Turning it around

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — One-hundred-and-eighth place out of 108 anglers is where Terry Butcher found himself entering the fifth Bassmaster Elite Series event of the 2007 season. His lamentable season started with a 97th-place finish in the first event at Lake Amistad. Then dead last in the next event on the California Delta. At Clear Lake, he could only sack 15 pounds, 14 ounces over three days, good for 100th, while other anglers were averaging 30 pounds a day. At Clarks Hill a week ago, he pulled in at 106th of 107."You talk about living the dream," the Talala, Okla., third-year pro said Sunday morning at Lake Guntersville. "I was living a nightmare."That Terry Butcher came to lead that same 108-angler field after two days of competition, and finished all the way up in third place in the Southern Challenge presented by Purolator, was undoubtedly the most dramatic single-tournament turnaround of the first half of the Elite Series season.

Perhaps he was merely due, because he made an unlikely candidate to be pulling up the rear on the entire circuit, having finished third in an Elite Series event last year on Lake Champlain. As recently as 2005, he won the BASS Open event on Sam Rayburn Reservoir. His brother-in-law, fellow Elite Series pro Edwin Evers, estimates that Butcher's 2002 season on the Bass Fishing League must stand as some sort of a record: two first-place finishes, two second-places and an eighth place in a five-tournament series. He remains a local legend in Green Country. "I was amazed when I moved to northern Oklahoma," Evers said. "It was like, 'Terry Butcher, Terry Butcher, Terry Butcher.' People would say, 'You know Terry Butcher?'" n accomplished high school wrestler — he finished third in the state as a junior — he turned later to bullriding, and won a couple of IRA events before his father took up bass fishing explicitly to tempt Butcher into a safer sport.It was about 1993, and the younger Butcher was a working stiff — "might have been construction, or on a farm" — with a competitive streak as wide as the Cherokee Turnpike. (The younger Butcher still helps his father on the oil and gas well repairing business during the off-season, which lately has been quite brief.) He knew bull riding would eventually get him hurt, and he had recently married Kandase. For a while, he rode bulls and fished tournaments, but winning a check in an event he fished with his father helped turn his attention full-time to bass.

 "It doesn't matter if he's doing hopscotch," said Butcher's father, Terry G. Butcher. "He wants to win."Evers said Butcher relishes beating him at golf. "They're the most competitive family I've ever been around," he said. The Butchers' spades tournaments get so heated that Evers and his wife leave them on shaky speaking terms.

 Butcher has expanded his fishing repertoire beyond being simply, "a really, really, really good flipper," in Evers' description. But Butcher absolutely began the season in a slump."It's just like any other sport," Evers said. "Confidence is everything. Having an event like this will propel him forward. Because you don't want to doubt what you're doing."

 The doubts had begun to pester Butcher. "That first day was just awesome," Butcher said. "I could do no wrong." He had more than 20 pounds by 7:30 throwing a spinnerbait and a Boo Yah boogie bait. Then he decided to go flipping and caught another five fish that went over 20 pounds. Between those spots, he patched together a bag that went 26-3, good for a 3-9 Day One lead over Jason Quinn. It turned out to be Butcher's single exceptional day. But in a tournament shortened by rain, a single exceptional day went further than usual. His Day Two weight dropped by nearly 10 pounds, and yet he retained a slim overall lead heading into the final day.His family watched that weigh-in live online from northeast Oklahoma, and at about 7:30 p.m. Saturday loaded up to make the 9 ½-hour commute to northeast Alabama to surprise Butcher. "We didn't exactly drive the speed limit the whole way," Butcher's cousin Porky Roberts said. But Roberts arrived safely, along with his wife, Dana; Butcher's wife of nearly 16 years, Kandase; and his father and mother, Coeta. They managed to surprise Butcher on the take-off dock at around 5:30 Sunday morning, where Butcher disembarked as the two-day leader. That morning he caught three fairly quickly off the dock, then went flipping — his specialty — and landed a single keeper. He threw a crankbait, then went flipping docks near spawning areas. A handsome keeper broke off his line. In practice he found a fish he estimated at 5 ½ pounds on a bed, and kept cruising past during the tournament. "She cost me about an hour today," he said. "I stayed upbeat all day. I kept thinking, 'Two 5-pounders.'"He was the final angler to weigh in on Sunday. Kevin VanDam had taken the lead with a sack that drew wild applause from the crowd — even before VanDam followed it by pulling a loose lunker out of his livewell. Butcher would have needed nearly 24 pounds to re-take the lead. Such a feat was VanDam's bag that when emcee Keith Alan tried to build suspense at Butcher's livewell by asking, "Can you beat KVD?", several voices rose from the crowd in unison: "NO!"

 Butcher's bag went 15-1. KVD pumped his fist, pumped his fist, shook Butcher's hand cordially, then pumped his fist, pumped his fist. The crowd erupted in appreciation of bass fishing's biggest star. Butcher adjusted his hat and descended the steps backstage. A child held out a hat for him to sign. Butcher pointed out that his name was already among the numerous signatures on the BASS cap. "I was having a disaster for a year," he said backstage. "It was hard, no doubt about it. You get out there and question yourself. You start wondering if you're making the right decisions, and I know you can't do that." Whacking stacks of big bass all weekend helped to deflect some of those questions. The very fact that Butcher is now speaking in the past tense about his rough early season suggests that he feels he has answered those that remained.