COLUMBUS, Miss. – Paul Elias didn’t come out of nowhere to win the CITGO Bassmaster Southern Open presented by Busch Beer. He came out of 18th place, loaded down with a 20-pound, 12-ounce sack of bass that dropped jaws and earned whistles of admiration from his fellow anglers on the way to the weigh-in stage.

When the scales finally tipped in front of the crowd at the Columbus Marina, the catch and its anchoring 8-9 lunker drew a thrilled cheer from the crowd. Elias, a steady, quiet veteran of the BASS circuit, was wreathed in smiles at his 34-pound, 3-ounce total.

“This is the first BASS event I’ve won since 1988,” he said while accepting congratulations from well-wishers. “The only thing that bothers me is that my wife and children aren’t here.”

Elias, a noted and self-proclaimed “crankbait nut,” made a major change in strategy during the final round of competition that made the difference.

“I didn’t have a fish about 10:30, so I just gambled,” he said. “I’m a crankbait fisherman, a crankbait nut, and so was the guy who was with me.”

With his non-boater’s agreement, Elias headed to the main body of the river where the current pulled five big bass to the hook of his Mann’s 15-plus crankbait in silver and white. Between 10:45 and 11:45, he drew a monster limit of bass out of the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway, catching the 8-9 big bass immediately after a 6-pounder that had already thrilled him.

“It surprised me. This is late in the year for that quality fish to be out there,” he said. The 8-9 lunker earned him a $2,000 bonus from Purolator as both the boater side’s Purolator Big Bass of the Day and the overall Purolator Big Bass of the Tournament.

Elias, who was bass fishing’s world champion in 1982, is now looking forward to an early qualification for the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic and another crack at the champion’s title.

“I’d love to get in the Open Championship and make the Classic,” he said. “That would take a lot of pressure off next year (on the CITGO Bassmaster Tour). I’ve never had that luxury, to be prequalified for the Classic and able to fish the whole year on Tour.”

At each tournament, BASS awards points to the anglers based on their finishes. Elias, as the winner, has earned 300 points and sits atop the point standings heading into the second of three events in the Southern Open series. At the end of the Open season, the top 20 anglers in both the boater and non-boater divisions will compete in the CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship, where the top five boaters will earn Classic berths. The top 15 Southern Division boaters at the end of the series will also qualify for berths in the CITGO Bassmaster Tour – although Elias finished high enough in the 2004 Tour’s season point standings (35th) to requalify without the Open berth.

What would the luxury of a guaranteed Classic berth mean to a veteran pro?

“I’d swing for the fences all the time,” he said. “I usually size my practice up. If it looks like I have a possibility to win, I’ll swing for the fences. If it looks tough, I’ll fish conservatively to get points.”

A lifelong Catholic, Elias also credited a change of attitude and some divine help for his success.

“The Lord blessed me today. The Lord just said, ‘Paul, it’s time again,’” he said. “(The lesson I had to learn) was to trust Him and, today, when I didn’t have a fish by 10:30 to quit whining and ask Him to help me, to help me win. I’ve been doing a lot of whining the last few days. I’ve done that for a long time.”

Florida’s Charlie Youngers held tight to the second-place spot, finishing with 26-5. The rest of the top five in the boater division included Gregory Pugh of Alabama (25-11); Arkansas’ Stephen Browning (25-11); and Missouri’s Rick Clunn (23-14).

The non-boater division had been dominated by Alabamian Russ Ritter, who dropped to second in the final tally with 15-12. Florida’s Frank Woodley used a 6-5 Purolator Big Bass of the Day, worth a $400 bonus, to anchor his final day catch of 16-4. Woodley earned $24,000 for the top spot. The non-boater top five was rounded out by Alabama’s David Kilgore (13-11); Georgia’s Jeff Graham (12-11); and Indiana’s James Lamb (11-10).

Woodley has fished as an amateur or non-boater on the BASS circuit since the first pro-am event in 1985. Although he’s mostly retired – he used to work as an elevator mechanic – he keeps a full fishing schedule and manufactures Woodley Weedless Trolling Motor Props. Like Elias, Woodley said his win was a long time coming.

“I’ve come close several times but never won,” he said. “I want to make the championship.”

From here, anglers will move on to Alabama’s Lake Eufaula from Oct. 28-30, then to Florida’s Lake Okeechobee from Nov.18-20. Woodley finished fourth on Okeechobee last season but admitted that Eufaula could give him some trouble.

“Eufaula is just like this,” he said. “I don’t know beans from apple butter about it.”

BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer, which includes the all-new 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.

Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Northern Open include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Toyota, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.

Local sponsors include Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau.

For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.