Alabama pro rises from eighth place on final day to claim victory.
Mercury Pro Team member Bill Weidler came into the fifth Bassmaster Elite Series event of the season at the bottom of the point standings, but he came out of it an Elite Series champion.
Until that event, which was held at Lake St. Clair, the year on the water had been one to forget for the 51-year-old Helena, Alabama, angler. Weidler had no momentum, much less optimism, coming into St. Clair, where he expected nearly 100% of the bass weighed in to be smallmouths.
Smallmouth fishing has never been his specialty, and recent finishes of 79th and 80th out of an 85-boat field at smallmouth fisheries this season proved that point. In fact, in two-plus years on tour, Weidler had never come close to making a third-day cut on the Elite Series at a smallmouth tournament.
Until Lake St. Clair.
"I'm a largemouth guy; I've really struggled on smallmouth lakes," Weidler said. "I grew up fishing the Coosa River, and my boat really hasn't come out of much more than 10 feet of water. I love a flipping stick and heavy line, so it was hard making the transition.
"But what I can say is that I thank the Lord for what He did for me this week because I feel He guided me where I needed to go to get this done. I can't catch smallmouth at all and don't even know how I did this."
A random moment during practice provided the first clue that it might be a special week for Weidler.
"I just stumbled across a great area in Anchor Bay, and that was my primary spot," he said. "I went through it one day in practice. It was cold, and I'm an old man, so I decided to pull over instead of freezing running down the lake.
"I drifted through an area and caught a limit of 26 pounds in about two hours. I had two 6-pounders, and I was like, 'I might have found something here.' That's where I camped out all week."
Weidler placed 17th on day one with 20-8 and caught the same weight the next day to land in 13th. On day three, weighing 22-10 earned Weidler a Championship Sunday berth in eighth place. He began the final day facing a deficit of more than 2 1/2 pounds off the lead.
"I feel like I can go catch 25 or 26 pounds and win," Weidler said before leaving the dock the final morning.
Things started slowly. After two hours of fruitless effort, winning the event seemed unlikely. But there was something else at play. According to Weidler, listening to music – a particular song, actually – throughout the final day became a key factor in his most unexpected victory.
Cue the music …
"I recently came across a song called ‘Red Letters’ by Crowder. I really found a connection with this song,” Weidler said. “Every time I would play the song, I would get chills and then find fish. If I didn't play the song, it wasn't happening, so I would tap my headset and play the music and then find fish.
"I would also play it when I would hook a fish, and it kept me calm. The last thing you want to do is get overanxious and lose them. On day one, I lost a 5-pounder, and that cost me a really good start. I lost a couple on day two and then really started playing the song more on day three. When I hooked the fish, I would double-tap my headset, and it kept me calm."
Weidler caught three of his best fish between 9 and 10 a.m. on the final day. He caught fish throughout the day, but two big afternoon bass – a 4-4 and his second of two 5-plus-pounders – pushed him across the finish line with a final limit that weighed 22-13. It was enough to earn the win by just 8 ounces.
"It's crazy that I even won this event,” Weidler said. “I'm so out of my element right here. Paul Mueller should be sitting here holding this trophy, or Chris or Cory Johnston. Bill Weidler should be holding a trophy at Guntersville, not Lake St. Clair. That's the craziest thing about it."
Weidler, who runs a Triton 21 TrX bass boat powered by a Mercury 4.6L V8 250hp Pro XS outboard, bested fellow Mercury Pro Team members Cory Johnston (second), John Cox (third), Jake Whitaker (fifth), Chris Johnston (sixth), Shane Lehew (seventh) and Cody Hollen (eighth) to take the title and the $100,000 first-place prize.
With the trophy in hand, Weidler admitted to never listening to music while fishing a tournament before. Don't be surprised to see more anglers giving it a try now. And Weidler will most definitely have his AirPods in when the Elite Series returns to action Sept. 30-Oct. 3 at Lake Guntersville out of Scottsboro, Alabama.
Photo Credit: Dalton Tumblin