There was a pivotal moment in their attempted title defence that changed everything for Troy Norman and Jay Samsal.
“The biggest challenge we had came [Friday] at 10 a.m.,” recounted Norman, who lives in Fort Frances.
“We had some poor misfortune not landing fish and lost three kings that five years ago [would] have ruined our day,” he noted.
“But we stayed focused and kept our nose to the grindstone, and carried on.”
That determination paid off in the form of the $20,000 first-place cheque as Norman and Samsal, from Kenora, successfully retained their Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship crown Saturday to become only the fourth pair of back-to-back winners in the tournament's 23-year history.
The pair bettered their mark of 53.42 pounds from a year ago to weigh in at 55.23 this time around.
They led after Day 1 with 19.18 pounds, which included the big fish of the day (4.83).
But they lost the lead on Day 2 when Oliver Gibbins (Morson) and Mike Gate (Nestor Falls) elbowed past them with a huge 19.58-pound bag to lift them from third place to first.
“Oliver and Mike were on our minds all day,” conceded Samsal, who helped Norman catch 18.33 pounds on Day 2 before finishing with 17.72 on Day 3.
“We thought with what we had we might end up a pound or so short,” he noted.
But Gibbins and Gate couldn't maintain the magic they had going the first two days, settling for a Day 3 total of 14.64 pounds to finish in second place at 52.49.
“The game plan came together perfect for us,” said Norman.
“We figured a couple of different things out there, and let the weather and the fish tell us what to do,” chimed in Samsal.
Norman lauded the tournament organizers and the community for throwing what seems to be growing support behind the event, which has seen angler numbers increase the past two years from 79 to 89 to this year's field of 95.
“This tournament brings the community together as one,” he stressed.
"It showcases the community as a whole.
“They put on a great event here and really, for the youth who come out to watch, it's a great experience for them to look forward to come out every year,” Norman added.
Winning the FFCBC once is tough enough, twice even more so.
That makes the spectre of trying to match five-time champions Joe Thrun (Annandale, Mn.) and Jim Moynagh (Carver, Mn.) as the only team to win three-straight titles a daunting task—except in the eyes of the current kings of Rainy Lake.
“Even when we finished last our first year we were in this, we were still gunning for first the whole way—nothing has changed,” said Norman.
“Every tournament we go in, we go in to win,” echoed Samsal.
“We always have a game plan and we come to play.”
The Minnesota duo of Chad Johnson (Rogers) and John Janousek (Nisswa) didn't qualify for the top 10 boat parade.
But that didn't stop them from hogging the “hot seat” as the tournament leaders for much of Saturday.
The pair has the crowd buzzing with the biggest fish of the tournament at 5.03 pounds, part of the biggest bag of Day 3 at 19.97, which shot them into contention before they wound up finishing third (51.30).
Bryan Gustafson of Fort Frances, who now lives in Kenora, and partner Brian McNanney (Sioux Narrows) took fourth place (50.76).
Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson (Keewatin) and John Peterson (Bemidji, Mn.), the last team to repeat as champs in 2013-14, also cracked the 50-pound barrier in finishing fifth (50.60).
Dale LaBelle (Devlin) and Dave Byrnes (Fort Frances) had their best all-time finish at the FFCBC by coming in sixth (49.77).
Mark Raveling (Longville, Mn.) and Mike Luhman (Deer Park, Wis.), the 2012 winners who were second last year, wound up seventh (49.49).
Jon Balaski and Chad Budde of International Falls claimed eighth place (48.94), in large part based on having the big fish of Day 2 (4.89).
Kenora's Connor Burton and Jeff Engstrom made a return trip to the top 10 by coming in ninth (47.80).
Brothers Steve Sandberg (Brooklyn Park, Mn.) and Scott Sandberg (Ham Lake, Mn.), the 2015 FFCBC champs, rounded out the top 10 (47.48).
Karl Wolff and Ryan Hyatt of Fort Frances fished up a storm on Day 3 to win the Second Division title—and the $1,000 prize—with a 19.31-pound haul.