Alister Johnson crowned Challenge champion

Nuclear reactor technician avoids final-day meltdown to secure first place, $25,000 in prize money

CYPRESS GARDENS, Fla. - After the first day of the EverStart Challenge, Alister Johnson found himself languishing in 65th place with virtually no hope of advancing to the final round.

And he knew it.

"After my performance on day one, I thought I was in real trouble," said Johnson. "At that point, I was just fishing to save face."

However, the nuclear reactor specialist from Cottondale, Fla., did not give up. Buoyed by a "good luck charm" from his friend, Johnson used two gutsy performances on days two and three to explode into the championship round.

And like any great performer, Johnson made sure to save the best for last.

With a final-day catch of 13 pounds, 3 ounces, Johnson crushed the rest of the competition - winning by nearly 7 pounds - to capture the 2000 EverStart Series Invitational Challenge. For his efforts, Johnson walked away with $25,000, a brand new Ranger boat and a wealth of invaluable exposure.

"It's like a dream come true," Johnson said. "It feels great. There was a lot of fishing pressure on these lakes early on and I really didn't know what my chances were. But after the second day, I started to get my confidence back. And once I got into the finals, I knew I had a shot."

However, had it not been for some timely advice from his partner on day two, Johnson admits that he might not have even reached the finals.

"I was fishing in what I thought was a pretty good spot on the second day of the tournament, but I wasn't getting any bites at all. So, I decided to leave," Johnson said. "But just before I left, I asked my partner what he thought about my decision. He said he thought I was crazy for leaving. So I turned the boat around and sure enough, three casts later I caught two big fish. And it was those 8 pounds of fish which got me into the finals."

The Devil Went Down to Georgia

Forty-five minutes after the Charlie Daniels Band had concluded their live version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" in front of a sold-out crowd at Cypress Gardens, Johnson walked back onto center stage knowing that only one competitor stood between him and the championship - Jim Short of Ocean Pines, Md. With every fish accounted for except one, Short had maintained a firm grip on the overall lead with a final catch of 6 pounds, 5 ounces.

It was then that Johnson did the impossible.

He upstaged the Charlie Daniels Band.

As the crowd waited in breathless anticipation, Johnson whipped a gargantuan 8-pound bass out of his bag of tricks and thrust it high into the air.

The crowd roared.

Johnson was victorious.

Short, like the Devil one song earlier, was forced to lay down the proverbial golden fiddle and settle for second place.

However, unlike the Devil, Short was gracious in defeat.

"I had a lot of fun," said Short, a 20-year veteran of the Marine Corps. "We're out there catching a few fish. What else can you ask for?"

For his efforts, Short would take home a check for $20,000.

The rest of the field weighs in

Darrel Robertson of Jay, Okla. - one of the pre-tournament favorites - finished in third place with a catch of 4 pounds, 11 ounces. While disappointed he didn't win the championship, Robertson acknowledged that he was pleased with his performance.

"I would have liked to have finished a little better, but I made the top five and that's pretty good," said Robertson, who won $18,000 for this third-place finish. "I had a great time down here and I'm ready to head back to Florida in January for the next FLW tournament."

Chip Harrison of Bremen, Ind., took fourth place with a catch of 4 pounds, 6 ounces.

"I went for broke today," said Harrison, who won $16,000 for his efforts. "I tried to win the tournament but the fish just didn't bite for me today."

Day-three leader Al Gagliarducci finished in fifth place with a catch of 4 pounds, 1 ounce.

"I'm a little disappointed," said Gagliarducci, who won $14,000. "But I had a lot of fun."

The "lucky" towel

Before receiving his trophy, Johnson had one more surprise for the crowd. After digging in his personal belongings, Johnson produced a towel and showed it to the audience. On the towel was a simple message. It simply read, "Five heads."

When asked to explain the nuance of the message, Johnson said it was a good luck charm from his friend and fishing partner, Robert Karbas.

Karbas, a veteran of the EverStart circuit, explained it this way.

"Alister and I became really good friends last year and before this tournament I made him a good luck towel," he said. "On the towel I wrote, `Five Heads.' The reason I wrote it is because Alister is such a country boy, he calls fish `heads.' And I thought it was pretty funny. So I wrote `Five Heads' on the towel to make sure that he caught a full stringer of big fish. I guess it worked."

ESPN2 is scheduled to broadcast the 2000 EverStart Series Invitational Challenge on Dec. 24 at 11 a.m.

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