“Bay Lake is full of fish. Limits are just a given.”
The exclusive lake on Walt Disney World property proved as good as its reputation. All 15 BASS Federation Championship finalists brought five-bass limits to the scales. The ones who managed to catch a bigger bass or two were smiling. The others are hoping they can change their fortunes in Saturday’s final round and earn a berth in the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh, July 29-31.
The angler boasting the biggest smile is Cowan, the 1991 Federation champion, who brought a 16-pound limit to the scales and leads all anglers going into the last round. Cowan’s catch was not only the best of the day, but it included the Purolator Big Bass of Day Three, a four-pound, 12-ounce largemouth that struck a crankbait. Cowan’s lunker earned him an extra $1,000.
“It’s all about getting the better bites,” Cowan explained. “All of these guys are great fishermen, and they all know how to catch fish. It’s going to come down to who can get the better fish to bite.”
To find those better fish, Cowan had to change his original game plan. The Keystone State angler, who describes himself as an avid pitcher and flipper, abandoned the shallows and visible cover after an hour of catching small fish and turned his sights to offshore structure.
What he found was a ridge “in the dead middle of the lake” that topped out about 10 feet below the surface and dropped to 20 feet all around. There he used a Jackall Aragon jointed crankbait to dredge up the day’s top catch.
“Every point and hump out there is chock full of fish,” Cowan said. “Electronics was everything today. After three days of hardly looking at my Lowrance unit, today it was the difference between a great catch and just a bunch of small fish.”
Cowan caught between 40 and 50 bass today and believes his spot will produce another solid limit tomorrow despite the fact that boat traffic is heavy and he’s sharing the same general area with other competitors.
“I’m from the northeast. I know how to handle boat traffic,” Cowan quipped.
If he can hang on to the top spot in the Eastern Division, Cowan will qualify for his second Classic. In 1991, he won the Federation Championship and finished 13th in the Classic. In 1994, he finished second in the East to Connecticut’s Bryan Kerchal, who went on to become the first and thus far only Federation qualifier to win fishing’s biggest championship. Tragically, Kerchal was killed in a commuter plane crash just a few months after winning the 1994 Classic.
Cowan was a close friend of Kerchal, calling him “the greatest fisherman ever” and adding that he wants to win the Federation Championship and the trophy that bears Kerchal’s name.
“I want the Bryan Kerchal Memorial Trophy. If it means that I go to the Classic, too, that’s great.”
Cowan can’t engrave his name on the trophy just yet. In fact, he has strong competition for that Classic berth from within his own division where Virginia’s Todd Schaaf is third overall with 14-5. Maine’s Joshua Mabee brings up the rear in the East with 6-15.
Less than a pound behind Cowan and in second place overall with 15-4 is South Dakota’s Jami Fralick. He leads the Northern Division by three and a half pounds over 2004 Federation Champion Thad Takes of Iowa. Ohio’s Bryan McNeal rounds out the Northern Division field with 7-11.
Jeff Hager of North Carolina is third overall and leading the Southern Division with 13-0. He has a fairly comfortable lead over the competition in his division, where Kentucky’s Russell Hosick has 9-6 and South Carolina’s Gary Pope finished the day with 6-9.
In the Western Division, Oregon’s Dave Palmer has the first round lead with 11-5. Less than two pounds back is David Mehalechko of Arizona with 9-11. Colorado’s Tyler Swaney was second overall going into the third round, but that’s when the competitors’ weights were zeroed. Today Swaney struggled and brought a small limit to the scales. With 7-2, he’s more than four pounds out of the Western Division lead.
The race in the Central Division is especially tight. It’s led by Zimbabwe’s Gerry Jooste, a three-time Classic qualifier through the Federation, with 9-3. Kansas’ Marc Gilliland is second in the division with 7-12 and Reid Sanders of Newton, Miss., is still in the hunt despite having only 6-13 today.
The top angler in each of the five divisions will earn a spot in the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh, July 29-31. The anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. and weigh in at Downtown Disney at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday.
The overall winner of the BASS Federation Championship will earn $15,000 and 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.