ON HIGH ROCK LAKE Floating into Second Creek, with the sun beginning to break through the haze and the fog lifting from the water, I couldn't decide whether to flip another topwater lure toward the bank or take a nap. Both are proven methods for fishing this area, the latter being the more accepted technique from a historical perspective.
The waves lapped at the edges of the boat, slapping the sides in rhythm with the rocking bow and echo abaft. Yes, a nap would be nice now. But the bass are breaking the surface, and it's too early to go to the tackle box. Four or five more flips to the edge, then I'll push further into the creek.
The topwater lure is a morning bait on these waters where the first two rounds of the Bassmaster American will be fished Thursday and Friday. Zell Rowland's Pop-R is hard to find now, at least the one with his autograph scripted along the side. I have two more left from the original dozen I bought at the Bassmaster Classic outdoors show in Birmingham some 14 years ago. That was the week I met Bryan Kerchal.
I think about him every time I come to these waters, as many people do. It was here where he became an internationally known fisherman over the course of three bizarre days in the middle of summer in 1994. Floating into Second Creek, where High Rock seems to stretch as wide as an ocean, you can picture the 23-year-old kid on a practice day more than a month before the Classic. All alone on a boat. Floating quietly in a June breeze, water slapping the fiberglass quarters.
"I took a nap," he would explain later. "I wasn't catching anything anyway."
He'd been here for the better part of a week, practicing with the rest of the Classic contestants for a tournament more than a month away. Kerchal was a bit fed up and more than a little bit concerned. This would be his second straight Classic, having twice qualified as an amateur through the Federation ranks that sent a handful of anglers to the largest professional bass fishing tournament each summer. Kerchal had finished in last place the year before in Birmingham.
He said something woke him, a sudden movement of the boat or a noise in the distance, and he rose and blinked a time or two. He thought he was dreaming. His boat had floated into Second Creek, and he could look far back into it from where he awoke, saw the docks in the distance clustered along the shoreline. Kerchal stood and stretched.
"I looked into the water and saw something floating," he said. "It was a plastic worm, a red plastic worm."
It was, to be exact, a red-shad Culprit, a fairly common bait that most everyone has fished at one time or another. The red worm hardly was the color of choice for High Rock, though. Kerchal looked into his tackle box and found one just like it, tied it on and headed to the nearest set of docks in Second Creek. Almost immediately, he hooked a 5-pound bass. Before he left the docks, he'd caught two 4-pounders.
Sitting here, all these years later, it seems less real than it did then. I stood beside him at the coliseum weigh-in that day back in 1994 when everyone watched Tommy Biffle walk onto the stage with a sack full of bass and a Classic title only moments from being announced. They always weighed the winner's fish last, having determined the final standings by peering into the live wells as the boats came off the lake and again as they waited in lines leading into the coliseum.
Kerchal had just told his idol, B.A.S.S. legend Rick Clunn, that he was happy no matter what happened. Clunn, who won four Classics, said at that moment Kerchal became his idol.
We know what happened next. Biffle came up 4 ounces short, and Kerchal became the first amateur and to this day the only amateur to win the biggest bass fishing tournament in the world. Barely four months later, he was dead. A flight from Greensboro to Raleigh crashed short of its destination. The last words he ever said to me were poignant.
"We'll go fishing," he said.
That's what I think about every time I come here to this spot on the water. I've told the story over and over with various fishing partners as we enter Second Creek. Wilt Browning, the News & Record columnist who covered that Classic with me, long ago suggested they put up a plaque on the shore leading into the tributary. "The Prince of Second Creek," is what Wilt called Kerchal.
As I float here at its edge, my mind goes back to those days that seem like a dream now. Kerchal blew through this sport like a comet, his like never to be seen again. The days seem simpler looking back on them, but any day here on the water seems like that.
I looked at the sky above and realized a nap was out of the question. I looked at the shore and realized I hadn't had a decent topwater bite all morning. I looked far into Second Creek at all those docks and into my tackle box for a worm. I tied one on, Texas rigged with a quarter-ounce bullet weight.
My first cast was an underhand pitch to the edge of a dock I knew Kerchal had fished. The line released, and the weight carried it perfectly to one of the sideboards, where it slammed hard, looping once around the board and stopping perfectly hung.
I cut the line and left it there, a red-shad Culprit worm. An offering to the Prince of Second Creek.