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I really miss Bryan Kerchal this time of the year.
In the weeks leading to the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch and during the actual event, I find myself thinking about the young fry cook from Connecticut who stunned the fishing world by becoming the first BASS Federation representative to win the most important title in the sport of fishing. I see his dream in the eyes of the five Federation anglers who try to duplicate his feat each year.
My memories of Kerchal are always bittersweet. Thoughts of that youthful smile are always followed by the notion of a young life wasted by tragedy. You will remember that he died in a plane crash five months after winning the 1994 Classic.
The kid was destined to become the biggest ambassador that this sport ever had when he was taken from us at the age of 23.
It was while collaborating with Kerchal on a book that I came to know and respect the handsome young man more for his kindness and for what he had overcome as a youth than for his fishing ability — which, I might add, was substantial.
At first, the book was to center on his historic Classic victory, with some instructional fishing information scattered throughout its pages. But it quickly became apparent that young Kerchal had a more important story to tell.
"I want kids and young people to know that fishing saved my life," he told me. "My life would be a mess if it wasn't for fishing."
Kerchal was painfully honest about the negative role that drugs had played in his teenage years. Daily marijuana use and occasional experiments with other substances had practically erased all memories of several entire years, he said.
"I just lived to get high," he recalled, sadly shaking his head. "My fishing got me out of it."
That was the Bryan Kerchal I knew – and the person I miss the most.
Cool fishing trip
Immediately after practicing for the Classic in Louisiana, defending champion and newly crowned Busch BASS Angler of the Year Jay Yelas was whisked away to Alaska to compete in the Kenai Classic, a noted salmon tournament held in southern Alaska each summer. One of his sponsors, Yamaha Outboards, supports the event, which raises money for the restoration of the Kenai River.
This is one bass pro who wasn't out of his element in such an event. The California native spent a great deal of time fishing for steelhead and other gamefish during his four years at Oregon State University.
Whatever happened to
Ron Shearer made his mark on professional bass fishing in his 13 seasons on the BASS circuit, winning twice and qualifying for five world championships. In 1982 at Lake Okeechobee, he entered the record books with a seven bass limit weighing 36 ½ pounds.
Shearer stopped tournament fishing in 1990 at the age of 40 to concentrate full time on his television show. A 14-year run on the tube ended about five years ago. Since then, Shearer says he has been largely retired, although he owns both excavation and trucking businesses in Hardin, Ky., where his wife also owns a convenience store. He spends most of his time deer or duck hunting and playing golf with his 14-year-old son.
"I'm happy as a pig," said Shearer, now 53, who rarely fishes these days. "I miss the competition and I miss a lot of my friends. But I don't miss the travel. I enjoy being home with my family. It was a fun part of my life and I wouldn't take nothing for it, but my priorities change. While I enjoyed fishing and loved tournament fishing, tournament fishing wasn't my life. And that's what it has to be if you're going to be at the top of your profession in any sport."
During his tenure as a BASS pro, Shearer came up with the most memorable line I've ever heard in 20 years of covering the circuit. Speaking of the close relationship between Rick Clunn and Gary Klein, he said "They are the only two guys I know who have to hold a séance to sharpen a hook."
Before he was a pro
Seven time Classic qualifier Mike Wurm worked for nearly 20 years as a medical technologist in a lab. "It's a job I never plan to go back to," he said.
Did you know?
In the old days of BASS tournaments, winning an event practically ensured you a trip to the Classic. That was because there were as few as four tournaments in a season back then. That's certainly not the case these days.
With 10 tournaments on the 2003 Tour schedule, winning an event did not help Terry Scroggins (Lake Okeechobee), David Wharton (Toledo Bend) and Robert Lee (California Delta) get to the Big Show.
They said it
"It's real tough on the women because you're not home. The hours you're gone, the days you're gone it's hard on family life because you're away from your wife and children so much. And, also, money can be real tough. So many times, the girls have to get by on a bare minimum, and not all of them can do that. So, yeah, it's really tough on family life."
Veteran Texas angler Harold Allen, commenting on the sacrifices of professional bass fishing.
"Somebody has an opportunity to do that every year. Jay had the opportunity to do it this year. It's tough to pull it off. I've had a couple of other opportunities when I've won Angler of the Year. It's hard to back it up with the Classic because you're riding this high wave when you win Angler of the Year and when you get to the Classic. You're just kind of happy to be there. You don't really think about winning it. That time for me the fish just almost jumped into the boat."
Three time BASS Angler-of-the-Year Mark Davis, the only man to ever win the Classic and Angler of the Year in the same season.
Inside the Tour