MOBILE, Ala. – Continuing the incredible run that landed him a berth in the 21st annual Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League All-American, Tony Christian of Hull, Ga., caught two bass weighing 8 pounds, 14 ounces Thursday on the swollen Mobile-Tensaw Delta to lead 45 Boater Division contenders in the hunt for a $100,000 payday.
“It’s looking good,” said Christian, who qualified for the $345,000 All-American after winning five of the seven BFL tournaments he fished in 2002, including the Lake Gaston regional. “I’d rather be sitting where I am now than having to worry about the cut. If I catch one more fish, I should be fine.”
Christian indicate that he was running 35 miles one way in search of bass in two creeks with relatively clear water, something the Delta and its feeder systems haven’t seen much of in more than two weeks as water levels have risen above flood stage throughout the region. Sticking to his usual game plan, Christina targeted big bass using a blue and white ninja spinner bait with a Zoom trailer. The tactic paid off, too. One of Christian’s largemouths pushed the scale to 6 pounds, 2 ounces – the largest bass of the day.
Christian holds a 1-pound, 12-ounce lead over No. 2 contender Gary Brown of Gautier, Miss., who landed one of only three five-bass limits on opening day. His catch, which weighed 7 pounds, 2 ounces, came on a buzzbait, spinner bait and a popular local lure known as a Snagless Sally.
Rounding out the top five boaters are Butch Kartesz of Roanoke, Va. (five bass, 6 pounds, 6 ounces); Sam Moody of Athens, Ala. (five bass, 6 pounds); and Frank Eslinger of LaGrange, Ga. (three bass, 5 pounds, 5 ounces).
Only the top 10 boaters following Friday’s weigh-in will advance to Saturday’s final round where competitors start from zero and fish for the heaviest five-bass limit to determine the winner.
John Howard of Alexander City, Ala., and Jeff Lugar of McGaheysville, Va., are tied atop the Co-angler Division leaderboard with 4 pounds, 3 ounces each. Howard landed two bass while fishing with boater Tim Peek of Sharpsburg, Ga., who is currently in seventh place with three bass weighing 4 pounds, 7 ounces. Howard also lost one fish that he estimates weighed 3 pounds.
“I was working the lure back and set the hook. Then, three or four yards from the boat, the hook pulled loose, and I watched the fish swim away,” said Howard, who stands to win $50,000 Friday if he can edge past Lugar. “I only had one fish in the boat at that time, so I had to settle down and let it go. But I thought I had just seen $50,000 swim away.”
Howard qualified for the All-American by finishing first in the Bama Division and winning the Pearl River regional.
Lugar qualified for the All-American by finishing seventh in the Shenandoah Division and sixth in the Wheeler Lake regional. He caught three bass Thursday while fishing with boater Jackie Davis of Willard, Mo., who is currently in 19th place with three bass weighing 3 pounds, 1 ounce.
Both Howard and Lugar were pitching soft plastics.
Rounding out the top five co-anglers are Chris Coates of Westmoreland, Tenn. (three bass, 4 pounds); James Darcey of Lake Worth, Fla. (three bass, 3 pounds, 12 ounces); and William Bryant of Rochester, NY (two bass, 3 pounds, 6 ounces).
If Christian’s big bass holds up Friday, he will receive a $1,000 bonus. Additionally, Snickers will award $1,000 to the angler in either division who catches the heaviest bass during the first two days of competition.
Other contingencies include the $500 Energizer Keeps on Going Award, which goes to the boater who comes from the farthest behind on opening day to advance to Saturday’s final round; the Shop-Vac High Performance Award, consisting of a 10-gallon stainless-steel Shop-Vac, which goes to the boater with the heaviest total catch during the first two days of competition; the $1,000 Castrol Co-angler Award, which goes to the winning co-angler if he is wearing a Castrol shirt; and the $500 Stanley Accuracy Cast Award, which goes to the top-10 boater who pitches his jig closest to a specified target.
Takeoffs start at 7 a.m. daily at Chocolotta Ramp on the Mobile Causeway, and weigh-ins start at 3 p.m. daily at the Mobile Convention Center. The All-American Family Fun Zone, where visitors can register to win a Ranger R61 bass boat rigged with a 90 horsepower Johnson outboard that will be given away Saturday immediately following the final weigh-in, opens Friday and Saturday at noon. There is no admission fee, and the public is invited to attend. Participants in the boat giveaway must be present to win.
All-American qualifiers earned their spot by finishing in the top six in one of six regionals or in the Chevy Trucks Wild Card tournament. Additionally, three boaters and three co-anglers advanced through the Lake Havasu Regional to yield a field of 45 boaters and 45 co-anglers. These anglers represent the best of more than 30,000 BFL participants nationwide.
Each of the BFL’s 26 divisions hosted five regular-season tournaments. The top 30 boaters and top 30 co-anglers following these events advanced to regional competition. Anglers who entered all five regular-season tournaments but did not qualify for the regional were eligible to compete in the Chevy Trucks Wild Card.
Because BFL competitors are weekend anglers and not pros, the All-American and its lucrative cash awards present a unique opportunity for qualifiers looking to launch a professional bass-fishing career. Former All-American contenders who have become fishing superstars on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour include Kellogg’s pro Clark Wendlandt, Chevy pro Tommy Biffle and four-time FLW Tour champion David Fritts.
As the nation’s leading provider of affordable, close-to-home weekend tournaments, the BFL is widely credited with opening competitive bass fishing to the masses.
The 2003 Wal-Mart BFL All-American is hosted by the Mobile Area Sports Commission and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.