How’s this for a twist on a professional fishing tournament? Kevin VanDam, Edwin Evers, Cliff Pace and Hank Cherry didn’t really care which of them caught the biggest bags of bass after two days of competition on Muskegon Lake in the Evan Williams Bourbon Championship.
All that mattered to any of them was that they were one of the four pros to advance to the final round Sunday.
Their weights of Muskegon bass erased, the four finalists will begin again on nearby White Lake. The one-day shootout format means the pro with the most weight on Sunday will be the champ and claim the $50,000 first prize of the $100,000 purse.
The Evan Williams Bourbon Championship, the main event of the Friday-Sunday Toyota All-Star Week out of Muskegon, began with 14 Bassmaster Elite Series pros. Each competed for two days on Muskegon Lake in hopes they’d be one of the final four.
For the record, Elite Series rookie Cherry of Maiden, N.C., headed the leaderboard after Saturday with 30 pounds, 5 ounces over two days.
Cherry started his day by hooking into a 3-pound largemouth on a spinnerbait off a point he’d never stopped at before.
“That set the mood,” he said, adding that the point got his attention because of the way the wind was blowing on it.
He moved on to his other spots, amassing a limit. He hauled in a 4-pounder at about 2 p.m., the final fish to push his weight close to 17 pounds.
At 2:30, he called it quits for the day and checked in. One reason he left the water was because recreational boat traffic had chopped up the weeds in his key areas, and the water became unfishable, he said.
He was done anyway. “I figured I had over 16 pounds, and someone would have to really rack them to catch me,” he said.
Home-state favorite Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo didn’t, but his 12-6 for the day and a two-day total of 26-6 was enough to stay in the game.
VanDam said he had a “big bite” early Saturday on his second stop.
“That was what put me in (the finals),” he said. “I’m excited to be fishing tomorrow.”
VanDam has a cheering section of family and friends onsite. After the weigh-in, about 50 of them gathered around the stage for a reunion-style photo. VanDam was the centerfold: He climbed onto the table-length podium and stretched out full-length with his head propped on his hand.
Evers had his own way of celebrating: He hooted with jubilation.
Evers brought in 13-3 Saturday to claim his ticket to White Lake. One catch made all the difference.
“It was that smallmouth I caught right off the bat; it was a giant,” Evers said. “It was a 4-pounder. It was the fish that really changed things for me.”
He filled his five-fish limit with four largemouth, going at them any way he could think of. He flipped a jig, tried a topwater and flipped docks all day long.
“A little bit of everything,” he said.
Pace, the 2013 Classic champ from Petal, Miss., who led the Muskegon competition on the first day, held on to claim the last seat for the trip to White Lake.
“I fished for smallmouth here. I thought it would be the way to survive — which I did,” Pace said.
One shy of a five-fish limit, his Day 2 game was based on quality, not quantity. He caught three smallmouth early, including his biggest, a 4-9. He spent the rest of his on-the-water time with only one more smallmouth to show for it.
He’s over the smallmouth, he said.
“On White, I’m going to fish for kicker largemouth. You won’t see me with a spinning rod,” he said.
All 14 All-Star pros were given just one day of practice on White Lake earlier in the week. It was all the time most have ever had on the small fishery, with the exception of VanDam.
Good karma, as well as fans, follows VanDam to White Lake. He won his first event at the Michigan B.A.S.S. Federation club level of competition (now called B.A.S.S. Nation) on White and Muskegon lakes. He was 16 or 17 at the time, he estimated, and chose to travel into White for his winning bass.
“That was my first state-level win,” said VanDam, now a four-time Bassmaster Classic winner and a seven-time Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year.
Cherry, in the All-Star field by virtue of the berth reserved for the Bassmaster Rookie of the Year, said he can’t wait to get to work again on the new lake.
“White Lake is going to be a lot of fun,” Cherry said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of flipping grass, flipping mats and topwaters. With the warming weather, I guarantee that’s what’s going to happen.”
Pace’s 4-9 smallmouth was the largest single bass of the day. But his own 4-14 of Friday was what kept him in front for the event’s Carhartt Big Bass award of $1,000, plus another $500 if the angler was wearing Carhartt apparel.
The Evan Williams Bourbon Championship is just part of Toyota All-Star Week. Running alongside the Elite event is the Friday-Sunday Carhartt Bassmaster College Classic Bracket on Grand River. A Bassmaster Classic berth is the prize in that event. The two finalists — Jordan Lee and Shane Powell of Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. — will return to the river Sunday for the battle for the berth.
On Sunday, eliminated Elite pros will pair up with veteran and other guests in the Folds of Honor Foundation Pro-Am presented by ARE. The Folds of Honor Foundation provides educational scholarships to the dependents of service members killed or disabled while serving our country. Fans are invited to contribute to the cause during the “pass the bucket” on Sunday.
Another contest is slated for Sunday. This one is among fans, not among anglers. One of 14 finalists in the Toyota All-Star Fan Favorite Angler Sweepstakes on Bassmaster.com will win a 2014 Toyota Tundra valued at $35,000.
Those 14 fan names were randomly paired with the 14 pro names. The Toyota Tundra winner will be the fan lucky enough to have had their name paired with the All-Star champ. The pairings are:
Hank Cherry: Clay Wilson of Rogers, Ark.
Keith Combs: Tammy Jones of Grimesland, N.C.
John Crews: Susan Blackwell of Lombard, Ill.
Edwin Evers: David Johnson of Falls Church, Va.
Michael Iaconelli: Tony McCraw of Galax, Va.
Alton Jones: Stephen Eddy of Lakeland, Fla.
Bobby Lane: Kevin Chaney of Tarpon Springs, Fla.
Aaron Martens: Terry Crawford of Clyde, Texas
Cliff Pace: Glenn Altman of Marion, S.C.
Brandon Palaniuk: Chris Regas of Plainfield, Ill.
Skeet Reese: Shawn Kleipe of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Gerald Swindle: George Compton of Laurens, S.C.
Kevin VanDam: Robert Catron of Stilwell, Okla.
Chris Zaldain: Rocco Simeri of Murfreesboro, Tenn.
As of Saturday, only four fans were still in contention: Wilson, Catron, Johnson and Altman.
Weigh-ins for all events will begin at 4 p.m. ET Sunday at Heritage Landing, 1050 Seventh St., Muskegon. Also at Heritage Landing, fans can watch the pros take off at 7:15 a.m. ET. Beginning at noon at the adjacent park, fans can enjoy Muskegon County’s Family Fun Fall Festival and the Bassmaster Elite Series Expo featuring the Elite trail’s sponsors.
There’s no admission for Bassmaster events.
TV coverage of Toyota All-Star Week will be presented on The Bassmasters on Sunday, Oct. 13, on ESPN2, in three hour-long shows. At 2-3 p.m. ET, and again at 4-5 p.m., the first show will set the stage. Two more shows about the competition will air at 6-7 and 7-8 p.m. ET
Image courtesy James Overstreet/Bassmaster