MANY, La. -- Fishing is filled with tales of "the one that got away." Few of those stories end with the elusive fish costing the angler $80,000 and a berth in the Bassmaster Classic.
David Walker is still reeling from a fish that shook loose on the final day of the TroKar Battle on the Bayou on Toledo Bend Reservoir, and he insists that fish cost him his first Elite Series victory and a spot in next year's Classic.
"That was the tournament," Walker said. "I'll never forget that damn fish. This is just a swift kick in the nuts."
Walker went into Sunday's final round trailing leader Dean Rojas by 4 pounds, 1 ounce. But despite catching Sunday's second-heaviest limit (16-12), he settled for third place, just 13 ounces off Rojas' winning pace of 70-15.
Gerald Swindle surged into second place Sunday on the strength of an 18-14 limit and finished second by an ounce. Rojas earned $100,000 and a trip to the 2012 Classic. Swindle picked up $25,000, Walker $20,000.
"It's like a trip to the amusement park," Walker said. "You get on that roller coaster and go up and down. It thrills you, and it scares the hell out of you."
Walker reached the final thanks in large part to the windswept Day Two, when he had 24 pounds for the day's heaviest sack. That allowed him to overcome a lackluster weight of 13-6 on Day One, and Walker backed it up with 16 pounds Saturday.
But it all came down to Sunday. Walker stuck with his game plan and returned to the area he'd fished the entire tournament, a spot several miles north of the Cypress Bend takeoff known as "the 1215" because the old route of Louisiana 1215 ran through the area before the lake was inundated in the late 1960s.
The area features a series of underwater ridges with deeper troughs in between them. Like much of Toledo Bend, it's filled with stick-ups, and there's an abundance of aquatic vegetation such as hydrilla and coontail.
Walker ran straight there Sunday morning and started working it over with a rotation that consisted of a jig, a chatterbait and a swimbait. He hadn't been fishing 30 minutes when he pitched the jig toward a tree.
"I picked it up and the fish was swimming off with it," he said. "It just felt mushy, but most of the bites were like that. Because all of the grass in that area, it can fool you a lot of times.
"I gave it just enough time to get the slack out of the line and then set the hook. The fish came to the top, and I could see it was a good fish. Then it started shaking its head and just came unbuttoned."
Walker estimated the fish at roughly 3 ½ pounds.
"That was my first bite of the day," he said. "That hurt."
He soothed the pain a few minutes later with a nearly 5-pounder, and he stayed around fish all day. Walker weaved between the trees, mostly working in the deeper troughs between the ridges. The water depth fell from 1 ½ to 2 feet atop the ridges to as deep as 6 feet in the troughs. Vacant spawning beds dotted the ridge tops, and shad were spawning in the grass.
"The key was to stay in the deeper water," Walker said. "I didn't get as many bites, but I got bigger bites. The fish just live there. With the lake being low like it is, there'd usually be another 4 or 5 feet of water in there, so when the fish pull back to deeper water after spawning, they just stay in there."
As morning turned into afternoon, Walker had the one big fish from early in the day along with four other keepers ranging from 1 ½ to 2 ½ pounds. Although he obviously needed another big fish or two, he maintained composure and never seemed to be stressed or pressured. His body language showed fluidity of motion, and several times he wore a big grin while he fished.
"I just knew to stay there, that it was the winning hole," Walker explained. "I had more weight than Rojas every day except the first day, so I knew it had the fish to win the tournament. I thought about running somewhere else a few times (Sunday), but I thought it would be stupid. I knew if I went to a new spot I'd just be thinking about the place I'd just left."
Walker's persistence paid off about 1 p.m. with another big bite, a bass that weighed close to 5 pounds that allowed him to cull one of the smaller keepers. Walker culled up another half pound after catching a fish on a dock in the cove near the weigh-in site.
But it wasn't enough, even though Rojas had his worst day of the tournament with just 13 ½ pounds.
"This is going to bother me a long time," Walker said.
Walker pointed to the 2001 Classic as another example of haunting fish. Walker finished third in the New Orleans Classic that marked the first of Kevin VanDam's four Classic titles. On three separate occasions on the final day of that tournament, Walker said he pulled big bass on top of grass mats only to watch them shake off.
"You never forget those fish," Walker said. "This is going to be the same way. That 3 ½-pound fish from (Sunday) morning cost me the tournament."