November 11, 2001 by Gary Mortenson
Balog captures 2001 EverStart Championship with the help of skillful angling and a pair of `lucky' underwear
FLORENCE, Ala. - Joe Balog considers himself one lucky guy these days. On the verge of getting bounced out of the semifinals after catching only one fish, Balog mounted a huge rally late in the afternoon on the final day of competition to capture the prestigious 2001 EverStart Championship. In addition to his new title and invaluable media exposure, Balog also walked away with a $25,000 first-place check and a brand new Ranger boat.
Not bad for four days of work.
"It's unbelievable," said an ecstatic Balog shortly after the final weigh-in had concluded. "This is the greatest circuit in the country. Everything about this whole week, everything about this town ... I can't find anything to complain about."
A walk down championship lane
To be sure, Balog's long, strange journey to the EverStart Championship was not an easy one. For starters, had it not been for the formation of the EverStart Series Northern Division this year, Balog would not have had an opportunity to fish at all. Balog's next hurdle was qualifying for the championship. After four grueling regular season tournaments, the native of Independence, Ohio, finished the year in 21st place and finally received his automatic berth to the championship.
Now it was time to go for broke. With some of the best anglers in the nation competing for the top prize at Pickwick Lake, Balog turned in a most impressive performance on day one - landing a 12-pound, 9-ounce limit. In third place heading into day two, Balog proved once again that he was an angler to be taken seriously, producing a 9-pound, 2-ounce stringer. His haul was good enough to take hold of second place heading into the semifinals.
However, day three was less kind to the Ohio native. After a rough day of fishing, Balog managed to bring in only one largemouth bass. It was a good fish, weighing in at 3 pounds, 4 ounces, but it looked like it was going to be well short of any realistic qualifying weight.
Having already weighed in his fish, Balog sat on the stage and waited for the final outcome. Perched precariously in fifth place, Balog was forced to watch helplessly as Darrel Robertson - the last angler standing between him and a trip to the finals - walked up to the weigh-in podium. Over the previous two days, Robertson had dominated the tournament, recording a two-day stringer weighing over 24 pounds. But as Robertson reached into his bag, he could only produce one keeper bass. Even more amazing was the fact that it only weighed in at 2 pounds.
Balog, against all odds, had qualified for the finals.
"I got lucky yesterday, I thought I was out of the tournament," Balog would say shortly after winning the title. "I only caught one fish, but somehow, it was good enough to get me to the finals. I shouldn't even be here."
On the morning of the finals, all five anglers were hit with an ill-timed, two-hour fog delay. Suddenly, everyone's strategy had to be amended on the fly. Balog, like the others, was forced to scramble.
"I needed every minute I had today," he said. "I didn't even catch my first bass until 11:30 a.m. I was really worried there for awhile."
However, when all was said and done, it was Balog who produced the winning stringer - weighing in at 4 pounds, 5 ounces. After an amazing year and an equally amazing championship tournament, Balog had edged out fellow competitor Ricky Shumpert by a mere 1 ounce.
"It feels great," said Balog. "And yes, I'm still wearing my lucky underwear."
Lucky underwear leads to pungent victory
True to form, the story of Balog's improbably victory could only be topped by the tale of the "lucky" pair of underwear. According to Balog, after his tremendous performance on day one, he called his good friend and told him about his accomplishment.
"I told him that I was wearing my Caesar's Palace underwear and I joked that it might have made the difference," said Balog. "My friend said, `You'd better wear them again tomorrow.'"
Not wanting to mess up his good karma, Balog put on the day-old underwear again. However, by the end of the second day of competition, the Ohio native found himself in second place. No wanting to jinx himself for the third day of competition, Balog forced himself to put on the now-ripening undergarment for a third time.
"When I qualified for the finals after catching only one fish, I knew I had to wear them again," said Balog, laughing at the ludicrous nature of the proposition. "What can I say, they helped me win the tournament. But I'll tell you what, I really want to change clothes right now."
Although Balog eventually rushed back to the hotel to change his clothes, he will undoubtedly savor the moment - and the smell - for a very long time.
Second by an ounce
Although Ricky Shumpert of Lexington, S.C. lost out on the championship by a painful 1 ounce, he said he was thankful for the opportunity to compete in such a competitive atmosphere.
"Today, I only had two keeper bites and I was lucky enough to get them both into the boat," he said. "I only had a couple of days to practice and as soon as the water shut down, I couldn't really get anything going. I'm just really happy to be here and I'm looking forward to next year."
Shumpert, who alternated between a jig, crankbait and Texas rig, won $20,000 for his efforts.
Jim Eakins of Nixa, Mo., grabbed third place and a $15,000 check after recording a 3-pound, 8-ounce stringer. Although Eakins said he was hurt by the fog delay, he said he had no regrets either.
"I fished really well this week," he said. "But I really needed the early morning bite today to have a chance. But that's just the way fishing goes."
Greg Pugh, a native of Cullman, Ala., finished in fourth place with a total catch of 3 pounds, 2 ounces. However, Pugh was arguably hurt the most by the fog delay. After making a 90-mile, 4-hour, roundtrip run, Pugh had very little actual fishing time on the most important day of the competition.
"Even though there was a delay, I decided to go to my spot anyway," said Pugh, who walked away with a check for $12,500. "But it was 9 a.m. by the time we blasted off and I only really had about an hour to fish. That hurt me. But overall, I had a really good time this week."
Rounding out the championship field was Richard Grosse of Hebron, Ohio. Grosse turned in a fifth-place performance with a catch of 1 pound, 6 ounces.
"I only had three days of practice and it just didn't work out," said Grosse, who won $10,000 for his efforts. "But I'm really happy to have gotten this far. I had a lot of fun."
The 2001 EverStart Championship will be aired on ESPN 2 at 9 a.m. EST on Dec. 14.
Quick Bites: Day 4