David Walker felt about as low as you can go after the second day of the Bassmaster Elite Series Diamond Drive. All season long he had declared his goal in fishing the Elite Series was to get back to the Bassmaster Classic. But with only one tournament left, that goal appeared unattainable.
Walker was among a group of anglers who were “locked out” by the Arkansas River navigation system that Friday, June 10. Due to barge traffic, Walker and the others couldn’t get through a lock on the river as quickly as planned. With a pound-a-minute penalty for tardiness at check-in time, the three bass in Walker’s bag amounted to nothing. But he still walked across the stage for the weigh-in that hot, humid day at the Little Rock Riverfront Amphitheater.
“They thanked me, gave me a zero and sent me home,” Walker said.
With only one 12-ounce bass to his credit for those two days, Walker finished 98th out of the 99-man field at the Diamond Drive. And it appeared that Walker was locked out of his Classic goal as well. He needed a victory at Alabama’s Wheeler Lake to vault from 46th place in the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year standings and move into the top 37 who would qualify for the Classic.
And even though Walker’s bass fishing accomplishments have put his picture on three breakfast cereal boxes, he had never won a major tournament in either the B.A.S.S. or F.L.W. circuits during his 15-year career.
“I was dreading going to Wheeler,” Walker said. “I didn’t think I had a chance. I was thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ You talk about a long-shot.”
The only thing Walker had going for him was recalling one of his favorite sayings: When you’re ready to quit, you’re closer to the goal than you think.
“That’s exactly how it worked out,” Walker said.
(To follow David Walker's journey to the Dixie Duel championship one photo at a time, click here.)
Since being crowned champion of the Dixie Duel in Decatur, Ala., Sunday, Walker has had time to savor that $100,000 first-place prize and the phone calls, text messages and emails expressing congratulations.
“I could not be happier,” the 46-year-old Walker said. “It has been unbelievable, the amount of support I’ve received. It has been like winning all over again.”
Walker has built up a social media following through his Facebook page and Twitter account in recent years. He feels obligated to stay accountable to his friends and fans there.
“I’m trying to answer all of them, but they’re coming in faster than I can answer them,” he said.
The first major victory in his pro bass fishing career isn’t likely to change Walker. He said he’s always done things the hard way. Walker was around 20 years old when he first fished in a tournament. He was born in an unlikely place for a future bass pro – Detroit. He and a friend showed up for the tournament one Memorial Day weekend with a 14-foot aluminum boat and a six-horsepower outboard motor. Every other entrant had a fiberglass boat and a big outboard.
“Those 150-horsepower engines looked like refrigerators to me,” he said.
Walker was equipped in the same style as his boat and motor.
“I had three spinning rods and one of those old three-tray, pull-out tackle boxes,” he recalled. “It wasn’t worm-proof, so the worms would dissolve the trays. We didn’t catch a fish. Nothing.”
But Walker had been bitten by the bass tournament fishing bug. He soon started winning club tournaments and other area events. That continued when he moved to Kentucky and then his current hometown of Sevierville, Tenn.
Walker earned his first FLW Angler of the Year title in 1994. It was in the fall of 1998 when Walker, at the age of 33, decided to quit his $8.50-an-hour factory job and devote himself to being a full-time bass pro. After earning the FLW Angler of the Year title in 1999, Walker’s image was featured on special edition Wheaties cereal boxes in October. The following year he was pictured on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats special edition boxes.
The accomplishments kept adding up. He qualified for his first Bassmaster Classic in 2000 and qualified for the Classic again in five of the next six years, finishing third twice. In 2006, after ESPN bought BASS, the schedules of the two major bass fishing circuits – BASS and FLW – conflicted enough that an angler had to make a decision between the two.
“I didn’t like that,” Walker said. “I’d always fished as many tournaments as I could. I didn’t have a rich family or a business that could support my hobby. Fishing was my full-time job."
If you never win a tournament, you’ve at least got to cash a bunch of checks to keep from going broke in this business. Walker has been consistently good over the years.
“I’ve made $500,000 to $600,000 almost $10,000 at a time,” he said.
Before the Elite Series win at Wheeler, Walker’s single-biggest check was $62,500 when he was part of a first-place four-man team event in Texas.
“It has been a grind,” Walker said, “but I’m actually kind of proud of that.”
In 2010 Walker entered more tournaments than ever. He fished two FLW circuits as well as the Northern and Southern Bassmaster Open events. Walker’s presence in the Bassmaster tournaments had a larger purpose – to get him back to the Bassmaster Classic. When he earned a berth in the Elite Series this year, Walker was one step closer to his goal.
But, again, that goal seemed all but unreachable just two weeks ago after his disaster on the Arkansas River. In what had to seem like a storybook ending for the Walker family, David’s wife of 10 years, Misty, and their two daughters – Lilly, 7, and Olivia, 3 – were in attendance on Father’s Day when Walker finally moved into the winner’s circle at Decatur.
Even though Walker caught a 4-pound, 11-ounce bass on his first cast of Day One at Wheeler, there was never a moment over the next four days when he felt like victory was at hand.
“It seems like nothing ever comes easy for me,” Walker said. “On top of everything else, I’m fishing a ‘community hole’ at Wheeler. It wasn’t like I had some secret spot all to myself.”
Walker did draw a good starting number – 28 – that first day, and he claims to have a fast boat. So he was the first to complete the 25-mile run to the ledge where he would fish for most of the next four days. He had the 4-11 and another 3-pounder in the livewell when Skeet Reese arrived. Then came Ben Parker, Andy Montgomery, Gerald Swindle and Mike McClelland.
“You had to wait and watch where the other guy’s cast landed to make sure you didn’t cast over his line,” Walker said. “It was hard to make a cast, but all of us were catching ‘em. It was just a trainwreck.”
Walker caught a five-bass limit weighing 18 pounds, 2 ounces on Day One. It was good enough for second place, just four ounces off the lead. On Friday, Walker took the lead with 17-1. But he was back in second place, almost two pounds behind Bradley Roy going into Sunday.
By then, Walker had thoroughly studied this fish-holding ledge on the old Tennessee River channel. He credited a brief departure to fish a secondary spot for helping him unlock the secret to catching fish there.
“I rehashed what I was doing,” Walker said. “That’s when I got on the right line.”
Walker realized his lures had to be presented from a particular angle to induce a strike. With a strong wind blowing Sunday, Walker couldn’t hold his boat in one place, so he threw out a pair of marker buoys to mark the place his boat needed to be in order to make the perfect presentation.
“Of the fish I caught (Sunday), 99 percent came on the same throw,” Walker said. “The wind was blowing so hard, it would blow me off the spot. So I would go back up to where I could make that same throw again.”
He did have to vary the lures he used there. That big largemouth on the first cast of Day One came on an 11-inch plum-colored plastic worm. All the fish he weighed Saturday came on a big Lake Fork spoon. But for the tournament as a whole, Walker caught most of his fish on two deep-diving crankbaits – one in a chartreuse-shad color and another in a more natural shad color.
Walker’s total for four days was 63 pounds, 10 ounces and left him with a 1-13 margin of victory over Kevin VanDam.
Now that a Bassmaster Classic berth is in hand, he can relax a bit and think of what it will be like to compete again on the largest stage in the sport. Walker first attended the Classic as a spectator in 1997 when Dion Hibdon won at Birmingham, Ala.
“I was eaten up with it,” Walker recalled. “I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do.”
When he qualified for the Classic the first time in 2000 at Lake Michigan, he finished 37th. Then in 2001 and again in 2002 Walker held the lead one day before finishing third.
“I had the fish on to win both of those,” Walker said. “To be that close to winning, you just don’t ever forget it.”
He is relishing another chance to reach the ultimate goal in bass fishing.
“When you win the Classic, you get your card punched,” Walker said. “You are an established bass tournament fisherman. Other tournaments may pay more money, but they don’t carry the clout of the Classic.”