Inside BASS

This has to be Kevin Wirth's favorite time of the year.

The 41-year-old Triton pro from Crestwood, Ky., has already qualified for the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer and is in the midst of competing on the exciting new Bassmaster Elite 50 Tour.

In addition, Wirth and wife, Lisa, are expecting the birth of their second child (a girl) sometime this week.

On top of that, Saturday brings the running of the 130th Kentucky Derby and conjures up fond memories for the former jockey and Elite 50 BASS pro.

Twenty-three years ago, an 18-year-old Wirth was aboard Mythical Ruler, a horse trained by his father, Fred, that competed in the 107th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. Lined up with such immortal jockeys as Willie Shoemaker, Angel Cordero Jr., and Laffitt Pincay Jr., in a 21-horse field, Wirth and Mythical Ruler finished 17th in a race won by Pleasant Colony with Jorge Velasquez aboard.

When asked where Mythical Ruler finished, the youngest jockey in the 1981 Derby laughingly replied, "He's still out there running.

"It was the biggest Derby field ever," he recalled. "I started on the next to the very outside gate. Angel Cordero, who was a good friend of mine, was on the outside of me. I got off in pretty good shape and I was probably third or fourth early, but my horse was too wound up. They were running some pretty fast fractions. ... I did all I could to try to get him to relax, but he was just too wound up."

Later in the race, another horse ran into Mythical Ruler from behind and knocked him off-stride - ending his chances of making a run at the sport's most prized title.

Wirth, who was 5-foot-10 and weighed 109 pounds without clothes at the time, was involved in a scary accident nine months after his Derby debut that effectively ended his career. When his horse went over an inside fence and injured Wirth's back, Wirth was told by doctors that he stood a good chance of being paralyzed in a similar future accident.

After 4 1/2 years of doing what he loved, the Kentucky kid was forced to make a career change. Two years later, he began working as an equine dentist and became reacquainted with an old love - bass fishing.

"I had subscribed to Bassmaster Magazine with my own money when I was a kid," he remembered. "A buddy asked me to fish a tournament with him, and I enjoyed it so much I decided that fishing was what I wanted to do."

Wirth competed in his first BASS event in 1985 on Tennessee's Lake Chickamauga where he finished 114th. But since then, he has fashioned one of the sport's steadiest careers (as evidenced by his Elite 50 ranking). His resume includes one BASS victory, two runner-up showings and 17 top 10 finishes.

With his five Classic appearances, Kevin Wirth might be the best fisherman with the lowest profile on the Tour.

"I just kind of keep a low profile, go about my own business and do what I need to do," he acknowledged. "That's my personality.

"That's never bothered me, though. I look at it this way: if I do my job well enough, the rest will come. Whether it's winning the Classic, winning Angler of the Year or just being a consistent fisherman, I'll get (the attention) I deserve."

With his fifth ticket to the Classic assured thanks to his performance in the Bassmaster Northern Opens last fall, Wirth has been enjoying the Elite 50 innovations.

"From what I saw at the first one, I think it's the future of bass fishing," he said. "It's what we need for the sport to grow. It really blew my mind how the crowds showed up."

TEAM STONE. Veteran North Carolina pro Marty Stone has his second Classic appearance made, but did not qualify for the Bassmaster Elite 50 series. So instead of being at Lake Dardanelle, he was fishing a team tournament with his 6-year-old son John Turner.

Fishing in a customer appreciate contest staged by one of his sponsors on Falls of the Neuse Lake, Team Stone finished third with 17 pounds, 12 ounces.

"I wouldn't take a Bassmaster win over that," the proud father said. "He got a trophy and a little money, so he was pumped. He said, 'Daddy, if you hadn't lost the other big one, we would have won.'

"He fished hard. He reeled in one short fish. Our deal was that if Daddy hung a big one, he was to hand me the net. I had two fish that weighed 6-13 each, and the first 6-13 I caught he was back there trying to get unhung. I had to talk him into laying his rod down and handing me the net. And when he did, I netted the fish and then handed him the net. I told him, "It's your turn now. You have to get it in the boat. We're a team.' He grunted and gave it everything he had, but the fish didn't move an inch. The third time he tried, he used everything he had, yelled and got him in the boat. Him, the net and fish all fell in the bottom of the boat. He looked at me and said, "Daddy, that's a giant.'

"I wouldn't take a million dollars for that moment."

The Stone boys went away happy with their first experience as tournament partners.

"He worked his little butt off," Dad said. "We weighed in at 2:30, ate supper at 4, had ice cream and then got on the road. He never woke up until 8 o'clock the next morning."

BUSCH SHOOTOUT UPDATE. Texan Kelly Jordon heads the standings in the qualifying ranks for the new Busch Shootout with the second Bassmaster Elite 50 event coming up. His 32-pound, 2-ounce limit, caught at Santee-Cooper Reservoir, is the largest catch of 2004 on the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail.

If the qualifying ended today, the following anglers would earn a spot in the special Shootout, which will include the anglers with the 10 largest daily catches of the season competing for $160,000 in a one-day tournament scheduled for Sept. 18th on a mystery lake and televised on ESPN2: Mark Rogers, 31-3, Lake Eufaula; George Cochran, 29-15, Lake Guntersville; Stacey King, .28-2, Lake Guntersville; David Wharton, .26-7, Harris Chain; Kevin VanDam, 26-3, Lake Guntersville; Jason Quinn, 24-14Harris Chain; Bink Desaro, .24-5, Lake Eufaula; Denny Brauer, 23-12, Lake Eufaula; and Ben Matsubu, 23-10, Lake Eufaula.

The Shootout champion will collect $100,000. Each of the remaining participants in the all-expenses-paid, no-entry-fee event will receive a check for $5,000

Other anglers guaranteed a spot in the Shootout include Thad Takes, who had the largest catch of the CITGO BASS Federation Championship with 14-12, CITGO Bassmaster Open Champion John Murray of Arizona, who had the largest catch of the Open Championship with 21-0 and the angler who catches the heaviest single-day weight at this summer's CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer.

DID YOU KNOW? At the age of 25, Arizona's Brett Hite is the youngest competitor on the Bassmaster Elite 50 Tour, followed by North Carolina's Dustin Wilks (27) and Texan Todd Faircloth (28).

PRO BIRTHDAYS. Arkansas' Stephen Browning blows out 38 candles on April 28, and Japanese pro Yusuke Miyazaki rounds out the April birthdays when celebrating his 34th on April 30.

IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... Oklahoma's O.T. Fears could always fall back on his previous career as a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

THEY SAID IT. "It will kill me if I don't get into the Classic. With Wylie being my home lake and a place where I've guided for years, I don't think I could handle watching the other guys fishing the Classic there without me." South Carolina pro Jason Quinn clings to a slim chance of still qualifying for his third Classic despite finishing in 37th place in the CITGO Bassmaster Tour standings. If seven Elite 50 pros double-qualify, he could still earn an invitation.