SYRACUSE, N.Y. The winner of the Hottest Rig Running contest was announced at the Bassmaster Memorial presented by Evan Williams Bourbon, and the people have spoken.
They like Keith Phillips' unmistakable green, red, orange and blue on black boat wrap dedicated to helping the sick and disabled go hunting and fishing.
In front of the crowd gathered to watch the weigh-in beside Onondaga Lake, Phillips choked up as he accepted the first-place check of $10,000 for winning the fan poll, because his boat represents the Pursuing a Dream Foundation. The words "Share the Feelin'" are emblazoned down the side of his boat. Phillips tried to do just that, and nearly cried trying.
In November, Phillips received an invitation to go hunting with disabled children in Pearl, Miss. There he met Kirk Thomas, the founder of Outdoors Without Limits, which works with the foundation to organize hunting, shooting and fishing trips for people who have handicaps.
"He told me, it changes the way you look at life," Phillips said in an interview later. "It's to let people who are disabled know that there's stuff out there for them to do."
The organization arranges 500 events a year, Phillips said. On Phillips' deer hunt, he met the 6-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who now graces the angler's boat wrap. To raise money for the Pursuing a Dream Foundation, Phillips hopes to sell a thousand tickets at $100 apiece to raffle off his boat. He just got the go-ahead from Mercury, so it may not yet be available on his web site, but anyone interested in buying a ticket should check elitekeith.com soon.
Catching Without a Kicker
For nearly all of the anglers who didn't make the cut to fish Day Four of the Memorial, the story was similar. Catching fish was easy, but in just one day on an unfamiliar fishery, they couldn't get a big fish into the boat.
"I thought I was onto something special," said Randy Howell (ninth place, 16 pounds, 13 ounces), "but I wasn't, really."
Howell said he caught two dozen 3-pound fish on a Texas rig, a worm and flipping the grass mats, and felt a confidence that only added to his disappointment later.
"It's a shame that I didn't make it, I really am sick," he said. "It's bad when you don't do good and you fall out of the cut. But when you catch good and all day, you think you're going to make the cut all day, I didn't have no worries."
By contrast, Jason Quinn (eighth place, 18-1) said that after getting last pick of starting points to fish, he knew he was in trouble when bass started flying into his boat.
"When I caught 18 pounds in about 15 minutes this morning, I knew for a fact that I got the bad draw," he said. "I knew these guys were whacking them."
The biggest Quinn could muster was a 4 ½-pound fish, and marveled that in a northern lake, not a single angler brought a smallmouth across the stage.
Jeff Kriet (11th, 14-15) said he, too, caught them well about 30 in all but couldn't upgrade by power fishing grass mats. With more time, he said, he might have gone exploring the sharp drop points that he believes harbor 5-pound fish.
"I'm scratching my head," he said. "I flipped a beaver all day. Maybe I should have thrown something else.
"I figure if there's big fish in here, with as many as I caught punching, I should have had 18 pounds. It's all a puzzle. You need that one bite to clue you in. If I could have gotten one 4-pound bite, I would have done that all day."
Skeet Reese (seventh, 18-5) was still buzzing after missing the final-day cut by just 2 ounces. On his fourth hole, he pulled up to a rock pile and, well, as he put it: "Literally, every cast. Whacka-whacka-whacka-whacka-whacka-whacka – 'this is fun!'
Reese blasted them all day, pulling largemouth out at will, including two 2 ½-pounders on one cast. Even though he never did catch a big fish, he had an ecstatic day on the water.
"They told us this lake is polluted," he said. "It is. It's polluted with fish."
The only angler who brought in less than Jeff Kriet was John Crews, and he was substantially south of that. With just 9-4 on only five keepers, Crews knew that he didn't stand a chance on what for him was a frantic day of frustrating fishing.
"It started out slow, and it continued to go slow, and towards the end of the day, it got a little slower, and then I had to come in," he said after being officially eliminated from the tournament. "That was pretty much my day."
The variety of methods he used to catch his five small fish help to tell the tale. He caught one on a frog, two on a Senko, one flipping and one on a dropshot.
"I was trying everything," he said. "I was giving everything a thorough run-through. My tacklebox was dry."
He told the weigh-in audience that he used all 15 of the rods he took to the water, alternating between fishing shallow and deep, running around the small lake like a dervish.
Even when he saw big fish, he said, he'd cast to them only to sack a fish that didn't weigh even 2 pounds.
"Evidently there was a bus and everybody else got on it, and I was sleeping or something," he said. "I don't know."
Reigning Angler of the Year Mike Iaconelli said that despite his missing the final-day cut, a 10th-place finish and a day sacking 50 or so fish may be enough to propel him into the final two Elite Series events of the season.
"I'm happy," he said. "I've had such a mediocre year, just making a cut is something to put a smile on your face."
Iaconelli has reason to be dismayed. After a stellar campaign in 2006, he sits in 28th place in Angler of the Year standings low enough that his place in the 2008 Bassmaster Classic is in doubt.
"I need two more decent finishes to make the Classic," he said.
If he could fish on Sunday, he said he would have done the same thing he did Saturday, and hope for a kicker fish. On Onondaga, he felt right at home, as it reminded him of lakes he grew up fishing in New Jersey, with its multiple grasses and unnatural structures.
"Two of my best areas today were a sewage pipe that ran about 20 foot out in the lake, and an old concrete dock," he said. "When you'd pull up on an area, you'd catch one, and set the hook, and there'd be 10 of them swarming. It was an awesome day, just never got a 5-pound bite."
Editor's note: Check in each day for live video of the weigh-in and the realtime leaderboard at 6 p.m. ET. There will be a special Hooked Up show at 10 a.m. ET Saturday, with tournament updates Sunday at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and noon ET. The Hooked Up show begins at 5 p.m. Sunday and leads into the live final weigh-in.
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