February 18, 2001 by Gary Mortenson
Would-be champion McCombs suffers heartbreaking disqualification for late return
D'IBERVILLE, Miss. - After registering three second-place finishes in the FLW Championship tournament over the past four seasons, Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla., finally showed the nation that he has what it takes to win an FLW tournament. However, it took a set of unbelievable circumstances, some dumb luck and a gutsy fishing performance to prove it.
With perennial powerhouse Rick Clunn flaming out with one fish in the final weigh-in and fellow competitor Johnny McCombs disqualified for returning 15 minutes late, Biffle used a modest catch of 2 pounds, 8 ounces to capture first place and silence the critics who thought he could never win the "big one."
However, until second-place finisher Dale Teaney weighed-in his final fish, even Biffle had his doubts.
"To tell you the truth, I never dreamed that this (catch) would be enough to win the tournament," said Biffle, who recorded second-place finishes in the FLW Championship in 1997, 1998 and again in 2000 but was never able to land the top FLW prize until today. "Everyone kept saying that I'd win one of these eventually, but I was getting tired of waiting. It's a big relief."
Biffle, who fought back tears as he stood on stage as champion, talked about the mental strain that consumed most of the anglers during the last four days on the Pascagoula River. With dense fog, gusty winds and a late cold front frustrating anglers throughout the tournament, Biffle said he couldn't remember fishing in a more difficult tournament.
"This was a great tournament, but I believe this is the toughest (FLW event) we've ever had," said Biffle, who won $100,000 and automatic entry into the 2001 FLW Championship for his efforts. "I never thought two little old fish would win this tournament, but things worked out for the best."
Unfortunately things didn't work out for the best for Johnny McCombs of Morris, Ala. After leading the tournament heading into the final day, McCombs landed three fish weighing approximately 6 pounds - an amount that would have been good enough to win the tournament. However, he failed to make it back to the crucial 2:30 checkpoint on time and was ultimately disqualified.
"It's all my fault," said a subdued McCombs. "I thought the check-in time was 3 p.m. so I made sure to get back by 2:45 p.m. Unfortunately, the (actual) check-in time was 2:30 p.m."
To make matters worse, McCombs clearly would have won the top prize of $100,000 had he made it back on time.
"I really didn't think I had enough to win," said McCombs, who has now earned four top-10 and three top-5 appearances on the FLW Tour. "After I was disqualified, I kept hoping somebody would have enough fish to beat me so I could feel a little bit better. But it didn't happen."
According to McCombs, he didn't find out he was in danger of being disqualified until Operation Bass officials called him on the radio at 2:37 p.m. But by that time it was already too late.
"I knew right there I would never make it back on time," said McCombs, who also knew that he would be docked 1 pound for every minute he was late. "It was over by the time they called me."
Although McCombs finished in fifth place by virtue of the disqualification, he said that he gave it his all and respected the final outcome.
"I'm sorry I was late, but I had a good tournament," said McCombs, who still walked away with a check for $14,000. "I'm not complaining."
Other anglers sympathized with McCombs' plight.
"I feel bad for him. He caught the fish that would have won it," said Biffle. "He'll get over it eventually, but I'm sure it will take him awhile."
A game of ounces
McCombs wasn't the only member of the hard-luck department during the final round. Teaney, a native of Williamsburg, Ohio, finished in second place by a mere one ounce - a difference of $65,000 in the standings.
"If you would have told me last week that I would come in second place, I would have been very happy," said Teaney, who is fishing on the FLW Tour for the first time this year. "But I really thought I would have had a better day today."
Teaney, who now leads the overall points race for the 2001 FLW Angler of the Year competition, said that he ran into problems when a bunch of his prime fishing locations became inaccessible today due to low water levels.
"Squirrels were playing where I was trying to fish because the water was so low," Teaney joked. "I really thought I was going to be on a lot of fish today, but I couldn't get to three of my spots because of low water. But overall, I'm happy to come in second place."
For his efforts, Teaney received a check for $35,000.
Rick Clunn of Ava., Mo., the favorite of many amateur prognosticators heading into the finals, finished in third place after only managing to land one fish weighing 1 pound.
"It's really frustrating," said Clunn, who won $20,000 despite one of his smallest final-day totals in recent memory. "I have no excuses. I fished well, but I just never found the (bites) today."
Chuck Economou of Redington Beach, Fla., finished in fourth place after failing to land a fish. Economou, who took home $16,000 in prize money, said a late cold front, blustery conditions and low water levels negatively affected his fishing strategy.
"The conditions really changed today and that seemed to really affect the fish," he said. "I couldn't get to where I knew the fish were at because of the low water. But I'm happy to be here. It was a good tournament."
The next stop on the seven-event, $4.4 million Wal-Mart FLW Tour is March 21-24 on Lake Martin near Alexander City, Ala. The tournament will feature another $500,000 purse.