June 8, 2002 by Jeff Schroeder
Eddie Waits III wins 2002 BFL All-American championship
SHREVEPORT, La. - For eight long years Eddie Waits III has been chunking and winding, grinding it out on the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League in search of glory. On Saturday afternoon, he finally realized his dreams when he became the 20th All-American boater champion by toughing it out in an extremely demanding fishing tournament at Louisiana's Cross Lake.
"I've been trying for eight years just to get here," said the euphoric Waits, who collected $100,000 for the win. "I don't imagine it will hit me until tomorrow."
The angler from Pine Bluff, Ark., caught three bass weighing 5 pounds, 13 ounces in the finals, narrowly edging out runner-up Greg Gutierrez of Red Bluff, Calif., by 7 ounces. It was a tight finish, and one that seemed to fit the tight fishing conditions at Cross Lake this week. A 14- to 17-inch slot limit kept anglers on the hunt for bass that were either really small or really big. Anything between the lengths of 14 and 17 inches - an average-sized bass - had to be thrown back. The Louisiana Fisheries Department rule made it tough on All-American competitors, many of whom would struggle to land a single fish and then have to return it to the lake. While anglers informally referred to the slot-limit rule as the "slot monster" all week long, everybody understood that it is in place as a conservation effort to augment the Cross Lake bass population.
But it sure was hard on the tournament fishing. Over three days of competition, the 50 boaters landed a total of only nine five-bass limits. No co-anglers caught a limit.
"My hat's off to these guys who figured out what to do today because it was as tough as it gets out there," said ninth-place finisher Dave Lefebre of Erie, Pa., who caught two bass weighing 1 pound, 14 ounces Saturday.
"To win a tournament of this caliber, you need two things: You need to perform flawlessly and you need a little luck," said seventh-place Matthew Martin of Lafayette, N.Y., who caught one bass weighing 2 pounds, 11 ounces in the finals.
Bass escaped the trees
Waits had both luck and solid execution. Thursday he caught one big bass weighing 4 pounds, 5 ounces - the second-biggest fish of the tournament - to finish opening day in 11th place. He then landed two bass weighing 4-7 Friday to advance to the final round in the No. 8 qualifying spot.
Saturday he figured something out about the Cross Lake fish that ultimately gave him the edge. Waits is familiar with the kind of bass structure that Cross Lake offers - cypress trees and docks - because it's similar to his home waters on Arkansas' White River. He discovered that many quality bass weren't positioned where they ought to be this time of year.
"What happened was the fish had moved out from beneath the trees and were suspending between them because the guys were putting so much pressure on them," he explained. "There are a lot of quality fish in this lake. It's just that these guys are so good and there was a lot of pressure. The lake's only 14 feet deep at its deepest and the fish have nowhere to go."
While he didn't have a lot of bites, he had just enough quality bites to win. Waits only caught six keeper bass the entire tournament, but his three in the finals proved to be the difference. He thinks one of the keys was his bait. He dug deep into his tackle box and used two older-model crankbaits to mine his fish, a Creek King and a Big O.
"These things are 30, 40 years old. You can't even find the same colors anymore," he said.
From last to top
For the ebullient Waits, taking home the All-American trophy on his first trip there was a kind of poetic justice. He qualified for the tourney through the Wildcard event last year, just barely squeaking in with a sixth-place finish at Kentucky Lake. Only the top six wildcards qualify for the All-American.
"That's right - from last to top, bubba," he said, smiling.
And while the victory might not have completely sunk in yet, he is clear about how he will enjoy the $100,000 spoils of victory.
"I need a new motor," he said, "and probably a new Ranger."
Additionally, for winning the All-American, Waits will have an automatic berth in the 2003 Wal-Mart FLW Tour if he so chooses.
And he certainly does.
"You're dad-gum right," he said. "They better look out because here I come. They've been waiting for me for a long time."
Rest of the top five
Gutierrez caught three bass and fell just short of the winning weight with 5 pounds, 6 ounces. While he hails from the Golden State, he wants to make one thing clear: "One of the biggest misconceptions is that we (California bass anglers) love to drop-shot. Well, I don't like the drop-shot and finesse fishing."
In fact, Gutierrez found a lot of similarities between fishing Cross Lake and fishing back home on the California Delta.
"There's a lot of grass, moss and docks," he said. "But the cypress trees make a big difference."
So Gutierrez felt right at home flopping a Japanese-made Sumo frog onto grass mats to catch his quarry this week, which included the tourney's second-heaviest stringer, 12 pounds, that he caught Thursday. He also used 50- and 80-pound test line throughout the event - a decidedly un-finesse way to catch bass.
"I went back a little further up this creek where the water temperature dropped about 8 degrees, stayed in there and just hopped the Sumo on top of the mats," he said.
While he was disappointed about his close second-place finish - he still collected $20,000 - he was ecstatic with his last catch of the day, which came at the last minute as he was returning to weigh in. He caught it on a crankbait that he borrowed from fellow competitor Brandon Bowlds.
"It's a root beer-and-chartreuse Bandit 100 Series, and it's deadly on Cross Lake," Gutierrez said.
Steve Kennedy of Auburn, Ala., was the only angler to boat a limit in the finals and was the only angler to catch a limit all three days of competition. Saturday he caught five bass weighing 4 pounds, 14 ounces and collected $10,000 for third place.
However, they were all small fish.
"I stumbled upon a bunch of little bank-runners," he said. "I caught more than just about everybody every day. I had six keepers, and I actually culled a fish today. But I still only caught 4-14."
Kennedy already has five BFL tournament victories under his belt and one prior All-American appearance. So how did he feel about his third-place performance?
"I'm less than a pound out of winning $100,000. What do you think?" he said, laughing.
Ricky Smith of Collinsville, Ark., made a valiant run with four bass weighing 4 pounds, 12 ounces, but landed in fourth place. He collected $8,000. Also, Ranger Boats awarded a new Ranger 518VX Comanche bass boat to Smith, who was the highest-placing All-American contender in the Ranger Cup incentive program.
Rounding out the top five boaters at the 2002 All-American was Terry Tucker of Gadsden, Ala., in fifth place with two bass weighing 4-2. He collected $7,000.