To this day, the phrase 9/11 conjures horrifying images for most Americans. The Twin Towers collapsing to the ground, the massive plume of smoke and dust shrouding the city — images that remain disturbingly clear in the minds of all who witnessed them.
I'm sure most of you know precisely where you were as the events of that sad day unfolded. I know I do. I remember it as if it happened yesterday.
I was practicing for the FLW Championship on Lake Champlain — ironically, in upstate New York, a few hundred miles from the city. My day began pretty much like the two previous, with an early launch at the public park just north of Plattsburgh. I recall the lake being unusually calm — something you rarely see there in the fall.
It was the final day of practice, and I had a cameraman aboard — a young filmmaker named Michael Bayer who was shooting a documentary on competitive bass fishing. According to Michael, I was the last angler on his list. Over the past two seasons he had spent countless hours filming other pros from both tours — B.A.S.S. and FLW. Guys like Rick Clunn, Jay Yelas, Randy Blaukat and Takahiro Omori. Now it was my turn.
The concept for Bayer's film was unlike any other on our sport. Much like a reality show, he wanted to capture the raw emotion of his subjects as they dealt with the daily challenges of being competitive anglers — the highs and the lows. And on this day, he got more than he bargained for.
Calm before the storm
Having a flat lake to our advantage, I decided to run 20 miles to Malletts Bay on the Vermont side. I had experienced good success there in previous events and wanted to make certain I wasn't overlooking something.
Crossing the lake at first light, the water's surface was like a mirror, reflecting the faint image of distant mountains in the background. The air was brisk, but not uncomfortable. Soon we reached a grassbed just inside the perimeter wall defining Malletts Bay. I started with a topwater, sashaying the lure from side to side over patchy milfoil in eight feet of water. Within minutes I connected with a quality smallmouth that performed perfectly for the camera. The bite was strong, and it lasted for hours.
Between catches, Michael asked me to elaborate on the area — why I chose it, my lure selection and the techniques I used. He also quizzed me on the sport, where it was headed and how I ever got involved.
By early afternoon, I had fished the better part of a massive grassbed and the adjacent shoreline. Finally, around 2 p.m., I told Michael we needed to head back in order to make the 3:30 registration deadline.
As we crossed the lake, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of other competitor boats. It was as if we were all alone on the wrong body of water. Finally, when we reached the ramp, fellow Floridian Jim Bitter approached my boat. He asked me where I had been, and why I wasn't answering my phone. I told him I turned it off so it wouldn’t interfere with the filming effort.
He said, "Then you haven't heard. The World Trade Center has been bombed!" The words hit me like a handful of stones. At first I questioned Jim's claim, but then knew by the look on his face that he was serious. I asked him a string of questions, none of which he could definitively answer.
Friend that he was, Jim had waited for me at the ramp. Together, we retreated to tournament headquarters to find out more.
Doing the right thing
On the way, we saw a fleet of emergency vehicles heading south toward New York City. It reminded me of the disaster relief teams rushing to the aid of hurricane victims in the South. Besides them and a few bass fishermen driving aimlessly through town, the streets were quiet. Everyone was indoors glued to their television sets.
Eventually we learned that it was not a bombing, but skyjacked airliners that had impacted the buildings. As more facts were revealed, the magnitude of the tragedy became overwhelming. America was under attack! The thought was beyond comprehension.
As the tournament briefing got underway, the mood was somber and quiet. The only time I could recall anything similar was the day John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. I was only a kid then, but I remember well how the entire nation mourned his passing.
Sadly, once again, our nation was in shock.
Even before a formal announcement was made, we knew the tournament would be cancelled. Finally, after some deliberation, tournament officials decided the best option was to split the purse and send the anglers home to their families. Although we applauded the decision, the truth was, we had all decided to leave anyway. No one in the room felt like fishing, regardless of the purse.
Early the next morning, Jim and I packed our gear and headed south for Florida. As we approached the southern part of New York, we could clearly see a plume of smoke rising above the city. I was homesick, and I wanted to be with my family. The two-day drive would seem like an eternity.
Finally, as I pulled into the driveway, my two young sons raced toward me, wanting to tell me all about the attack. Like most Americans, we followed the steady stream of news reports for the next several weeks.
So many people were impacted by that disaster, and it took years to bring those responsible to justice. But through it all, one thing became undeniably clear — Americans are a strong, resilient people, and we pull together in tough times.
Although things will never be the same, once again we proved we're a nation of survivors. And that's why we're the greatest nation on earth.
Where were you on September 11, 2001?