Observer | August 3, 1995
Ray Kerchal wandered through the wreckage of the plane and thought, How peaceful. It was a strange thought. He was standing in the place where his son had died just three days before.
“We were able to talk our way into the crash site,” Kerchal said. “I didn’t expect it to be out in the woods like that. You could smell the oil and such. But the sun was shining. The trees were beautiful. The trees were sheared off at an angle, like somebody took a saw and cut them . . . ”
“Like a path to the sky,” says his son’s girlfriend, Suzanne Dignon.
“Like a path to the sky,” Kerchal says. And then: “I thought, this reminds me of Taunton Lake.”
* * *
One year ago, Bryan Kerchal won the biggest tournament in bass
fishing - and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports.
Kerchal, a 23-year-old amateur, beat the best pros in the world
in the BASS Masters Classic at High Rock Lake outside
Pro bass fishing doesn’t have the high profile of football or NASCAR, but it has quietly turned into a big-money sport. Between winnings and endorsements, many top pros make more than $100,000 a year. Kerchal cleared $150 a week as a short-order cook. He lived with his mom and dad.
“Most of the field had 10, 15, 20 years more experience than Bryan did,” says Rick Clunn, a four-time winner of the Classic. “He didn’t have nearly the knowledge that the rest of the field had. But I’ll trade all the knowledge in the world for enthusiasm and belief in yourself.
“As you get older in this sport, technology takes over. For a lot of fishermen, it steals the passion out of what they do. But mentally, all young people tend to have this belief in the impossible.”
Today the Classic comes back to High Rock Lake, and the people will remember Bryan Kerchal, who will not be there to defend his title. On Dec. 13 - less than five months after he won the Classic - Kerchal died when American Eagle Flight 3379 crashed in rain and fog outside Raleigh. Fourteen other people died in the crash.
The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society - the group that runs the Classic - will honor Bryan this weekend. Bryan’s parents, Ray and Ronnie Kerchal, will be there. So will his sister, Deana Kerchal, and his girlfriend, Suzanne Dignon.They all have their own memories of Bryan. And so many of those memories lead to one place. Taunton Lake.
The Kerchals moved to Newtown, Conn., when Bryan was 10. They lived over down Pocono Road; Taunton Lake was just a couple miles away. Pretty soon, anytime his folks couldn't find him, they figured he was out on the lake.
It’s a small lake, 350 acres. A fish and game club owns most of the land around it, so the banks are lined with trees instead of houses. No powerboats. No water skiers. Kerchal spent thousands and thousands of hours there. He learned to catch fish, learning where they lived, learning how to fool them into taking the bait. As he grew older he released everything he caught. He refused to eat fish. Even as a boy, bad nerves and a terrible shyness ground away at Bryan Kerchal. They ate at him nearly his entire life.
One thing calmed him. Fishing. One place calmed him. Taunton Lake.
* * *
Ray Kerchal remembers one time he took his son to a pier down on the Connecticut coast, 30 people fishing, nobody getting bites. Bryan walked up, dropped his bait over the side and caught a flounder. Then he did it again.
“It was instinct, touch, I don’t know what," Ronnie Kerchal says. “I used to think they smelled him.”
When he fished he was loose. Other times he tightened.
“Even with kids he played with every day, kids who he knew their parents, he would still want me to walk over with him and knock on the door to see if they could play,” Ronnie says. “He was just so shy.”
He liked other sports - baseball, football, soccer - but mostly just in pickup games with friends. Around crowds - especially around his parents - nerves got to him.
“We’d have to give him his Pepto-Bismol before every game,” his mother says.
By the time Bryan got to Newtown High, the shyness and nerves had fermented inside him. To his friends, he was funny and honest. But he didn’t make many friends. He worried that people thought he was arrogant. He tried to be a bully but gave it up when one of his victims chewed him out for being mean.
“He almost hid his good qualities, because he was afraid other people would not like him because of it,” his mother says.
He wrote poetry:
The reason I go fishin all by myself
Is to sort out my problems.
Put them up on the shelf . . .
Sometimes I just sit there
I sit there and cry
Sometimes I sit there
And let time pass me by.
Bryan graduated from Newtown High in 1989 without much idea of what he wanted to do. He thought marine biology so he could work with fish. He went to North Salem State in Massachusetts for a semester. He hated it. He spent most of the semester reading a copy of BASSMaster magazine. Over and over he read the stories of people who fish for a living.
On a trip home he had a talk with his mom.
She asked: What do you really want to do?
He said: I want to be a pro fisherman.
What would it take?
I need a truck and a boat.
For Christmas that year, Ray and Ronnie Kerchal bought their son a toy truck and toy bass boat. Not long after, they helped him buy real ones.
* * *
On one of their first dates, Bryan took Suzanne to Taunton Lake. Later, whenever they argued - typical boyfriend-girlfriend stuff - they always made up the same way. They bought deli sandwiches and took them to the lake.
“We could always go there and talk it out,” she says. “We always resolved all our problems there. Everything was fixed at Taunton Lake.”
One night, watching TV, they came across an episode of “Northern Exposure.” On the show, Ed tries to buy his friend Ruth-Anne the perfect gift. He decides to buy her a tiny piece of land so she can be buried in her favorite place - a cliff with a breathtaking view of the Alaskan mountains.
Afterward, Bryan and Suzanne got to talking about where they’d want their final resting place to be. Bryan had no doubts.
* * *
Bryan Kerchal figured out tournament bass fishing in a hurry. More than 30,000 amateur anglers compete each year in a series of tournaments - local, state, regional - for just five amateur spots in the BASS Masters Classic's 40-man field. It’s a huge long shot just to get in.
Kerchal beat the odds two years in a row. In 1993 - just four years after getting the toy bass boat for Christmas - Kerchal won the Eastern regional tournament and qualified for the Classic at Lake Logan Martin in Alabama. He was one of the youngest qualifiers ever. He finished last.
“I didn’t even feel like I deserved to be there,” he would say later. “I was just a nervous wreck.”
He used to escape his nerves by heading for the water. Now they followed him there. He couldn’t sleep before a tournament, even the small club contests. He clenched his teeth until it made his gums sore. He was still living with Ray and Ronnie, still working part-time at the Ground Round.
“It was one of the sacrifices he made, working there so he could fish during the day,” Suzanne Dignon says. “It was a real problem, not having a career. He didn’t feel like a real man sometimes.”
But just making it into the Classic got him a break. Wrangler - which sponsors several top amateurs every year - paid Kerchal’s entry fees for seven pro tournaments in 1993-94. He never finished higher than 23rd and won just $6,500 (amateurs on the pro bass tour keep their money - they just don’t fish as pros full-time).
But out on the road, something happened. Somehow Kerchal shed the nerves, the shyness, the fear that had knotted him for so long. He gave speeches without notes at sponsors' events. He helped with seminars. He slept better.
“During the last year his personality just blossomed,” Ray Kerchal says. “None of us really know what happened.”
Maybe it was the Dale Carnegie course he took. Maybe it was being on the road on his own. Or maybe he decided to live the rest of his life the way he lived when he was on Taunton Lake. Bryan tore up the amateur tour in 1994. He won the Eastern regionals again and qualified for the ’94 Classic at High Rock Lake. This time he promised to have fun.
“We talked a lot about getting in touch with his inner self, just going with a feeling,” Ronnie Kerchal says. “He would start saying, These people know so much more about fishing than me,’ and we would say, Bryan, when you were a little boy, it never entered your head that you couldn’t catch something.’ As it got closer, he really wanted to enjoy the Classic this time around.”
Most pro bass tournaments come down to patterns. Fishermen play the water like a game of Clue, trying all kinds of combinations - how about a spinnerbait, 2 feet deep, between the tree stumps? Before each Classic, most fishermen come to the lake a few weeks in advance to practice. Kerchal came to High Rock and spent six days with hardly a nibble. He tried nearly every lure in his tackle box.
He went out again on a Wednesday. Still nothing. His practice time was running out. Keep this up and he could finish last again. All the pressure. The pressure that used to keep him up all night. Not this time. Kerchal took a nap. Right there in the boat.
He woke up half an hour later and felt fresh and confident. He was near Abbotts Creek, off the main lake, and he headed toward a row of docks there. He pulled up close to the first dock and pitched a plastic worm up next to a piling. He caught a 5-pound bass. Then six more fish in the next hour and a half.
The bass were biting at the same point on each dock - right where the fixed pilings attached to the floating platform. Kerchal had found the pattern. The year before, over the three days of the ’93 Classic, he had caught three bass. On the first day of the ’94 Classic, he caught 15.
Ronnie Kerchal just shakes her head and smiles. “That day was spectacular,” she says.
The tournament limit is five bass per day, so Kerchal kept his five biggest. His total of 11 pounds, 2 ounces put him in fourth place.
The next day was even better. Another five-fish limit (14 pounds, 1 ounce). He took the lead.
On the last day, the people who run the Classic try to make bass fishing look like Broadway.
Laser shows and fireworks lit up the Greensboro Coliseum, where the fishermen would come for the weigh-in. More than 25,000 people showed up to watch. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society folks wanted to set it up for high drama.
As the boats arrived outside the coliseum, tournament officials checked each fisherman’s catch. They tried to guess who had won the Classic. They wanted that person to weigh in last.
The boats were called in one by one until there were two left. Kerchal was in one. An Oklahoma pro named Tommy Biffle was in the other. Kerchal was called in first. He sat in his boat and waved to the crowd as a truck pulled him around the floor of the coliseum, then stopped next to the platform. Kerchal reached into his livewell, where the fish are kept on the boat. He had another five-bass limit.
He pulled out the last two at the same time, the fish flopping as he gripped them by the lip and the crowd roared. He ended up with 36 pounds, 7 ounces for the tournament. He led Biffle by just over 19 pounds.
Then Biffle rode to the platform. He had a limit too. And he had caught a monster - 6 pounds 8 ounces, the biggest fish in the whole tournament. Biffle put his fish in a plastic bag for the weigh-in. Kerchal stared up at the blank screen on the electric scale. At the spot where the number of pounds would flash.
A 19 meant he would probably lose. An 18 and he would win. The
scale wobbled, then balanced. The number flashed.
The people lining up the boats had guessed wrong. Kerchal won by 4 ounces.
“That was just . . . ” Ray Kerchal says. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to tell you.”
The next few days were a flurry. Lure makers, boat builders - everybody wanted Kerchal to endorse their products. Everybody wanted to write him a check. Kerchal was from the North and could help bass fishing grow there. He was also young and handsome - from the right angle, he looked a little like Bruce Springsteen.
Ray Kerchal says his son just wanted to make enough to fish full-time. Still, with the few contracts he had, he was set to make at least $1 million over the next six years or so. Kerchal quit the Ground Round - he gave his boss a bottle of Beefeater gin as a goodbye gift. And he started life as a pro bass fisherman.
“I’m still so unfamiliar with everything that goes along with this,” he said the day he won the Classic. “I really have no idea of what to expect or what’s coming.”
* * *
One thing still made Bryan Kerchal nervous: flying.
He had quit smoking but he smoked a couple of cigarettes before every flight. He asked where the safest seats were. He wondered why they didn’t give everybody a parachute.
Kerchal had to fly a lot now. Business trips. The weekend of Dec. 10, he flew to Mexico for a fishing trip and magazine interview. On the way back he stopped in Greensboro. That Tuesday, Dec. 13, Wrangler was having an employee appreciation party. Kerchal stayed all day, hanging out with everybody, even helping set up tables.
At the Greensboro airport, about 5:45 p.m., he boarded American Eagle Flight 3379. It was a short hop in a small plane. Raleigh-Durham International Airport was just 70 miles away. The twin-engine Jetstream 3200 had 20 people on board.
Flight 3379 would connect with a flight to La Guardia Airport in New York. Suzanne drove down from Newtown to pick Bryan up. She didn't want to park - that would have cost her $4 - so she drove by the main entrance. He wasn't there. She circled again and again. She started to get ticked off. She finally parked.
When she walked into the terminal she heard her name being called on the loudspeaker. She laughed. She knew what had happened. Bryan had missed the flight and was calling to tell her he was sorry. She was still laughing when she got to the service desk and told them who she was. The woman at the desk started shaking.
Then Suzanne saw two men coming toward her. They wore suits and carried walkie-talkies. She remembered: Bryan has a minor heart condition. Maybe he had to go to the hospital. The men guided her toward a room across the lobby. They wouldn't tell her anything. She ran ahead to the door. Tell me anything, she said. Just tell me there hasn't been a plane crash.
I’m sorry, they said. There has.
In Newtown the phone rang. It was somebody with Wrangler. They told Ray and Ronnie the plane had gone down.
“We turned the TV on. I can remember screaming,” Ronnie says. “They said there were survivors. I knew he wasn’t one. I ran and got all his pictures out.”
They didn’t find out for sure until 2 a.m. that Bryan was dead. Just five of the 20 people on board survived. The plane crashed four miles from the airport. Federal investigators still don't know exactly why.
A week later, back in Newtown, the memorial service turned into a celebration. Friend after friend stepped up to speak. Deana danced a ballet in her brother's honor. People talked and laughed and remembered.
“All the sharing was wonderful,” his mother says. “But still, I think that what we were experiencing was the same thing all parents and friends experience. It just hurts.”
“I wanted to see him, but the funeral home discouraged us from looking at him," Suzanne says. “There’s something so weird about knowing somebody so intimately, and then suddenly he passes into the hands of strangers and you never get to see him again.”
They couldn’t just leave it at that. So there was one thing left to do. Bryan Kerchal would make one last trip to Taunton Lake.
* * *
They went out in Bryan’s bass boat. Suzanne, and Deana, and Tom Cutler, Bryan’s best friend. Ray and Ronnie stayed on the bank.
The boat curved away from Ray and Ronnie and barely rippled the water as Tom guided it to the point, down the right-hand edge, just off the bank. Bryan's favorite spot. They got there and Tom cut the motor. Nobody said much.
Tom and Suzanne and Deana took Bryan’s ashes in their hands. Then they let go and the ashes found the water of Taunton Lake.
* * *
Seven months later, on Independence Day, family and friends gather at the Kerchal house to talk about Bryan. His blue Ford truck still sits in the yard.
Suzanne sleeps in Bryan’s old room now. Erik Hamilton, one of Bryan’s old friends, is living at the house too. Everybody - Ray, Ronnie, Deana, Suzanne, Erik, Bryan's fishing buddy Frankie Giner - sits around for hours, remembering Bryan, filling in the details, wondering about fate.
After awhile just Ray and Ronnie are left. Ray sets up the old projector on the back of the sofa. Ronnie dims the lights. The old 8mm film, washed-out and grainy, flickers on the living room wall.
Bryan was 6 years old and the family was on vacation at a cabin on the Fox River in Illinois. Bryan got bored. Someone found an old steel fishing rod. They scrounged up line, a hook, some worms. Bryan walked out on a little dock and dipped the line in the water. He had never fished before.
In the living room the projector buzzes softly as Bryan appears in the light. The steel rod twitches and Bryan jerks the rod back. A tiny catfish pops out of the water, hooked. Bryan’s first fish. It is all over in just a few seconds. Ray rewinds the film so they can watch again.
Reprinted with permission of the Charlotte Observer.