Inside the Tournament Trail For February 11, 2003

By Tim Tucker
B.A.S.S. Publications Senior Writer

At first glance, it looked like a kid had sneaked into one of the brightly colored boats belonging to the finalists in last week's CITGO Bassmaster Tour event presented by Busch Beer on Lake Seminole - sort of reminiscent of San Francisco Giants' manager Dusty Baker's batboy son nearly getting run over at home plate in the recent World Series.

At barely 5 feet tall and with a baby face that betrays his 20 years, Casey Iwai could easily be mistaken for one of the youthful fish-runners that helped out at the Bainbridge, Ga., tournament. But he destroyed any such assumptions with the sack of bass that he lifted from the livewell.

Iwai (pronounced EEE-Y) proved that he certainly belonged with his four-day catch of nearly 60 pounds and third-place showing amidst a field that included the biggest, most experienced names in professional fishing.

"I'm just thrilled with my finish," the Arizona kid said. "This is awesome."

Although he grew up in Phoenix ("not really a hub of bass fishing," he admits), Iwai's success is part of a plan that was first hatched before he was old enough to drive a boat.

"I knew when I was 7 years old that I wanted to do this for a living," Iwai said. "My dad and I were sitting in the car driving somewhere and talking about fishing, which was my favorite subject. I turned to him and said 'I want to be a professional bass fisherman.' I was 7 years old.

"I had heard about it somewhere. To this day, I don't know exactly what got me thinking about it. My dad wasn't really into fishing and none of my close relatives were. But my grandparents had always fished. I had heard about bass tournaments somewhere, and I was just fascinated with the sport. It's so complex. There are so many different intricacies about bass fishing."

It was a dream that he pursued diligently.

"I just lived and breathed bass fishing," recalled Iwai, who is half-Japanese. "By my senior year of high school I was missing 30 days a semester - still maintaining a B average - going to tournaments and really just focusing on my career. I knew this was what I wanted to do. It's just been my dream.

"I got my start on the western tournaments. I cut my teeth on WON Bass, and when BASS came out west, I got real excited. I knew that was what I wanted to fish, but I hadn't been able to because I was still in high school. Two years ago when I graduated, as soon as I was done I hit the trail and started fishing BASS.

"I fished the Western Invitationals for two years and was always consistent. That's really been my goal all along. Of course, I want to win as much as the next guy. But I know to get to the Classic, you've got to get your five fish a day. And that's something that I've really keyed in on. And I did well enough to qualify for the Tour."

Iwai was asked if he was ever intimidated by his older, considerably more seasoned fellow competitors.

"Not at all, to be honest with you," he said. "I don't want this to come off as sounding arrogant, because I give these guys nothing but the greatest of respect. But my view going into this was that you have to be concerned mostly with yourself.

"I know what I can do. If it's good enough to beat the likes of Klein or whoever, then that's fine. If it doesn't, that's certainly fine, too, because these guys were all my role models. It was my dream to fish against these guys. So I go out and do what I can do."

GOOD KARMA. When he was being interviewed during the Tour practice period on Lake Seminole for last week's notes column as the Busch BASS Angler of the Year leader, Jim Bitter remarked: "You'd better hurry up and run it because I won't be the leader after this week."

The 60-year-old Florida pro proved to be a lousy prognosticator. Bitter notched his second finals appearance in the first three Tour events of 2003 and finished sixth. That gives him a 38-point lead over fellow Floridian Terry Scroggins, who clung to second place. California pro Skeet Reese is third, followed by Texan Gary Klein who moved up with the victory at Seminole.

So Bitter pocketed another $1,000 bonus and proudly sports the special Busch BASS Angler of the Year leader life vest. "I guess I must have some karma or something," he said.

DID YOU KNOW? Klein first served notice on the fishing world in 1979 that he would be a force to be reckoned with when he won the second BASS event he fished at the age of 22 - and then went on to nearly wrestle the Angler of the Year trophy away from veteran Roland Martin in his rookie year.

Since then, Klein, 45, has gone on to win two Busch BASS Angler of the Year awards, eight BASS tournaments, earn an impressive 20 Classic appearances and pocket more than $1 million.

PRO BIRTHDAYS. Missouri's Stacey King will be 54 years young on Feb. 21, while Indiana's Chip Harrison turns 41 on Feb. 23. Charlie Youngers of Florida becomes 51 on Feb. 25th.

IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... CITGO Bassmaster Southern Open pro Jeff Coble of North Carolina would still be in the boat-selling business, which he calls "my real job" today. A regional sales rep for Triton Boats, the 2002 Classic qualifier had been in the boat business for years before becoming a tournament pro.

THEY SAID IT. "My strengths are mental and confidence, more than anything else. I don't waste much time in unproductive water, which comes from experience. I think I have good instincts, too. A lot of times, I don't even know where I'm going to fish until I get in the boat that morning. There's just no substitute for experience." Three-time Busch BASS Angler of the Year and former Classic winner Larry Nixon.

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