BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Twenty years ago, B.A.S.S. Nation champion Bryan Kerchal won the Bassmaster Classic on North Carolina’s High Rock Lake. This week, the Nation’s Paul Mueller, another son of the Nutmeg State, threatened to match Kerchal’s feat but ultimately fell short by a pound.
Over three days, Mueller weighed in 13 Lake Guntersville bass that weighed a cumulative 66 pounds, 8 ounces.
In winning, Howell became the second angler to win a Classic in his state of residence and will keep the trophy in the birthplace of B.A.S.S. He also set the record for coming from the most places behind after Day Two to claim the title — he was in 11th when competition began Sunday morning.
Mueller’s launch up the leaderboard ultimately proved less profitable than Howell’s, but it might be more impressive. He weighed in three keepers for 9 pounds, 10 ounces on the first day of competition, two short of his limit, and thereby mired in 47th place. Those who assumed he was out of the running, if they thought about him at all, seemingly had their preconceptions confirmed.
He vaulted back on Day Two with a Classic record five-fish limit that weighed 32-03. The biggest limit of his life could not have happened at a better time.
“One day, I had a 28-pound bag in Connecticut,” he said. “But I’ll never, ever catch that there again. I also caught my personal best largemouth (this week), an 8-2. Before it was 7-12.” He added five bass for 24-11 today to jump again from fifth place into the runner-up spot. While the B.A.S.S. Nation almost always seems to place an angler in the Top 5 or 10, Mueller’s finish was the highest finish by a Nation qualifier since Dalton Bobo finished second to Dion Hibdon in 1997, also in Birmingham.
Bobo fell short of the title because of a dead fish penalty. Mueller’s shortfall resulted from two fish that spit a lipless crankbait on the first day of competition. “I learned a valuable 5-pound lesson,” he said of the bigger of the two lost fish. “Don’t fish that bait when the fish are biting weird. On Day Two, I figured out that not only can you get a ChatterBait through the grass reeling it slower than the lipless crankbait, but also when you hook them they stay hooked."
He never put the bladed jig down on Day Three. His tackle included a 3/8 Original Pro Elite ChatterBait with a Reins 4-inch Fat Rockvibe Shad in the glow white silver color. He doused it with Smelly Jelly shad attractant and crept it through the grass on a Daiwa Lexa 6:1 baitcasting reel mounted on a Dobyns Champion 734c rod and spooled with Gamma Edge 14 pound-test fluorocarbon.
“We don’t really fish anything like this (in Connecticut),” he said of Guntersville. “The cleanest water you find here we would still consider dirty. I had to learn to fish this way as the tournament went on.”
The young competitor proved to be a quick study. Fishing quite a bit near Day One leader Randall Tharp, he concentrated on an old creek channel off the main river with a mixture of eelgrass and a little bit of hydrilla.
“I was keying on the points in the channel,” he said. “The fish were setting up on the upstream side. I was sitting in 7 to 8 feet of water and casting into 3 feet. Today, with no current and no wind, it took 40 casts to get one to bite.”
The 29-year-old angler was only in the fourth grade when Kerchal set the pace for B.A.S.S. Nation two decades ago, and while he’s cognizant of his history and that he had big shoes to fill, he never let the pressure of the situation or the competition around him affect his demeanor. After all, pre-tournament favorites and heavyweight champs like Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli, Skeet Reese and Gary Klein all worked the Expo today while Mueller fished.
“I wasn’t intimidated,” he said. “I know that these guys are the best in the world, which means you have to put your ‘A Game’ on.”
If this was Mueller’s A game, then fishing fans should look forward to watching him in future Classics, like B.A.S.S. Nation forerunners like Mike Iaconelli and Brandon Palaniuk. He came in this week as a largely unknown amateur, and left as someone who beat 53 of the best in the world, setting a record along the way, falling to second only because of Randy Howell’s superior final day.