The 1997 New York Eastern Invitational on the St. Lawrence River was the second of Rick Lillegard’s two Bassmaster wins. A little less than two years earlier, he’d won the Maryland Eastern Invitational on the Potomac by a massive 11-pound 7-ounce margin over second-place finisher Pete Gluszek. In New York, the gap wasn’t quite that large, but he still managed to beat runner up Clark Wendlandt by more than four pounds.
The tournament was only 17 years ago, but while many of the anglers in the field still fish at the highest levels, the only member of the top 10 who fished in Elite Series competition is South Carolina’s Ray Sedgwick, who last fished the Elites in 2008.
One member of the top 10 continues to attend every Elite Series event, though. It’s fourth place finisher Mark Zona, fishing the fifth of nine B.A.S.S. events in which he competed. His inaugural Bassmaster tournament was on the same waterway in 1995, and he finished a dismal 101st, so the 1997 event marked a substantial improvement in his performance. It wasn’t his best Bassmaster effort, though. In his final event (as far as we know) in 2005, he finished 3rd in a Northern Open on Lake Champlain. If you look down the standings sheet you’ll see that he did not yet call Michigan home – his address was listed as “Homewood, Illinois.”
Lillegard competed in the 1995 and 2002 Bassmaster Classics, finishing 39th and 37th, respectively. Those two tournaments were held in North Carolina and Alabama, states in which he never notched a Top 20 in B.A.S.S. competition – he earned four in Maryland, three in Georgia, and two “up north” (New York and Vermont) on his way to amassing $172,300 in B.A.S.S. winnings.
Back to the 1997 New York Invitational.
Many members of the field made the potentially treacherous run to Lake Ontario, but Lillegard had a “magic spot” in the river that could’ve made his gas bill light and his run short and easy. He didn’t quite know what he had when the tournament started, so he and first day partner Bob Pastick made the run out into the big lake. On Day Two, though, the wind blew, and he and his partner Tom Mann Jr. (who eventually finished in 10th) had to seek out calmer waters partway through the day. They headed to the spot and according to Bassmaster’s Steve Price, “within 10 casts they were able to cull everything they’d caught earlier, and they left.”
Here’s how Price described Lillegard’s winning location: “On the surface, the spot shows nothing to distinguish it from any other place on the river. Below the surface, however, it must be paradise. A rocky point perhaps 20 yards wide extends about 30 yards into the water. It drops classically from 3 to 5 feet to 10, 12, 18 and 30 feet before plunging deeper, and green coontail moss grows out to about 12 feet.”
Wendlandt led after Day Two, but Lillegard got an assist from his final day partner Bill Corbin, who didn’t make a cast until Lillegard had a limit in the boat. In fact, he handed him rods and took care of his fish as the New Hampshire pro worked his magic. The fishing wasn’t fast and furious all day long – he had to rest the spot throughout the course of the day and then return occasionally to cull up to his final daily weight of 17-11. Meanwhile, Wendlandt could only boat four fish that day.
Lillegard fished the last of his 83 Bassmaster tournaments in October of 2003.
In order to win this week’s trivia contest, be the first to answer the following four questions correctly in the comments section below:
- What style of lure did Lillegard use to catch all of his weigh fish?
- What lure did Jay Yelas use to finish 5th?
- Who caught the big fish of the tournament?
- If Zona’s best finish in BASS competition was 3rd place, why did his wife get him a license plate that read “Zona 2”?
The answers and winner will be announced Thursday. Good Luck!