The unsinkable Randall Tharp

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Randall Tharp may have lost the majority of the battles he fought today, but he still may just be a day away from winning the war.

Tharp’s day had brief flurries of success, dwarfed by extended periods of misfortune, but throughout it all he maintained an even composure, kept his wits about him, and persevered. In doing so, on a day when it seemed like more things went wrong than right, he didn’t completely lose traction. While his 11-ounce lead over Edwin Evers was flipped and is now a 1-ounce deficit, on Guntersville that’s less than a rounding error.

He may not win. After all, his lead over those behind him could evaporate with one bite at the end of one of their lines. Realistically, with five anglers within 6 pounds of the leader’s weight, any of them could take the trophy with an outstanding Sunday limit, even if Tharp and Evers both have a very good day. That’s fishing, and if he doesn’t have the fish to win that’s the breaks of the game. Even if he has the fish to win, sometimes it takes a smidgen of good luck to get the job done. But if he has the fish, and gets a break or two, and no one else in contention comes in with the 30-pound bag that only B.A.S.S. Nation angler Paul Mueller has weighed in so far, I’m confident that Randall Tharp won’t be one to flush the opportunity to win down the toilet.

This is my 10th Classic as a member of the media. I’ve ridden with or watched eight past Classic winners in championship competition, as well as a couple of Toyota Bassmaster Anglers of the Year. I’ve ridden with other top-flight pros, as well as some also-rans. From what I saw today, none of them have been any more mentally unbeatable than Tharp. Another angler might catch more and bigger fish this week, but nothing’s going to get in his head and wreck his chances that way.

Today, Tharp suffered what could have been a death knell for his chances of winning when he experienced mechanical problems that cost him quite a bit of time. When James Overstreet and I heard that he’d been towed to the dock and was awaiting a service crew, we beelined there to get the story. We arrived to find him on the trolling motor, fishing down the bank, waiting for help. No cursing, no throwing things, no look of distraction. Had we encountered him without having heard the backstory, by his demeanor we would’ve assumed that he’d chosen this bank because he thought he could improve his catch there. The crew arrived, got him fixed up in a few minutes, and he got back to fishing as if nothing happened. Over the past two decades I’ve been in the boat in Classics, in Elite Series tournaments, in club tournaments and on fun fishing days when there have been mechanical problems both great and small — and I’ve never seen anyone take the problems in such stride.

After the mechanical issues, the thing most anglers — even Classic winners and AOYs — would need to get back on track would be a quick bite, preferably one from a fish with shoulders. Tharp had been on fire earlier, at his first stop, but thereafter the action slowed to almost nothing. Few bites, no keepers ... for hours. He kept running and gunning, casting and thinking. The spectators came in on him and he engaged them rather than shunning them. Most other pros would have encouraged them to get back, and rightfully so, but he even allowed two cameramen in his boat at the same time. Nothing seemed to move Tharp the slightest bit off course.

I’ve watched these guys enough to know when someone has been rattled. The body language of the most confident people on earth turns to slouch-shouldered confusion. They start to make poor casts, get backlashes and twitch and jitter like a nervous teenager on his first date. Again, if we’d randomly happened upon Tharp after hours of inactivity, judging by his body language and banter alone I would’ve thought he was leading this rodeo by 20 pounds.

Tharp has been in this position before. He’s won at the Open level, at FLW, and in the Forrest Wood Cup. There’s no telling how much money he’s won on Guntersville over the years. Everything was going in his favor, until everything fell apart. One test of an angler is how well he can put a pattern together, but Tharp passed that class years ago. His graduate-level coursework is on putting a pattern back together when everything seems to conspire to make it crumble. Right now the wheels are spinning, but he shows no signs of spinning out.

Tomorrow is a new set of battles.