Professional bass fishing is a very different sport. If you're a baseball, basketball or football fan, you've probably watched (and cringed) as one of your favorite players got hit by a pitch, took an ugly fall going for a rebound or was sacked by a 300-pound defensive end. Maybe they got up with nothing more than a bruise or maybe they were carted off and had to undergo surgery before they could get back out on the field or court.
In fishing, we have injuries, too, though they're seldom as dramatic as those in the stick and ball world. A few years ago, I started to experience a lot of physical problems — numbness in my hands and fingers, neck pain, joints locking up and other issues that presented real hurdles for me as a fisherman.
At first I thought I was just getting older and that I needed to push through the pain ... but that didn't help. Cortisone injections, chiropractor visits, epidurals and anti-inflammatory drugs weren't working either, and eventually I was referred to a neurologist.
He did a battery of tests on me that revealed I had severe nerve damage caused by degenerative back and neck vertebrae. He tapped my elbows and knees with a rubber mallet to get a reflexive response, but nothing happened. My fiancé, Belinda, is a nurse, and when she saw that, I could see she was really worried.
Essentially, my spine was wearing out, discs were bulging and the vertebrae and cartilage were pressing against my spinal column in a way that would have eventually paralyzed me.
The solution was surgery, so that's what I did. I sat out the 2011 Elite season and had the C5 and C6 vertebrae in my neck fused. I spent a couple of months in a neck brace, and things got better. Now I consider myself pretty healthy.
I hated missing the 2011 season for every reason you might think, but mostly because I felt I had turned a corner in my professional career. In 2009 and 2010 I qualified for my first two Bassmaster Classics. I made the finals (top 12) of three consecutive Elite events in 2009, and I won the 2010 Elite tournament on Clear Lake. Things were really going well. Professionally, the timing of my injury and surgery couldn't have been worse.
And that drove me to get back as soon as I possibly could. Tournament bass fishing is a sport of small edges, personal rhythms and confidence. After riding high for a couple of years I felt I needed to get back in the game right away or risk losing whatever professional momentum I had established.
So I worked very hard, did the physical therapy and got myself in shape to fish again in 2012. It wasn't easy, but I've always prided myself on my work ethic and believed that if I put enough effort into something, I could accomplish it.
Unfortunately, it seems that I rushed things, came back too early and set myself up for a lot of pain, a lot of frustration and another big setback. It was a valuable lesson. There are some things you just cannot push through by hard work and force of will.
The 2012 season was the worst of my career. I fished all eight Elite events and never finished better than 56th. I ended the AOY race in 94th place — nowhere near Classic contention — and endured so much pain that I was fishing with a neck brace, avoiding long runs even when I knew that's where the fish were and using baits and techniques based on how little pain they caused me, not whether or not the bass wanted them.
I wondered if my career was over.
I consulted with my doctors and they told me that I simply wasn't up to fishing at the Elite level and pushing myself the way I always had in the past. I opted to take a medical leave for the 2013 season.
So I spent the year focusing on family and other business interests, including my television show, "Byron Velvick's Guides' Eyes." Although I was still fishing, I wasn't punishing my body with all the driving, standing and back-to-back events of the Elite Series.
I also spent a lot of time reflecting on what had worked for me when things were going well — when I had my biggest successes in 2009 and 2010. I realized that some of my best tournaments had come on the heels of terrible practice periods, that when I used my intuition or "gut" I made better decisions.
In the days when I was able to practice from daylight to dark, by the time competition started I was often so focused on my game plan that I couldn't see what was happening all around me. I wasn't being intuitive or fishing in the moment the way I should have been. Being out of touch like that cost me a lot of tournament success and, ultimately, another Bassmaster Classic berth.
But when I struggled in practice or learned just a few key things, I was able to take that information and build on it by being open to the conditions that presented themselves during the tournament. That's when I had my best events.
There's a Japanese term, "satori," that is the essence of Zen Buddhism. It's about being totally focused and moving thru life completely present in the moment. I think of that a lot when I'm fishing, and I try to stay in that place. It's elusive and has nothing to do with physically trying harder or fishing longer hours. It's about being the bait I'm fishing and being impervious to any unwanted distractions.
I'm back this year and know a few more things about myself than I did in 2012.
For one, I know I'm no longer physically able to push myself the way I did when I was younger. My body just won't hold up to it.
For another, I don't think that type of commitment is necessary for me to have success. I think there's another way, and I'm optimistic that I can find it.
In 2014, I won't be launching my boat before dawn in practice, and I won't be putting it back on the trailer after dark. On a lot of practice days, I won't be launching at all. And when I do, I'll probably be off the water a lot earlier than the other Elite anglers.
But I'm going to work just as hard at finding what I need to do to be successful, whether it's more focus on mental toughness and preparation or challenging myself to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves in the moment. I'm confident that there is a right path and that it will take me back to the Bassmaster Classic.
My new approach might be a lot like the way weekend anglers have to approach their tournaments. It's not often that you can take a few days off before an event and really get dialed into the conditions. More likely, you grab an hour here or there and try to put things together after you take off on competition day.
All of this is still very new to me, but I'm looking forward to it. It's definitely going to be an education, and, more importantly, I think it's going to be fun.
Because fun is another of my goals for this season.