Bryan Kerchal, a line cook from the Ground Round restaurant in Danbury, Conn., entered the last round of the BASS Masters Classic yesterday with a lead of less than 2 pounds and an eye toward the long list of top pros chasing him.
By the end of the final day of the $200,000 Classic on High Rock Lake in North Carolina, Kerchal, 23, had become the first "amateur" to win this tournament and pocketed the $50,000 prize for first place.
"It is really something special to win this as a Wrangler Angler," said Kerchal, as 23,700 spectators in Greensboro Coliseum cheered during the weigh-in.
"It is really a personal accomplishment and it is the goal of every B.A.S.S. fisherman."
Kerchal, who qualified for the Classic as an amateur but has been fishing the pro circuit this season, said he fished a dock pattern in Abbotts and Swearing creeks.
Most of his catches, he said, came on a plastic worm fished where the floating portions of the docks joined the shoreline.
Kerchal, who is from Newtown, Conn., stood alone in first place after the second day of the three-day tournament with 25 pounds, 3 ounces, with Guido Hibdon close behind at 23-15.
"I think I have a good shot at winning," Kerchal, the only amateur to qualify for two successive Classics, said at Friday's weigh-in. "But there are a lot of good fishermen right on my tail, and you NTC can't count any of them out."
And while Hibdon faded on Day 3, Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla., made a run at Kerchal from the middle of the 40-man field and fell only four ounces short (36 pounds, 3 ounces).
By 1 p.m. on the final day, Kerchal had his limit of five bass and started culling fish.
The No. 3 finisher, Denny Brauer of Camdenton, Mo., was another two pounds back.
Hibdon, a former Classic winner and two-time angler of the year, finished sixth with 29 pounds, 13 ounces.
The fishing conditions on High Rock Lake, a 16,000-acre impoundment near Greensboro, were unusual throughout the Classic, with water levels well above summer pool and lake waters muddied by intermittent rain.
Claude "Fish" Fishburne, the Canton, Ga., pro who led after the first day of the tournament, finished in 14th place with 24 pounds, 1 ounce. At the end of the first day of fishing, Fishburne had 14 pounds, 10 ounces.
David Fritts of Lexington, N.C., who grew up on High Rock Lake and learned to fish there, finished 21st with 21 pounds, 18 ounces.
Fritts was the heavy favorite going into this tournament because of his local knowledge, but the defending Classic champ and the angler of the year apparently paid a heavy price for his success this season.
Fritts was followed by a huge spectator fleet, and while he would say nothing bad about the fans, he did admit earlier in the week that when 60 or so boats come off a plane in the same small area, the wakes quickly build into a small tidal wave and make fishing tough.
1. Bryan Kerchal, Newtown, Conn., 36 pounds, 7 ounces.
2. Tommy Biffle, Wagoner, Okla., 36-03
3. Denny Brauer, Camdenton, Mo., 34-01
4. Ron Shuffield, Bismarck, Ark., 31-02
5. Dion Hibdon, Stover, Mo., 30-13
6. Guido Hibdon, Gravois Mills, Mo,, 29-13
7. Rick Clunn, Montgomery, Texas, 29-11
8. Greg Hawk, Vandalia, Ohio, 27-11
9. Zell Rowland, Montgomery, Texas, 27-04
4( 10. Mickey Bruce, Buford, Ga., 26-07