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THOMAS WINS $100,000 IN BASS TOURNEY

Joe Thomas' five bass weighed 6 pounds, 11 ounces Saturday, and that was enough for him to stay on top and win the $100,000 top prize in the Red Man All-American fishing tournament.

The 28-year-old professional angler from Cincinnati, who took the lead with 17 pounds, 2 ounces worth of bass caught Friday, finished almost three pounds ahead ahead of James Parker of Fayetteville, Ark., who won $20,000 in the two-day event.

The championship was decided behind the Lake Erie breakwaters after Operation Bass officials declared the gale-raked lake off-limits for tourney anglers just minutes before the 7 a.m. start.

"Today, Operation Bass made a totally correct decision," Thomas told a crowd of 4,000 who stomped and cheered through the final weigh-in of the tourney's 10 top finishers in the Convention Center.

"I don't believe any lives would have been lost, but you surely saved some busted-up equipment and probably prevented some injuries."

Thomas, who was joined on the podium by his parents and his fiancee, Diane Matthai, said the win would mean an untold boost to his professional fishing career, as well as a good start to his marriage Aug. 2.

"We were worried about a lot of little odds and ends about our wedding," said Matthai, "but now we are going to have one terrific party."

The victory was especially sweet for Thomas, who in 1984 dropped out of the University of Cincinnati, where he was studying fish biology, to pursue a professional angling career.

"I came here either to win or lose completely," Thomas said after what is probably his Red Man finale. He has decided to compete in Operation Bass' new Golden Blend pro-am circuit and in the Bass Angler Sportsman Society (BASS) pro circuit this year.

"With 22 major tournaments on tap for me, there would be too many schedule conflicts to qualify again for this event, so I really wanted to win it," he said. "The Red Man circuit has been very good to me, and this is a great way to leave."

Thomas said the 1990 Buffalo All-American was really "two different tournaments."

Friday, he fished Lake Erie two miles from Sturgeon Point.

"Today, it was a different fishing altogether," he said. "The one spot I had located on the Niagara River, near the safety zone above Niagara Falls, just did not produce any fish this morning, so it was just mechanical fishing. I told my press observer I was going to throw a lure at anything that was not nailed down -- and that's just what I did: every rock, every stump, every piling, every dock in every marina."

Thomas, who has the build of an angling Arnold Schwarzenegger, stood for his work on the bow of the bassboat, flipping a half-ounce, chartreuse and white spinnerbait in short tosses that moved the flashing lure precisely around every inch of every spot that might conceivably hold a smallmouth bass.

When he felt a strike, he jerked the fish aboard, eyeballing it for size and shaking anything under 12 inches off the hook with a deft flip that wasted not a second. The fish he kept were put into the aerated livewell where, once he had a five-fish limit, he could "cull" the smallest with each successive catch so he could weigh the five largest.

All fish caught in the tourney were released, alive, in Lake Erie.

Thomas said he also made short casts Friday, using a 5-inch chartreuse plastic grub on a quarter-ounce chartreuse jig head.

"I fished 10-pound test Stren line, which many people feel is pretty heavy for grub fishing, but I believe the heavier line made for the slow fall needed to catch fish," he said. "You always catch them on the fall (of the lure) and hook them when you snap the lure off the bottom.

He used a stiff, fast-action casting rod 6 feet long to give him the "violent snap" he needed to work the lure properly and set the hook.

Parker -- whose five fish Saturday weighed 5 pounds, 3 ounces -- said he caught his fish in Lake Erie Friday on a Gitzit plastic jig and also switched to spinnerbaits in the river Saturday.

"I found a little muddy creek down there on the Niagara just like the little muddy creeks at home, and that helped," he said.

Parker, 52, who will retire from the Army's Special Forces next year, said he plans to spend his retirement as a tournament fisherman.

"I'm happy to win second place" he said, "but sure, I'm disappointed.

"Let's face it, all of the fellows here are out to win. But fishing is a humbling sport -- there's no question of that.

"The money is good, of course, but being a winner means something special. I still have my first tournament trophy from 20 years ago. It was a little event run by a bass club so new the trophy doesn't even have a bass on it -- it has a runner holding up both arms -- but I still keep it on the shelf."

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