MONETA, Va. As Skeet Reese scooped his fish out of his livewell and bagged them, one slipped out for a second and nearly went flopping. Reese got a hand around the fish and tossed it in the big water bag. "That could have gotten ugly," he said.
It was an hour before weigh-in at the Blue Ridge Brawl presented by Advance Auto Parts, and the gathered Bassmaster Elite Series pros knew they were facing a close finish. Across the dock, Dean Rojas started walking his bag toward the stage. "Good luck, Skeet," he said.
Skeet, engrossed, took a second to respond. "Thanks, Dean," he called. Then, almost to himself: "I don't think I've got enough."
About that, Reece was right. Once again. After rookie Casey Ashley did just enough to hang onto his Day Three lead and win the event, Reese (4th place, 53 pounds, 3 ounces) was once again left shy of an elusive Elite Series win. Ditto that for Terry Scroggins, a.k.a. Big Show, who finished second with 55-3.
Along the way, Ashley also claimed the scalps of two recent Bassmaster Classic champions: 2004 winner Takahiro Omori, who finished third with 53-15; and reigning champ Boyd Duckett, who faded from his Days One and Two lead to finish sixth with 52-7.
The loss and for them, by now, anything not a win must be considered such hit Reese and Scroggins hardest.
Reese's year has been phenomenal by any standard except winning. Tops in the Angler of the Year race this year by a growing margin, Reese finished sixth last month at Clarks Hill, second at Clear Lake, fourth in the California Delta, ninth at Lake Amistad and second, behind Duckett, at the Classic in February. Scroggins finished fourth at the previous Elite Series event at Lake Guntersville and seventh in this year's Classic.
Ashley, by contrast, has one other top-10 finish this year, at Clarks Hill. His fellow rookie Derek Remitz took the win at Amistad in March.
"I did the best I could do," Reese said. "It feels good to know I put myself in contention in several tournaments," he said, sticking a little on the word "several."
"It would just be nice to get a break," he continued. "You start calculating the math, you put yourself in position enough times, you're going to win one."
Scroggins had more than a small hand in Ashley's even fishing this tour in the first place. At two Florida tournaments last year, he encouraged the young angler and his father, Danny, to take the step to the Elites. To the big show, in other words.
Danny said that when his son made the Elites, he called Scroggins and told him he was holding him responsible for the $55,000 in entry fees, plus expenses, for Casey to fish the Series.
"He laughed," Danny said Sunday. "He says, 'You'll make it.'"
Scroggins didn't scrimp on the encouragement even as he chased the young Ashley this week.
"Terry sat me down last night and said, 'Don't worry about nothing. Just go out there and fish. If you get 10 pounds, you're going to win,'" Ashley said after the weigh-in.
When he was presented with the list of anglers in his immediate wake, he struggled to find the words to describe how he felt. He settled on: "It's more of an honor to beat those guys. I still look up to those guys as much as I did when I started the tour. They're the best in the world."
Scroggins began Day Four a full 7-11 behind Ashley. But he nearly caught him. He ran new water all day, jamming on topwater, but didn't think he'd have a shot until the bite on his shaky head turned on late.
"I thought if I could get one more big bite, I'd have a chance," he said.
Near a point, he threw his worm and got a 3-pounder on, then lost it halfway to the boat. He hooked another 3-pounder, only to watch it, too, shake off the bait.
All seemed lost until he bagged a 4-8. He knew he'd have a shot, and by the time Ashley weighed in, Scroggins was on the hot seat, the last man to beat, signing hats that fans passed to him and grinning his 120-watt smile.
Ashley needed 7-10 to tie Scroggins. His four fish went 9-10. Before Ashley even finished pumping his fist, Scroggins was making his way to the stage. He tried to smile, but his bottom lip kept tucking itself against his teeth. He hugged Danny Ashley, then took the stage to congratulate the 23-year-old champion.
"You've got to be good to put yourself in contention," Scroggins said afterward, "but it takes a little luck to win."