'A Freight Train'

Final standings

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — One more indication of how phenomenal this week was for Timmy Horton: At 2:15 p.m. on Sunday, while the other 11 anglers left in the Champion's Choice presented by Toyota Tundra remained on Lake Champlain, Horton went on an ice run.

He had been parked at the dock, lounging on the deck of his boat, for going on four hours, eating pizza, signing the occasional autograph, thumbing through a copy of North American Fisherman. His cameraman remained in the boat in case of emergency, staying cool beneath an umbrella, proclaiming Sunday the easiest day in 13 years of shooting bass fishing.

But Horton needed to make a pit stop, and wanted to cool his five chubby bass, so he headed up the ramp to the marina in search of a bag of ice. Asked to reflect on what his week has been, the boyish blonde Alabamian replied, "It doesn't make sense. It's amazing."

Day Four of this tournament was a victory lap for Horton. The world knew it after Day Three, when he widened his lead over second-place Steve Kennedy to 9 pounds, 13 ounces — an amount that prompted Kennedy to say at Sunday's launch, "I had a great tournament, but my hat's off to Timmy."

Horton came through with 19-4 of largemouth to secure a victory stunning in its margin. In a sport usually decided by a couple of pounds, at most, Horton sacked almost an entire day's worth of fish more than his closest competitor. And he did it in only an hour of fishing Sunday before returning to the dock early, his best safeguard against calamity.

That hour on the water, he told the weigh-in audience, "was like experiencing fishing for the first time. It was bliss."

The only real drama came when Skeet Reese rolled a 20-4 sack across the scales to swipe second place from Kennedy and re-take the lead in the Angler of the Year points from Kevin VanDam.

Normally blue following yet another near-miss, Reese was thrilled with the runner-up position Sunday, conceding that "Timmy just crushed them." He finished with 70-13, nearly 13 pounds behind Horton.

"For the rest of us, it was a tournament for second," Reese said. "And I won!"

Kennedy settled into third place with 68-13, a bare 2 ounces ahead of Tommy Biffle. Even though he had been the nearest to overtaking Horton, he had virtually conceded the tournament a day earlier.

"We just ran into a freight train," Kennedy said.

For Horton, the win represented a bizarre combination, because not only was it overdue — he hadn't won a tour-level BASS event since 2001 — it was oddly characteristic. His first tour win came by about 17 pounds at the Potomac River in the 1999-2000 season, when he was both Angler of the Year and Rookie of the Year. His second came on Lake Toho in late 2001 — and that came by some 16 pounds.

The question, then, is twofold. Why does Horton win tournaments at this level only by ridiculous, double-digit margins? And if he's capable of that, why did it take him nearly six years to get another win?

The answers both lie in an approach that served him well beginning in the Potomac tournament. He remembers vividly being in the thick of the Angler of the Year chase, and feeling pressure to stay on the water as long as possible in practice. In the final hour, while other anglers were already headed to their meeting, he noticed something on his electronics: an underwater rock pile, the same structure that he pounded this week on Champlain.

On his first cast, he caught a striper. Then he caught two big largemouth. "You never know how it'll hold up in a four-day tournament," he said. But hold up it did, and while everyone else pounded grassy areas, Horton found a niche hitting the rocks.

And he pulled a similar trick at Lake Toho. The lower reaches of the lake had been recently sprayed, which drove practically every other angler to the cleaner water further north. Horton went straight into the places where he knew the fish wouldn't be. When he found one patch of grass that hadn't been sprayed, sure enough, it was clogged with the big fish that had no where else to go.

His formula is thus: "You have to find something obvious in an obvious situation, when that pattern is so dominant that the unobvious gets overlooked."

He admits that he wastes tons of practice time looking for these overlooked, productive, continually replenishing, "off-the-wall" points. "I guess that sounds easy," he said. "But it's a gamble to look for a place like that."

In that rare instance when he does find such a spot, though, it makes him look like a genius. This week, knowing that most of the field wouldn't be able to resist fishing in the thick grass on the southern part of the lake, he found a spot that he thought would produce 15 pounds a day for him. Then he went looking for something more. The rockpile he found was at the mouth of a bay where the fish had recently spawned. It wasn't on a map. And it was covered in schooling fish that he could bombard with a jig and a tube all week.

"It seems like when I get clicking on something, it just opens up, like this week," he said. "There's a mental capacity we don't even know we have. We hit it every once in a while."

Part of his win drought, he said, was a funk brought on by the decision in 2002 that anglers wouldn't be able to fish the final day of tournaments in their own boats. Relinquishing that control over his sponsorships and his own equipment hit him hard. He says it's no coincidence that since BASS announced that anglers will next year fish the final days in their own boats, he has made three straight tournament cuts and had two top-10 finishes.

This year, he also had to overcome the memory of an accident in heavy chop on Lake of the Ozarks last fall that put his co-angler in the hospital. "It's probably part of the reason I was back at 10:30 (on Sunday)," he said. "I was the first boat out this morning, and every boat beat me to Ticonderoga by half an hour."

Part of the greatness of Kevin VanDam, Horton says, is that he's able to move quickly past distractions on and off the water. "That's a gift I wasn't blessed with," Horton said. "When something's up, it affects my focus."

He hopes the inverse holds, as well.

"I'm having fun again," he said.