DAYTON, Tenn. — With the country's eyes fixed upon the green grass of Augusta, Georgia, another championship Sunday produced an improbable story in southeast Tennessee.
Local angler Andy Morgan defeated the world's top 80 anglers to win the fourth leg of the inaugural Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour in his hometown of Dayton, Tennessee, nearly setting a tournament one-day record of 80 pounds on the final day.
"Thank the Lord," Morgan exclaimed, lifting his hat in victory as the tournament clock expired. "Good Lord, what a battle."
He's one of the most decorated Fishing League Worldwide anglers in history — with the most-ever FLW Top 10 finishes and angler of the year titles in 2013, 2014 and 2016. The win pushed Morgan to more than $2.4 million in career winnings, according to MLF figures.
Morgan stayed in front all day Sunday as he and angler Jared Lintner pulled away from the field, competing for the tournament's top prize of $100,000 and the championship trophy. Lintner pulled as close as one pound and 13 ounces with about three hours remaining before the local fisherman reeled in several bass to push himself well clear of the field — including the biggest catch of the day up to that point at 6 pounds 9 ounces.
The finale of the six-day Bass Pro Tour Econo Lodge Stage Four tournament concluded with the final 10 anglers competing on Chickamauga Lake with no fish limit in a new tournament format developed by professional anglers for themselves.
Planning for the made-for-television tournament began in September with the help of anglers. The fishermen set the rules and the format that organizers hope will be used in future tournaments, helping the sport grow in popularity.
Each boat had an MLF official on-board. The officials weighed each fish as they were caught, documented the catch and immediately released the fish. The process avoided holding tanks and allowed for quicker releases which are better for the health of the fish. The changes also gave the tournament the flexibility to have a no fish limit. Every fish above one pound was counted toward the angler's tournament total, adding to the excitement as fishermen regularly and quickly caught and released fish throughout the week.
Other changes included live-leaderboards, giving fishermen real-time feedback on where they ranked. Many of the changes were made to put less emphasis on the fish caught and more emphasis on the personalities, the struggles, strategies, conflicts and emotions of anglers, according to MLF.
The tournament format and angler-driven ideas proved popular as the world's 80 leading fishermen signed on with the tournament for three years. The invitations-only tournament featured smaller prizes due to the lack of an entry fee that is common among other tournaments.
"They wanted a change and to have a voice in this," Bass Pro Tour Senior Director of Competitions Steve Core said. "That's a big thing, huge thing."
According to the contract, the anglers are allowed to fish other tournaments, but the Bass Pro Tour must take precedent, Core said.
The anglers also helped choose tournament locations, settling on stops in Florida, Texas and North Carolina leading up to the fourth leg on Chickamauga Lake at one of the country's top-ranked bass fishing lakes.
The tournament began Tuesday with 40 of the 80 anglers fishing Tuesday and Thursday while the other 40 fished Wednesday and Friday. Each angler's total weight for the two days was combined, and the top 20 from each group qualified for Saturday's knockout round.
Qualifying competitors then started over at 0 pounds on Saturday, with the top 10 moving to Sunday's championships round.
Sunday morning began with threatening weather and a one-hour delay as storms moved through the region.
Fishermen were given the choice to launch from any boat dock to limit traveling distance on the choppy water through strong wind. Typically, tournaments all start at the same site to ensure anglers launch at the same time, but the added luxury of an on-board official allowed the tournament to make the change.
Four other local fishermen took part in the tournament: Michael Neal, Wesley Strader, Jacob Wheeler and John Murray.
Neal qualified for championship Sunday, placing 10th and winning $12,000.
The tournament was live-streamed garnering millions of views — the Florida tournament, which started the season, recorded 19 million minutes viewed. Total audience for the Chickamauga event is not yet available. The tournament will be aired on the Discovery Channel in the early fourth quarter of this year.
The lead-up to the tournament featured community outreach. MLF officials partnered with the Rhea County Sheriff's Office for a toy drive, held an angler clinic at the county high school, participated in a meet-and-greet at the Tennessee Aquarium, took part in a sturgeon release, hosted a college fishing face-off between Bryan College and Bethel University, and were scheduled to take part in an event at a Chattanooga Lookouts game the was canceled due to weather.
"Outside of everything that goes into the tournament itself, MLF has a strong desire to make a positive economic impact on the communities that we visit and to use our platform to allow our professional anglers to further their relationships with their fan base, said Bass Pro Tour Vice President of Marketing John Acosta.