Kerchal casts and reels in a dream he long dreamt

OUTDOORS

August 03, 1994|By PETER BAKER

Sports fantasies. Lots of people have them. You know, World Series, Game 7, tie score, bottom of the ninth, full count against, say, Nolan Ryan.

The batter, of course, is you. Ryan throws his best fastball, and you hit it over the fence in dead center field and round the bases while 50,000 fans go wild in the stands.

But how often does one get the chance to come to the plate, much less hit the ball out?

Bryan Kerchal, a 23-year-old cook from Newtown, Conn., got his chance to compete in and win bass fishing's version of the World Series last week on High Rock Lake in North Carolina. By the end of the BASS Masters Classic, he stood atop the podium at Greensboro Coliseum, for those moments, at least, the toast of the bass fishing world.

How Kerchal, competing as an amateur, got there is interesting -- if only because he chose a path most would not recommend.

"I've always dreamed of making fishing a career. . . ." Kerchal said on the podium Saturday afternoon, amid the cheers of nearly 24,000 fans. "I went to school one semester at a state college in Massachusetts. The whole time I was there I'd stay up and read BASSMASTER [magazine].

"But I knew there was nothing I wanted to learn in school. I had no drive to be there."

So Kerchal, who had been fishing for bass since he was 7, packed his bags and left, bought a bass boat and joined a bass club. Somewhere along the line, he took work as a cook, which would leave his morning hours for fishing, fishing and more fishing and keep fuel in his bass boat and lures in his tackle box.

He fished local and regional tournaments and twice qualified for the Classic, the only amateur to do so in successive years. He fished. He learned. He went his own way.

And maybe that isn't the way parents might want their children to ramble through life. But not everyone is meant for suits, lunches with clients and keeping up with necktie styles.

Certainly not Kerchal, who pocketed $50,000 for winning the Classic and might earn as much as $1 million from endorsement contracts with boat and tackle manufacturers, along with personal appearance fees.

When asked if had quit his cook job, Kerchal said, "No. Do you have a phone?"

But Kerchal also showed a more serious side, admitting that bass fever was running high on Saturday afternoon and saying that he would have to weigh his options before making a decision.

"I'm still so unfamiliar with everything that goes along with [winning the Classic]," Kerchal said. "I really have no idea of what to expect or what's coming. I am just going to take it one day at a time and see what happens."

As the first amateur to lead and win a Classic, Kerchal probably will do well with endorsement contracts. As a fisherman, he probably will do well, because he works at it.

And Kerchal, whose 36 pounds, 7 ounces were only 4 ounces ahead of second-place Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla., can listen to David Fritts and understand something of what it means to stand in the spotlight one year and in the shadows the next.

Fritts, from Lexington, N.C., nearly quit the pro tour, but stayed on and won the Classic last year and was this season's angler of the year. For this Classic, Fritts was the odds-on favorite because he learned to fish on High Rock Lake.

Fritts, followed throughout the Classic by an armada of spectator boats, finished 21st and won the minimum $3,000 prize. Still, Fritts said, it was the greatest year of his life, and this Classic was the greatest week of that year.

"It's been absolutely amazing," said Fritts, who, as the hometown favorite, was cheered at the weigh-ins each day. "I really don't know what to say. The sun has shone on me a little bit.

"I've got to take my hat off to all these people here. I've never been so touched in all my life. There's no amount of money that would buy what I've felt this week."

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