March 3, 2001 by Jeff Schroeder
Pro angler quit job to fish EverStart Series, takes home emotional first win
EUFAULA, Ala. - Lake Eufaula managed to top itself today. While thunderstorms and a relentless pouring rain hammered the tournament lake, the bass just refused to quit biting for the final round of the second EverStart Series Eastern Division tournament despite quickly rising water levels. Eufaula was so fruitful today, in fact, that for the first time in history, every single angler weighed in a full five-fish limit.
That meant an even 100 bass were weighed in by all 20 of the pro and co-angler finalists.
So there were no losers in today's final round, but there was one big winner in the Pro Division. Literally.
Mark Shepard stands about 6 feet, 4 inches tall. But today he must have felt 64 feet tall. He brought in 20 pounds, 5 ounces of bass to edge out Rodger Beaver of Leesburg, Ga., and captured his first pro title and $50,000 in cash and prizes.
"Oh my gosh," he said afterwards. "I changed my whole life to do this. I can't believe this."
What the 35-year-old Shepard proved today was that a competitor can go a long way on heart, especially if he has some talent. He caught his winning stringer using spinnerbaits and by flipping a lizard into grassy flats in about a foot of water.
But it is the story of how he got there that is especially compelling.
For nine years, Shepard worked for a charity organization in Ohio. There he befriended a man named Frank Allen, who introduced him to competitive bass fishing. After quickly qualifying for the new EverStart Series in 1997 through several high finishes on the Red Man Tournament Trail, Shepard was willing to take the next step.
But his employer wasn't willing to give him the time off to do it.
Fortuitously, he got a new job as a subcontractor and moved to South Florida where he entered Gator Division tournaments and, again, fished well enough to qualify for the EverStart. Again, his employer refused to give him the time off he needed to travel for the tournaments.
So, last year he quit his job and decided to just go fishing - competitively.
Shepard's first EverStart tournament was last month's event near his Labelle, Fla., home on Lake Okeechobee. He fished well and placed 12th.
Today, as he followed in the police-escorted parade from the boat ramp to the Eufaula Wal-Mart for the final-round weigh-in, Shepard knew he had something special in his livewell.
"I just couldn't even believe I got into the top 30 two tournaments in a row," said the rookie pro. "I just about ran off the road because I had tears in my eyes."
When the last pro had weighed in and Shepard's 20-pound, 5-ounce sack of fish remained the heaviest on the board, what followed were tears of joy and disbelief. He had just won his first EverStart tournament in only his second try.
"This is an absolute miracle," he said. "It's a dream come true."
Miracle, maybe not. But it was an impressive victory under the circumstances. He beat three former EverStart winners in the final round, including runner-up Rodger Beaver, who made a remarkable run just to make the top 10. The other two were Frank Poirier (Lake Eufaula, 1998; fourth place today) of Hopewell, Va., and James Nuckols Jr. (Lake Okeechobee, 2001; ninth place today) of Rockwood, Tenn.
Beaver started out this week in rough shape, placing 65th on day one. He picked it up on day two, however, and barely slid into the semifinal round in 30th place. (Coincidentally, Beaver pulled a similar stunt during the EverStart tournament he eventually won last year at Lake Cumberland, Ky. He edged into the final round in 10th place.) He clawed his way up to sixth in yesterday's semifinals and looked like he might be headed toward victory number two - weighing in 18 pounds, 6 ounces today - until Shepard came across the stage.
While many competitors didn't mind the rain so much because the bass were still biting today, Beaver found that it got in his way.
"I was catching my better fish by sight-fishing," he said. "The clouds and rain hurt that. I had a half-dozen 3- to 5-pound fish that I couldn't see today."
Pro Jeffrey Thomas of Broadway, N.C., had trouble with the weather, too, but not because he couldn't see. The rain shorted out the trim on his motor, which locked it into position and prevented him from reaching some of his more productive shallow spots. Still, he managed to reel in 16 pounds, 11 ounces for third place and $9,000.
Behind Thomas in fourth place was Poirier with 15 pounds, 12 ounces. Finishing in fifth place was Mark Rogers of Naples, Fla., with 15 pounds even.
The next EverStart Series event is an Eastern Division event scheduled for Lake Santee Cooper, S.C., March 28-31.
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