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Wirth rides fish success to golf dream

Kevin Wirth's toying with the idea of shooting for golf's Champions Tour when he's age eligible five years from now. But that all depends on how much time he can put into his game, time being hard to come by for a full-time member of the Bassmaster fishing circuit.

But, then again, when Wirth, 45, makes up his mind to try something he's known to give it all. Which is how he ended up fishing for a living in the first place after a brief but nondescript career as a jockey, unless you consider riding in the Kentucky Derby an accomplishment.

As you might imagine, there are more than a few stories of interest on the Bassmasters tour. Edwin Evers, who Sunday earned $100,000 for winning the Empire Chase on Lake Erie, played strong safety and defensive end at Southeastern Oklahoma State. Greg Hackney turned to pro fishing after opening a guide service that no one bothered to contract. Given his fifth-place finish Sunday and career earnings of almost $800,000, it's apparent that a whole bunch of people missed that boat.

But when it comes to life stories among Bassmasters it's Wirth's that is top weight. He grew up in Crestwood, Ky., amidst a family immersed in thoroughbred racing, and went on to become a jockey. Wirth must have had some talent because he took the 1981 Stepping Stone Purse at Churchill Downs aboard Mythical Ruler, winning a stretch duel with Classic Go Go and Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye. When the horse, trained by Wirth's father, ran in the Derby, Kevin rode and started from the 20th post in 21-horse field.

"He's still running," Wirth said of Mythical Ruler, who was fifth at the half before fading to 17th. "Growing up in the thoroughbred industry, that's what everybody strived for. It was an honor to be able to do it. But once we went and loaded in the gate it's just another race."

Wirth has had a lifelong passion for fishing but rarely hit the water during his days as a jockey.

"I had a friend who owned a tackle store," Wirth said. "He'd always ask me to fish in tournaments and I never had time. Eventually one day when I got hurt and quit riding he gave me a call and asked me if I wanted to go fish a tournament. I said sure. And I had two rods and one little bitty old tackle box. I went to fish the tournament and never caught a fish. But then I remembered about guys making a living doing it and I just decided that's what I was going to do."

Fish? For a living? His relatives looked like they'd swallowed worms.

"My whole family's in the thoroughbred industry, my side of the family and my wife's and family," he said. "She has a brother and a sister and a father that trains and I have a dad that's retired now that trains, and a brother that trains and [is a] jockey's agent. Nobody could understand about fishing until my career started to take an upswing and started going. I probably got about 60 calls last night from all of them, wishing me well."

Wirth has been entering bass tournaments since 1985 and fishing full time since about 1990. His seventh-place finish here, good for $15,000, upped his career Bassmasters earnings to almost $620,000. He estimates his haul in all tournaments at more than $1 million. He's near the top of his profession, but there's golf whispering in his ear.

"I carry about a 2 handicap," Wirth said. "If I get to work on my game for three or four months solid, I'll take it down to scratch."

Champions Tour? "I would like to try to qualify," he said. "That'll be a difficult task. I got to put a lot of work into my game. It's a matter of getting the time."

Like we haven't heard that before.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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