It is hard to imagine a tournament with more excitement, intrigue and even drama than the $613,000 South Carolina CITGO Bassmaster Tour event presented by Busch Beer on Santee Cooper Reservoir.
The last of six Tour events, this tournament couldn't help but have an extra air of excitement encircling it. After all, the week would play a career-altering role in the lives of several anglers who cast for cash.
At stake was the $311,550 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year purse, $25,000 Horizon and $10,000 BASS Rookie of the Year awards. Then there were 25 invitations to the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer - not to mention 47 tickets to compete in the innovative Bassmaster Elite 50 circuit where entry fees are waived and big money is guaranteed.
Oh yeah, there was also a lucrative four-day tournament going on that would pay a handsome $100,000 to the winner.
ANGLER OF THE YEAR. The most intrigue was reserved for the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year race that proved to be arguably the closest and most suspenseful in the 34-year history of the award.
If BASS officials had scripted the conclusion on day three of the final tournament, it could not have been more dramatic.
There was Alabama pro Gerald Swindle clinging to the slimmest of hopes of winning his first Angler of the Year title - having to watch from shore as Greg Hackney controlled both men's destinies. The Louisiana pro had wrapped up Rookie of the Year honors and seemed poised to add the sport's championship trophy to his mantle.
Hackney was in second place entering the day and faced with the task of placing eighth or better in the 12-man semifinal field. The way he had been sacking big bass, it hardly seemed like much of a challenge.
Even after Hackney had weighed in his catch, there was more drama to come. Hackney landed in eighth after he weighed his bass, but it wasn't until second-round leader Mike McClelland went to the scales that the fate of the two hard-charging young pros was decided. With Swindle writhing like a nightcrawler on a hook in the audience, BASS emcee Fish Fishburne let the tension build before revealing that Hackney had dropped to ninth place - and Swindle had seized the biggest moment of his career, a $100,000 cash prize and next year's Tour entry fees paid by CITGO.
"It's awesome. It was the most unbelievable sigh of relief of my life," Swindle said. "It was the most intense weigh-in I've ever sat through simply because it came down to the last guy and the last pitch. The intensity level and the pressure were building fast. I had done all I could do. It was the most helpless feeling. I felt like I was in a boxing match with my hands tied behind me and everybody was swinging at me."
Swindle became one of the few Angler of the Year winners who have never won a BASS tournament.
"It's kind of a weird feeling," he said. "I feel like a burden has kind of been lifted off because I felt like this year I was really starting to chase it and getting real close to winning (tournaments). That was starting to get to be a little burden. Maybe this will be the confidence builder that gets me over that hurdle."
Swindle admitted that he hadn't held out much hope that Hackney would falter enough to drop to ninth place in the tournament standings.
"Very slim," he said of his chances. "I really didn't think it was possible. I new I had a very small window of opportunity. I was prepared last night (to finish second). Second was not what I wanted, but I was ready to get back up and swing at it again next year. I was prepared to take it. It wasn't going to be a big heartbreaker. But, man, I'm glad it worked out the way it did."
Hackney finished just three points behind Swindle. In third was reigning Classic champion Michael Iaconelli, followed by Texan Kelly Jordon and California's Skeet Reese and, for the first year ever, the top 25 in the final season standings earned a cash bonus.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR. After the scales had stopped spinning, Greg Hackney was doing his best to take solace in his Rookie of the Year crown and a second consecutive Classic invitation that came with it. After Hackney qualified for the 2003 Classic through the 2002 Bassmaster Central Opens, he got a taste for the world championship.
"That was my main objective when I started the year," he said. "My main goal was to make the Classic and become Rookie of the Year. But you always set your goals higher and higher. If anything becomes within reach, you want to get it.
"The first day my main objective was to get myself into the Classic. I felt like if I caught two little limits in this tournament I'd make it. (My performance) was kind of misleading. I wasn't getting many bites in this tournament. But they were good ones. When you're getting those kinds of bites, you don't need many.
"It's awesome. I've been overwhelmed by this Angler of the Year thing. I've ever felt like I have these last couple of days. It's an awesome deal. I definitely want to get back here. Words can't explain how I felt."
Hackney topped close friend Scott Suggs of Arkansas in the Rookie of the Year race. Michigan's Marcel Veenstra finished third, followed by Bink Desaro of Idaho and Arkansas' Kevin Short. Desaro was especially happy with his rookie year on the Tour, which included a second-place finish at Lake Eufaula.
"It's just been an unbelievable year," said Desaro, who had already earned a Classic spot through the CITGO Bassmaster Western Open circuit. "I'm living my dream."
HORIZON AWARD WINNER. Two years ago, Davy Hite would seem an unlikely candidate for a future BASS Horizon Award, awarded to the Tour competitor who enjoys the most impressive comeback from the prior season. After all, the 1999 Classic champion had just finished off his second successful Angler of the Year campaign.
No one would have predicted that the 2002 Angler of the Year would plummet to 163rd in the 2003 Tour standings.
Last week, the 38-year-old South Carolina pro made up for the most disappointing season of his career by wrapping up the coveted BASS Horizon Award at Santee Cooper and pocketing $25,000. The inaugural Horizon winner was Texan Takahiro Omori last year.
"I'm thrilled to win the Horizon award," Hite said. "I won Angler of the Year two years ago, and then I had my worst year ever last year. So it's good to be back on the right path."
Hite, who finished 12th in the Tour standings, topped Aaron Marten's comeback (from 147th to fifth) by nine points. Missouri's Mark Tucker was third, followed by Lee Bailey of Connecticut and, believe it or not, Michael Iaconelli.
TOUR TRAGEDY. The CITGO Bassmaster Tour family suffered a tragic blow last Monday when Tour rookie Kevin Short and wife Sherry received news at Santee Cooper that their daughter, Michelle, 19, was involved in a fatal auto accident. Michelle was a freshman at the University of Central Arkansas and a member of the UCA Sugar Bears softball team.
The sorrow among the BASS community was evident when BASS tournament director Trip Weldon informed Short's fellow pros at the traditional pairings meeting on Wednesday. An impromptu gesture collected nearly $3,000 in donations from the Bassmaster pros.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials be made to the following scholarship fund: University of Central Arkansas, Michelle Short Scholarship Fund, Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, P. O. Box 5004, Conway, AR 72035
The Bassmaster family extends its sincerest condolences to the Short family.
DID YOU KNOW? The real first name of Bink Desaro, the unofficial favorite underdog of the CITGO Bassmaster Tour, is Jamie.
PRO BIRTHDAYS. North Carolina's Dustin Wilks will be 27 on March 29. South Carolina's Jason Quinn becomes 32 on March 31. Connecticut's Lee Bailey turns 42 on April Fool's Day, and Florida pro Pete Thliveros turns 44 on April 7.
IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... Idaho pro Bink Desaro would likely still be running his small sandwich shop in Boise.
THEY SAID IT. "It's never the same. The worse thing you can do is have expectations that it's going to be identical as it was the year before. It's never the same - good or bad. It's always a different fishery when you come back the next year. Conditions change even if you come back the same time of year." Four-time world champion Rick Clunn on the differences in Santee Cooper Reservoir in March tournaments over the last two years.