RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — Longtime friends Darrell West and Elite Series pro Billy McCaghren fished their first Bassmaster Open together, and in 2010, they will both fish their first Bassmaster Classic together.
As winner of the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Weekend Series Championship, West earned a berth in next year's main event as well as the first-place prize of $100,000. He claimed the title by only two tenths of a pound with a total weight of 38.67 pounds.
"Billy and I have wanted to fish the Classic all our lives, and next year we will both have the chance," West said. "I made some bad decisions yesterday and I thought it cost me the tournament after I gave away my 8-pound lead. This has been my dream and I would have been devastated if it didn't work out."
Day Three leader Hojin Chang only managed to boat two fish on the final day and slipped to second with 38.45 pounds. Brandon Gray from Bullock, N.C., slipped a spot to third place with 36.60 pounds.
Andre Dickneite of Freeburg, Mo., brought in the biggest stringer of the final day, 12.56 pounds, to claim fourth place with 32.46 pounds. Rounding out the top five was Sam Boss from Paducah, Ky., with 31.35 pounds.
West thought he had blown the tournament on Day Three, when pressure from other competitors in his primary area caused him to pull up and move, jumping around the lake in what proved to be a fruitless search.
"I probably could have had another good bag if I just stayed in my best area," West said. "Today, I committed to staying in there and got those three keepers and lost one good fish. I was surprised that I ended up winning — I thought I had blown it."
Keying in on milfoil grass on the main-lake basin of Lake Dardanelle, West caught the majority of his fish on a ¼- or ½-ounce Rat-L-Trap in a chrome/blue color.
"Every one of the tournaments I've done well in here over the past few years, I have been focusing on milfoil," West said. "The key was to keep the rod tip high and burn the lure fast to keep the trap above the grass."
Saturday was a good day all around for West and his non-boater, Justin Atkins from Columbus, Miss., who claimed the $50,000 first-place prize after boating a 7.14-pound three-fish limit. His total of 19.29 pounds easily outdistanced second-place Merrill Showers, who failed to boat a fish on the final day and ended up with 16.86 pounds.
Atkins, a 19-year-old college student, had a life-changing day on Dardanelle, capped off by a key fish that would not have made it to the boat but for some nifty net work by West.
"I was reeling this fish in that I had hooked on an X-calibur lipless crankbait," Atkins said. "It jumped right next to the boat and all I saw was the bait come flying out of his mouth. When I looked down, my wonderful partner had caught the fish in the net before it could get away."
On the final day, Atkins caught his first fish on a Zoom trick worm that he texas-rigged with a light weight to pull through the grass. Then, they got around a little school of active fish, which he targeted using the lipless crankbait. Even with a three-fish limit, Atkins was nervous when bringing his fish to the stage.
"I didn't think I was going to be able to make up a 4-pound deficit," Atkins said. "When the final non-boater walked up without a bag, I thought it was some joke they were playing on me. I don't know whether to yell or run around — I just won $50,000 dollars."
Complete results from the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Weekend Series Championship on Lake Dardanelle can be found at http://www.abaproam.com.