Racing for bass
Kevin Blanch is switching gears at least temporarily from the high paced world of the Indy Racing League (IRL) to professional bass fishing. The 40-year-old Indiana resident is currently the technical manager in charge of rules enforcement for the IRL and he's also competing on the nonboater side of the CITGO Bassmaster Southern Open presented by Busch Beer. Blanch has served as crew chief for several well-known drivers, including Emerson Fittipaldi, Arie Luyendyk Jr. and Sam Hornish Jr., and he won IRL championships with Hornish (twice) and Fittipaldi. Blanch was also on the winning team at the Indianapolis 500 twice; once with Fittipaldi and again with Luyendyk. "I started working on late model cars and sent my résumé out, then got hired as a painter," Blanch told BASS Times. "After that, I worked as a mechanic and worked my way up." He plans to fish the nonboater side this season and switch to the boater division in 2004. Already, he has picked up Ranger, Mercury and American Rodsmiths as sponsors. "I like to compete, and got back into fishing about five years ago. One thing that crosses over both sports is you have to be patient and have a high concentration level. In racing, if you're a lap down you may have 400 more to make it up. In fishing, you have to be patient, too, and stay focused."
Making the pitch
Fresh off his win at the CITGO BASS Federation Southern Division earlier this summer, Russ Lane of Prattville, Ala., entered the Alabama Open in September eager to test his skills at the next level. That's nothing new for the former baseball standout. Lane, 31, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after graduating in 1994 from Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala. He signed a free-agent deal and played three seasons as a right-handed pitcher in a co-op league with the Devil Rays in the Frontier League. Lane got into tournament fishing six years ago, teaming up with friend Chris Rutland of Montgomery to win more than 51 open-entry tournaments since then. Lane led the Federation's Southern Division event at Eufaula wire-to-wire, winning by almost 20 pounds to earn a spot in next year's championship. "I don't have any plans to turn pro, but I wanted to try out some bigger tournaments and stiffer competition. I've always loved fishing and tournaments . . . (and) I loved the competition aspect in baseball and this is a way to keep that going."
Among the contestants in the Alabama Open at Wheeler Lake was Bill Huntley of Athens, who still holds the Alabama state record for sauger with a 5-pound, 2-ounce specimen that was caught March 5, 1972, at Pickwick Lake below Wilson Dam. Pickwick is formed by two dams below Wheeler, and its claim to fame is its hard-fighting smallmouth bass. Huntley's sauger record is one of the oldest in Alabama, one of 12 caught in the 1970s or earlier out of 40 maintained by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Wheeler Lake is no stranger to record fish, either. In 1996, William McKinley of Elkmont caught a 111-pound blue catfish to establish the world record, which was broken a few years later. His catch still stands as the Alabama record. Other state record fish from Wheeler include the spotted gar (8 pounds, 12 ounces) and the yellow perch (1 pound, 15 ounces).
More women are competing in the Bassmaster events, with five registered for the Alabama CITGO Southern Open on Wheeler Lake. Lucy Mize of Ben Lomond, Ark., Judy Israel of Clewiston, Fla., Margaret West of Leesville, La., and Cindy Hill of Smyrna, Tenn., were among the 400-plus anglers in the field. Kimberlee Striker of Fairview, which is located about a half-hour south of Decatur, was the only female angler from Alabama in the Wheeler tournament. Striker got things going Tuesday during a practice round, catching several fish, including a 5-pounder, while fishing in the Decatur Flats. She caught the big one on a white spinnerbait. "We went back in there on the first day of the tournament and lined up on the spot," Striker said, "but I couldn't get it to bite again." Mize's husband, Jimmy, is a regular on the Bassmaster Tour and both are members of the CITGO pro staff. Israel's husband, Abbie, also participated in the Wheeler tournament. Hill is a longtime member of the Women's Bass Fishing Association. None of the ladies made the Top 50 cut, however. Not this time, anyway.
Gracias, Senor Swindle
The day after the Alabama Open, Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala., headed to Spain to fish in the "Caspe Bass" tournament, the biggest one in Europe. The annual tournament is a big deal in Spain, with a week of fishing, fellowship and fun comparable to the CITGO Bassmaster Classic. "I'm just going to go fishing and enjoy myself," Swindle said. "I bought a Spanish CD to listen to on the flight over. So, by the time I get there I should be speaking Espanola pretty good." Doubtful, but Swindle said he hoped to learn enough not to spark any international incidents. Ever since the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer ended in August, Swindle said he's been fishing for fun, making some promotional appearances, and hunting. He also has been getting ready for Alabama's deer season, which opened in October. "I fished a little around home and visited Andy Morgan in Tennessee for some dove hunting. We had a good hunt near his home, and then I came home and had a barrel-burner with some friends near Jasper."