LAGRANGE, Ga. — Gabe Hawks is, what’s known in the bass fishing world as, a stick.
He’s only seven years old and he already has a personal big bass of 7-and-a-half pounds that he caught on a spinnerbait. How many people can say their personal best weighs more than their age?
His best on West Point Lake, where his family lives, is a 5-pounder caught on a shaky head. That’s a bass any of the pros fishing this week’s Pride of Georgia would love to have.
“I like to watch the line go crazy,” Hawks said.
So this past summer when he told his dad Lance Hawks that he didn’t feel well enough to fish their typical Tuesday night team tournament, Lance knew something was seriously wrong.
“He just wasn’t breathing right,” his mom Michelle Hawks said. “He wasn’t himself.”
They took him to a hospital in Atlanta and the news came back about as bad as it could be: leukemia.
“They said he had cancer all over here,” Michelle said as she waved her hand from the top of her head, from shoulder to shoulder and down to her waist.
The Hawks couldn’t believe it. They had adopted Gabe, Bryson, 7, and Hannah, 9, from the same foster home three years earlier. All three were strong and healthy, but Gabe was the only one that showed an interest in bass fishing , his dad’s obsessive hobby.
Before they found the cancer, Gabe and Lance would fish three to four times a week but that life was put on hold. Gabe spent a month and a half in the hospital as he went through the worst rounds of chemotherapy. His family pretty much owned the 60 miles of I-85 between Atlanta and their home in LaGrange.
But even with the energy chemo steals from a 7-year-old’s body, Gabe found a way to fish. Lance brought Gabe’s rod and reel to the hospital so Gabe could spend his free time pitching baits into a can set up on a chair in his room.
“His life’s plan is to become a professional fisherman,” Lance said. “And he’s actually really good at it.”
When the Make-A-Wish Foundation visited Gabe in the hospital and asked if there was one person in the world he could meet who would it be, his answer was quick: Skeet Reese.
The Hawks had recently moved to LaGrange from California, so Reese had become a bit of a television hero for Gabe and Lance. While he was going through treatment in Atlanta, Gabe sent Reese a letter and received a pile of signed gear in return, which earned Reese a new friend for life.
When Gabe’s aunt Alicia Hawks saw that the Elite Series would be in Georgia – on Gabe’s lake no less – she contacted Reese again.
Although Lance said the winter had been tough on Gabe – “We’d try to go fishing and he’d just lie on the deck, so I’d turn around and head back in.” -- the spring and a cancer that is in recession had him back on the water catching fish and eager to meet his favorite angler.
“God is good,” Michelle said as they waited on the shore behind the Elite Series stage, looking for Reese’s yellow boat. “He does chemo at home every day and we travel to Atlanta once a week, but the worst of the chemo is over. If we can keep the cancer in recession for the next year and half, he could get past it.”
Gabe’s smile turned to nerves as soon as he saw Reese, but halfway through the weigh-in line, the two were chatting like old fishing buddies. Gabe not only got to meet his fishing hero, but he walked across the Elite Series stage and helped Reese weigh-in. His parents even let him take off the mask he wears to protect what’s left of his immune system after chemo.
“I thought I had a bad day today, but this really puts everything in perspective,” Reese said on stage, choking up.
After weighing-in, Reese met the entire Hawks family and signed every shirt and hat in the group. Before he walked back to his boat to pack up his gear, Gabe grabbed his leg for a long hug.
“You have no idea what this means to him,” Michelle said. “It’s a dream come true.”