July 8, 2006 by Jennifer Simmons
HARTFORD, Conn. - Robert Walser has fished three Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League All-American championships in three years, finishing 26th in 2004 and 28th in 2005. This year, when he flew to Connecticut from his native North Carolina, he vowed not to return with anything less than a victory. After beating out 48 of the toughest sticks in the BFL, Walser will fly home tomorrow a happy man - and $140,000 richer - as the newest All-American champion.
"It was my turn," he said simply. "I've been close too many times, and I was determined not to come up here and finish 20th again."
That determination led to an intense preparation strategy for the 2006 All-American that began when he signed up to fish the North Carolina Division in 2005. Previously, Walser had earned his All-American tickets via the South Carolina Division, the trail he has returned to for the current season. But in 2005, it was his home-state division that he chose to fish, and that venture resulted in a No. 3 ranking that sent him on to the Clarks Hill regional, where he finished fifth to advance to the All-American.
With his qualification in place, Walser began to scout out local Connecticut River know-hows to aid him in his quest. He lined up Johnathan Dingle, who competes in the Stren Series Northeast Division, and Billy Heeber, and they prefished with Walser for four days.
"We caught a lot of fish," Walser said. "The weather was miserable, but I saw what I liked, the kind of fishing I'm best at - fishing shallow water 3 feet or less."
Walser left Connecticut hoping and praying conditions would stay the same, meaning he wanted to see the river flooding the parking lots when he returned to fish the tournament.
"I was comfortable if the river stayed high, and fortunately it did," Walser said.
However, the river didn't stay high for long. The water fell at a rapid pace each day of competition, forcing Walser to change tactics. But since the conditions still fell well within his comfort zone, his adjustments didn't hurt too much.
"The falling water forced me to adjust," he said. "I learned new places every day, and it was easier to adjust since I was doing what I like to do."
Walser's primary method was hunting down spots where he could target fish hovering around wood, and he was not alone in that method, as competitors generally targeted wood or grass all week. He was fishing a Weapon jighead with a homemade skirt and a Zoom Super Chunk Junior in green pumpkin.
"Mostly I fished pockets off the river, fishing an 8-foot stick on 20-pound line," he said. "When I got a bite, I had the equipment to pull them out."
Looking at the standings sheet, Walser's consistency stands out from his competition, whose weights tended to fluctuate over the course of the three-day tournament. Walser caught 11-4 on day one, 11-11 on day two and duplicated that weight exactly today with another 11-11 limit for a three-day total of 34 pounds, 10 ounces.
Walser's consistency coupled with his confidence made him a tough guy to beat this week on the Connecticut River. He says when he landed here on Tuesday and saw the water still in the parking lot, he knew it was his time to shine.
"I knew it was mine to lose," he said. "Dalton (Bobo) gave me a scare the first day, because I didn't see me catching a 14-pound limit. When he said he caught them on a buzzbait, I breathed a sigh of relief, because I knew we'd have bluebird skies on Thursday."
When the dust settled, Walser was left holding a check for $140,000 and a 2-pound, 3-ounce margin of victory. As the All-American champion, he took home $100,000 for the win plus a $20,000 contingency bonus from Ranger Boats and another $20,000 from Evinrude Outboards.
"You hope you get yourself in that mental state to fish a tournament," Walser said of his winning confidence. "I was there all week. I made the right calls - I was just in that happy place. I was extremely comfortable. I knew they had to beat me."
Dorland brings in heaviest day-three limit, takes second
Moving up from fourth to second was Dunnellon, Fla., boater Chad Dorland, with a three-day total weight of 32 pounds, 7 ounces. He brought in the day's heaviest limit, clocking in at 12 pounds, 7 ounces, to earn $25,000 as the runner-up.
Dorland and No. 3 Kip Carter were sharing an area but were fishing different ways, so the area served both of them well.
"He was fishing wood; I was fishing grass," Dorland said. "We weren't in each other's way at all."
Dorland said he found the spot - a creek that ran through the downtown area of nearby Middletown - in pretournament practice. He knew he was onto something when he caught a 3-pound largemouth.
"I went back and saw it had all that cover," he said. "The first day I started somewhere else but I ended up there, and on days two and three, I stayed there all day."
Dorland's primary bait was a Gitem Toad. He advanced to the All-American by finishing the 2005 Gator Division season ranked second and taking sixth place at the Lake Toho regional.
Carter falls to third
Yesterday's leader Kip Carter of Oxford, Ga., brought in his lowest tournament limit today but still finished third with a three-day catch of 30 pounds, 7 ounces. He earned $14,000 for his finish plus $9,000 in Ranger contingency money plus another $9,000 from Yamaha.
Like Dorland, Carter stumbled upon the Middletown creek they shared in pretournament practice, but unlike Dorland, he never found the 3-pound bass to tip him off that the area was good.
"I actually never caught a fish in there," Carter said. "I just knew I liked it. I knew if the water went down, it could be really good. Sometimes you just go on instinct."
Carter's bait of choice all week was a spinnerbait, particularly on the first day. With the falling water, he was forced to mix things up the last two days, but he said the spinnerbait remained his big-bite bait.
Though Carter admits that some mistakes on his end may have cost him the win, he still has a bright future ahead of him, with big plans to get out of the construction business and make a living in pro fishing.
"I'll fish for a living one day," he said. "I'm young; my time's coming."
Mauldin, McDonald settle into fourth, fifth positions
Mark Mauldin of Cleveland, Tenn., brought in 27 pounds, 9 ounces of bass over three days to take fourth place and $13,000. He earned an additional $16,000 in boat and motor contingencies.
"I fished pretty clean all week," Mauldin said. "I had a great tournament."
In the fifth spot is Mike McDonald of Randleman, N.C., with a three-day total of 27 pounds, 6 ounces. He earned $12,000 for his fifth-place finish plus another $14,000 in boat and motor contingencies.
"The Connecticut River is a tremendous fishery," McDonald said. "We were here in really tough conditions. I had the bites today to win this thing, but that's how fishing is - some days you can't catch them all."
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 boaters at the All-American:
6th: Robert Soley, North Brunswick, N.J., 27-4, $11,000
7th: Terry Steele, Sparta, Tenn., 26-11, $10,000 plus $5,000 motor contingency
8th: Dennis Berhorst, Holts Summit, Mo., 26-4, $9,000 plus $9,000 in boat and motor contingencies
9th: Richard Pankey, Blytheville, Ark., 25-9, $8,000 plus $4,000 motor contingency
10th: Dalton Bobo, Northport, Ala., 19-4, $7,000 plus $3,500 boat contingency