ½ years since Bryan Kerchal, the 23-year old reigning Bassmaster Classic champion, died in a plane crash over a forest in North Carolina.
Today, his memory lives on the bays and backwaters of South Carolina.
Kerchal’s old friend Chris Mann is running his buddy’s old Ranger 481 VS this week as a competitor with Team Vermont in the Academy Sports + Outdoors B.A.S.S. Nation Eastern Regional presented by Magellan Outdoors.
It’s the same boat the folks at Ranger gave Kerchal shortly after he won the Classic on July 30, 1994 and it’s the same boat he likely would have used to defend his improbable Classic victory a year later.
But tragedy snatched the young Connecticut angler on Dec. 13, 1994 when returning home from a sponsor engagement. American Eagle 3379 broke apart in mid-air 30 minutes after take-off and Kerchal died on impact.
A brilliant young star in the bass angling constellation was snuffed, but Mann wanted to preserve the memory of how he remembered Kerchal – and that was bass fishing.
The friends met in 1991 when both were fishing for the Housatonic Valley Bassmasters club. Mann, five years older than Kerchal, said he was the “kid brother he never had.”
Kerchal’s death still cuts deeply for Mann, now 52. He said the boat is their bond.
“His heart is in that hull,” he added.
It was only three or four months after Kerchal’s death that Mann asked Bryan’s parents, Ray and Ronnie Kerchal, about buying his friend’s Ranger. As Mann remembers, Ronnie told him she’d give him the boat if he sold his own Ranger 360 and dedicated the money to the Bryan V. Kerchal Memorial Fund.
Mann did just that. He fished from the boat when he was competing in invitational tournaments on the East Coast in the mid-1990s as part of the Bryan Kerchal Pro Team.
Mann had his own aspirations to break through the ranks and earn a spot in the Bassmaster Classic, which Kerchal did twice by winning Eastern Divisional qualifiers in 1993 and again in 1994, setting up his championship run. The same angling success didn’t follow Mann, but his friend’s memory and his rig have been part of everything he’s done on the water to this point.