MONETA, Va. Casey Ashley sat backstage as Sunday's weigh-in cranked up, playing it as cool as he could under the circumstances.
The 23-year-old rookie Elite Series angler was on the verge of a giant career leap maybe. He carried a 4 ½-pound lead into the final day of the Blue Ridge Brawl presented by Advance Auto Parts, the sixth event of his rookie season. But he had only four fish in his bag, one short of a limit.
Would it be enough? He'd have to wait, being the last angler to weigh in.
He looked around at the other finalists: Boyd Duckett and Takahiro Omori, both Bassmaster Classic champions; Dean Rojas, a former BASS record holder; Skeet Reese, the current Angler of the Year points leader; and Dave Wolak, the 2005 Rookie of the Year among the backstage crew.
"Look around," Ashley said. "I feel awesome, no matter if I win or lose. Why wouldn't I feel great? I'm sitting back here with the best fishermen in the world."
A few minutes later, he officially defeated the best fishermen in the world. Ashley weighed 9 pounds, 10 ounces, a significant drop from pervious days but enough to overcome a last-day charge by Terry Scroggins and give the rookie angler his first career victory and $100,000.
"I didn't think there was any way I was going to win it with four fish," Ashley said. "I was telling myself I wasn't going to win."
The victory capped an incredible week for the young pro from Donalds, S.C. He struggled the first day and landed in 49th place, roughly halfway down the standings. But Day Two was an entirely different story, with Ashley loading the boat with the biggest limit of the tournament, a 22-pound sack that surprised everyone in light of Smith Mountain Lake's reputation for stinginess.
He held on to the lead on Day Three, and cemented the victory with two bass in the last hour of the day on Sunday.
"I was getting shook up," he said. "I felt the pressure."
All week long, Ashley had help dealing with pressure. He shared a rental house this week with Duckett. The 23-year-old rookie and the 47-year-old Classic champion became friends last year on the Bassmaster Southern Tour, a qualifying circuit for the Bassmaster Elite Series.
"I learn a lot from him," Ashley said. "If he tells you something, you know he's not lying."
It's a symbiotic relationship.
"It's meant a lot to me," Duckett said. "As you get older, I don't know why, but you have this desire to do share that knowledge you have.
"I guess you realize that you can't do it forever. I guess that's why I have the desire to pass it along.
"I've done this a long time, and I've enjoyed sharing stuff with him from a tournament perspective. The mistakes the young guys make are from youth. They're as good as anyone out here at casting and the mechanics. The key to tournaments is managing your fish. That's what the young guys don't do well.
"You don't win tournaments by finding a lot of fish. Kevin VanDam wins because it's up here," Duckett added, pointing to his head.
"He's fished a great tournament. I'm proud of him. It's hard to go out there on the last day and make it happen. Trust me; I've been there."
Ashley made it happen by making few mistakes after his struggles on Day One. He switched tactics on Day Two, using a 7/16-ounce, peanut butter and jelly-colored Eakins jig on deep structure, mainly long points on the main lake. He stuck with that pattern the rest of the tournament. He also used a watermelon candy Zoom finesse worm on a shaky head.
The victory fulfills a lifelong dream for Ashley, who once wrote a fifth-grade essay about what he wanted to be when he grew up a professional bass fisherman.
"They laughed at me," he said. "But look at me now."
Duckett's sixth-place finish helped him turn around a somewhat disappointing season. After winning the Classic in February, he hadn't cracked the top 20 until Sunday.
"I was really disappointed with the first two events. The first event was the worst I've ever had in my history," Duckett said. "I was in 98th place in Angler of the Year points. But now I'm getting back in the groove, and I'm happy with the last couple of tournaments, especially this one."
Reese, the current Angler of the Year points leader, solidified his lead by finishing fourth with 53-3. It was still a bittersweet event, considering Reese has been extremely close to victory in five events this season, including the Classic.
"I'm going to take my points and run," he said. "I would love to win one, absolutely. It is frustrating, yeah. I want to win, but right now my focus is on Angler of the Year. If I can have that title, I won't complain about missing out."
It's just as well. This event belonged to Ashley, who wasn't complaining about anything Sunday afternoon.
"It's awesome. I can't explain it," Ashley said. "I'm living a dream. I've always wanted to do this, and here I am."