FLORENCE, Ala. — After a two-hour fog delay and one of the stingiest final rounds on record, Joe Balog of Independence, Ohio, landed two bass weighing 4 pounds, 5 ounces Saturday to win the EverStart Series Championship and $60,000 in cash and prizes.
The $325,000 tournament presented by Conseco started Wednesday with 324 anglers from 32 states and Canada fishing for the EverStart Series championship in either the Pro or Co-angler Division. While pros fished four-straight days, co-angler competition drew to a dramatic close Friday. That's when Renee Flesh of Edwardsburg, Mich., walked away with $40,000 in cash and prizes after becoming the first female angler to win a national bass fishing championship. Her hard-fought catch of two bass weighed just 4 pounds.
As Flesh's winning weight indicates, Pickwick Lake was reluctant to give up the quality smallmouths that it is know for. In fact, only 16 bass weighing 35 pounds, 4 ounces were caught Friday by the top 10 pros and co-anglers. Three pros and eight co-anglers came up completely empty.
The story was much the same for the final five pros Saturday when only eight bass weighing 16 pounds, 9 ounces were caught. Fortunately for Balog, however, his “hot spot” in Wilson Lake produced enough weight for him to win $25,000 cash and a new Mercury- or Yamaha-powered Ranger boat with GARMIN electronics, Minn Kota trolling motor and EverStart batteries.
Each day Balog locked through from Pickwick to Wilson Lake to fish a creek channel with three small ledges that stretched no more than 20 yards. That small area produced enough largemouth bass for him to make the semifinal round cut to the top 10 pros Thursday in second place with a two-day total of nine bass weighing 21 pounds, 11 ounces. He then squeaked into the top five Friday in fifth place with one bass from the creek channel weighing 3 pounds, 4 ounces.
“I was a little concerned due to the fog delay,” said Balog, and EverStart Series rookie from the Northern Division. “But I knew I was going back to that spot. Even though it takes about an hour to make it there, I was going no matter what. The backup spot I had in Pickwick Lake didn't even compare.”
Second through fifth place went to Ricky Shumpert of Lexington, S.C., with two bass weighing 4 pounds, 4 ounces worth $20,000; Jim Eakins of Nixa, Mo., with one bass weighing 3 pounds, 8 ounces worth $15,000; Greg Pugh of Cullman, Ala., with two bass weighing 3 pounds, 2 ounces worth $12,500; and Richard Grosse of Hebron, Ohio, with one bass weighing 1 pound, 6 ounces worth $10,000.
Catch weights were cleared for all competitors at the start of the semifinal and final rounds.
The 4-year-old EverStart Series includes three divisions—Eastern, Central and Northern—with four events each plus the year-end championship presented by Conseco. Tournament winners and the top 50 pros and top 50 co-anglers from each division qualified for the championship on Pickwick Lake. Top EverStart competitors may also qualify for the Ranger M1 tournament in Mobile, Ala., Feb. 27-March 2, 2002, where they could win up to $1 million in the world's richest freshwater tournament.