February 24, 2008 by Gary Mortenson
LAKE HAVASU CITY, Ariz. - Although he had nearly a 2-pound lead heading into today's finals on Lake Havasu, Justin Kerr knew it wasn't going to be easy to walk away with a tournament title. And he was right. Although the native of Simi Valley, Calif., turned in an impressive 12-pound, 1-ounce catch today to record a whopping four-day total weight of 53 pounds, 14 ounces, it turned out that he needed virtually every ounce to ultimately secure his very first Stren Series title. In the end, Kerr netted first place by less than a half a pound over fellow competitor Terrence Rath of Lake Havasu City, Ariz. And the victory couldn't have been sweeter. For the last four years, Kerr had qualified for five finals (a 3rd-place finish at Lake Havasu in 2004, a 4th-place finish on Havasu in 2005, a 7th-place finish at Lake Mead in 2005 and two second-place finishes on the California Delta in 2006 and 2007). However, he could never pull out the victory ... that was, until today. "I don't even know what to say," said Kerr, who walked away with a check for $25,000. "It's just been an amazing week. I've been so close before. And to finally be able to break the ice and win one of these things, I can't even describe the feeling. It's crazy. You have no idea how good this feels." But like most championship journeys, it takes a combination of skill and a little luck to finally pull out a victory. And today's contest was no exception. "I actually got really lucky today," said Kerr. "At one point, I pulled up into a little cut and was fishing a piece of wood. At first, I didn't see any fish. But then I looked again and saw one just sitting there. I was really surprised he didn't' see me and swim away." Kerr threw his bait at the fish and landed it. As it turned out, it was nearly a 3-pounder. "Then I realized why it didn't swim away," said Kerr. "It was blind in one eye." But as the old adage goes, you make your own luck. And that's what happened the rest of the day for Kerr. "With about 15 minutes left to go, I caught a 2 1/2-pound smallmouth and that's what won me this tournament." That, and a helpful tip from an old friend. "A good friend of mine taught me how to back-reel a few weeks ago and as it turned out, I was back-reeling all week," said Kerr. "That really helped as well." Kerr said that throughout the week he targeted bass on a combination of Pepper jigs, spinnerbaits and drop-shot/Robo worm techniques. He said that he mostly focused on shallow wood, fishing in about 2 to 3 feet of water. In the end, the 26-year-old California native didn't care if he won by 6 ounces or 20 pounds - as long as he finally got that elusive win. "This is my first major tournament win," said Kerr. "And it was a long time coming. It feels great." Rath comes up short of victory Despite a heroic effort on the final day of competition, Terrence Rath's 13-pound, 9-ounce stringer wasn't enough to overcome Kerr during final weigh-in. However, Rath said that he had few regrets. "I had an awesome week and, for the most part, everything went my way," said Rath, who recorded a four-day total of 53 pounds, 8 ounces. "At 11 a.m. I didn't have any fish in the boat. But I ran to a spot I found last week and they really bit. It just wasn't enough in the end." Rath said he threw a spinnerbait for the first three days of the tournament and the first four hours of today's competition. However, unlike the previous days, the spinnerbait came up empty in the finals. "So I decided to switch to my backup bait," said Rath. "I started dragging a 3/8-ounce football jig with a Yamamoto double-tail trailer and that worked out well for me." Although Rath didn't walk away with the grand prize, he did manage to net a nice check for $8,300 for his second-place finish. Mechanical problems on day three hinder Lee's title quest Although Robert Lee of Angels Camp, Calif., turned in a valiant effort in the finals, he wasn't able to overcome a mechanical breakdown in yesterday's competition. "As long as there was wind and clouds, I couldn't keep the smallmouth bass off of my line," said Lee, who recorded a total weight of 48 pounds, 5 ounces. "Yesterday, the conditions were perfect for me. But I had a break down and was only able to junk fish the rest of the day while I headed back to the marina. It was kind of disheartening. But overall, I had a great week. So I really can't complain." Lee, who targeted bass throwing a combination of crankbaits and jigs, ultimately walked away with nearly $7,500 in winnings for his third-place effort. Folkestad charges up the leaderboard There are few anglers more dangerous in the western United States than Mike Folkestad of Yorba Linda, Calif. And today he showed just why. Entering the final day of competition, Folkestad was in 10th place overall. However, by the time weigh-in had concluded, Folkestad had leapfrogged all the way up to fourth place on the strength of a total catch of 46 pounds, 14 ounces - leaving bass-fishing fans to wonder what might have been had he not turned in a measly 6 pounds, 3 ounces during the first day of competition. "I just love Lake Havasu," said Folkestad, who was languishing in a 68th-place tie after the first day of competition. "It's an awesome fishery. I'm seriously thinking of moving here." Folkestad said that he fished a combination of Robo worms, Folkestad Special worms and open water jigs with Yamamoto trailers to land the majority of his catch. Ultimately, Folkestad walked away with over $6,600 in winnings. "Overall, I had a really great week," he said. "I'm happy." Meanwhile, Tim Wilsterman of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., took fifth place overall with a total catch of 46 pounds, 13 ounces. Wilsterman netted $5,800 in prize money. Best of the rest Rounding out the top-10 pro finalists on Lake Havasu: 6th: Mike Phua of Chino, Calif., 46-3 7th: Gary Key of Phoenix, Ariz., 45-11 8th: Rick Francis of Cibola, Ariz., 45-6 9th: Mike Goodwin of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., 44-8 10th: Michael Rooke of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., 44-2 Wal-Mart Stren Series Western Division action resumes April 16-19 at Clear Lake in Kelseyville, Calif.