Eastern Division Struts Its Stuff in Federation Championship Opening Round

Kissimmee, Fla. – The Federation Championship is the stuff that dreams are made of. This week 55 amateur anglers fishing Florida’s Lake Tohopekaliga are hoping it will be a bridge to the big time, to a career in professional bass fishing – to the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh, July 29-31. They all hope to accomplish what the late Bryan Kerchal did in 1994 – to win the Classic coming from the Federation ranks.

Those 55 anglers have qualified to be here through the 46 state Federations, the District of Columbia and six international Federations (Canada, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Africa and Zimbabwe). The anglers are organized into five geographical divisions (North, South, Central, East and West).

Today it was two anglers from the Eastern division who took charge and grabbed solid positions leading into Day Two. Joe Lucarelli of Center Harbor, N.H., and Todd Schaaf of Hume, Va., brought in the two heaviest limits (17 pounds, two ounces and 16 pounds, 10 ounces, respectively) to take the top two spots in their division and the overall tournament. Joshua Mabee of Kennebunkport, Maine, is third in the East with 11-11.

Despite describing the competition as “stressful,” Lucarelli seemed calm, cool and collected when he described the methods that carried him to the first round lead.

“I’m catching fish several different ways,” the 2003 New Hampshire State Champion and 2004 Eastern Divisional Champion said. “I’m fishing a Senko on a weighted Falcon Lures hook (1/32 oz.) and I’m pitching and flipping a 3 1/2-inch Yamamoto Craw with a 1 3/8-ounce tungsten sinker in an area that I found during practice. I’m covering a lot of water and think I can do well again tomorrow. A sunny, calm day would really help me out.”

Schaff, a member of the Virginia BASS Federation six-man championship team in 2002, 2003 and 2004, shared Lucarelli’s game plan of covering lots of water.

“I’m running and gunning and burning a lot of gas out there,” he said. “I’m fishing fast baits and caught everything on top.”

Schaaf also echoed Lucarelli’s sentiments regarding the stress level of the tournament.

“I’m just 34 years old, but I feel like a might have a heart attack at any moment. This is really exciting.”

Two anglers from the Central Division hold third and fourth overall. Reid Sanders of Newton, Miss., and Marc Gilliland of Louisburg, Kan., came to the scales with 14-4 and 14-1 respectively. Gerry Jooste of Zimbabwe is a distant third in the Central with 8-6.

Gilliland, who made the Kansas Federation team in 2002 and 2004, is fishing in his first Federation Championship and is optimistic about his chances of qualifying for the final two rounds.

“I’m flipping and pitching grass mats and was culling by 8:40 this morning,” he said. “The bites slowed down as the day wore on, but my better fish came later in the day.”

In the Northern Division, Jami Fralick, 29, of Martin, S.D., is fifth overall and leading his division. He says the weedy waters of Lake Toho remind him of home.

“I’m working vegetation and catching most of my fish in less than three feet of water – just like in South Dakota,” Fralick said. “The key for me has been finding clear water. If the wind blows from the wrong direction and dirties up the water, you might as well leave.”

Right behind Fralick in the North is 2004 Federation champion Thad Takes of Center Point, Ia. Takes fished Toho earlier this year on the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Tour and used the experience to his advantage, bringing in a limit that weighed 12-2. He, too, is covering lots of water and reports catching plenty of bass.

“Fishing the Tour this year was a real learning experience,” Takes said. “It’s so important to have confidence as you approach an event like this. Last year at the Federation Championship, I was a bundle of nerves. This year, I expect to win.”

Trailing Fralick and Takes for the third spot in the North going into the second round is Springfield, Ohio’s Bryan McNeal with 10-12.

The top anglers in the Western Division are Tyler Swaney of Craig, Colo., David Mehalechko of Glendale, Ariz., with 10-13 and Robert Lechel of Santa Fe, N.M., with 9-15.

In the Southern Division, Jeff Hager of Alexis, N.C., leads the way with 10-15. He’s trailed by Russell Hosick of Smithland, Ky., with 9-8 and Gary Pope of Georgetown, S.C. with 8-14.

The Purolator Big Bass of Day One weighed six pounds, one ounce and was caught by Dave Mehalechko, who also competed in the 2003 Federation Championship.

“I caught my fish shallow – including the big one – but there’s some deeper water nearby,” Mehalechko said. The determined 36-year-old angler also commented that the competition was a little easier to handle the second time around.

“This time I’m more focused,” he said. “This time, I’m out to win.”

The first two days of competition take place on Lake Tohopekaliga. After two days, the three anglers with the highest cumulative weight total in each of the Federation’s five geographic divisions (for a total of 15 anglers) will make the cut and fish Saturday and Sunday at Disney’s Bay Lake. Weights will carry over from first two days of fishing and a winner will be crowned based on the four-day total.

At the end of four days, the top angler from each of the five geographic divisions will earn a berth into the Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh.

The overall winner of the BASS Federation Championship will also earn a spot on the 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Tour.

BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail, which includes the Bassmaster Elite 50 series, is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.

For more information, contact BASS Communications at (407) 566-2208 or visit www.bassmaster.com.