Lebanon's Tony Eckler will fish a professional bass tournament this week on Old Hickory Lake that could become, in his words, "a life-changing experience."
Eckler is one of 87 anglers vying for a $100,000 first-place prize and a slot in next year's prestigious Bassmaster Classic. Another Lebanon angler, Daniel Johnson, also is in the tournament field.
"To win a cash prize like that and to get into the Bassmaster Classic -- I don't think I can put into words what it would mean to me," says Eckler. "It would be a life-changing experience."
The tournament, fished out of Saunders Ferry, opened on Wednesday. The field will be paired down to 28 finalists who will compete on the final day, Saturday, Nov. 9, for the Bassmasters Weekend Series National Championship and the giant paycheck.
The winner is determined by the fisherman with the biggest total weight during the tournament. The daily limit is five bass. The anglers, each sharing a boat with a non-tournament "co-angler," bring in their five biggest for each day's official weigh-in.
Eckler said the fact that the tournament is being held on his "home" lake gives him an edge.
"The majority of tournaments like this one are won by fishermen from the area where the tournament is held," he said. "That's understandable, because those fishermen have spent a lot of time fishing their area lakes, just as I've spent a lot of time on Old Hickory. Knowing the lake is a huge advantage."
Eckler was a standout quarterback, safety and placekicker at Lebanon High (Class of '89) who went on to play at Tennessee Tech as a safety and placekicker from 1989-93. He currently works for a pressure-washing and sealing company.
Eckler, who is single, became involved in tournament fishing six years ago, "fishing some of the smaller local tournaments around here. I did pretty good, and kept moving up."
Eckler advanced to this week's Weekend Series National Championship by advancing through five divisional tournaments, then on through regional qualifiers from which the 87 finalists emerged.
"I've done pretty good so far," he said. "I feel fairly confident going into this week."
There is a huge drop-off from the $100,000 first-place prize to the second place payoff of $15,000. Third place pays $5,800, fourth $4,000, and on down through the field.
"There's obviously a lot of incentive to finish first," Eckler says. "Not just to collect that $100,000 check, but also to get that slot in next year's Bassmasters Classic on Lake Guntersville. That's the big-league of pro fishing, with major sponsors. It's a career-maker."
With so much on the line, and being considered among the tournament favorites, does Eckler feel pressure?
"No, it's not really pressure," said the former place-kicker on whose toe games sometimes hinged. "But I'm definitely excited about the opportunity I have. It's a chance that a lot of fishermen only dream about, and I'm determined to do my best to cash in on it."