Haseotes returns to competition

How do you cope with the death of your daughter, a child so young and fragile that she never had a chance to eat solid food, a chance to hug you back or, perhaps most importantly, to understand how much you’ve grown to love her in her short life?

How do you prepare to face the best anglers in the world, 98 or 99 long-term pros who’ve seen it all, done it all, and can catch big limits out of a parking lot mud puddle?

The chasm between the two inquiries seems huge on first inspection. The former, of course, is quite literally a matter of life and death, while the latter, though still important, is in essence a game. Yet when you’re confronted with either situation, the latter of your own volition, the former most certainly not, the answers are the same.

You have no choice. You just do it.

There’s no pussyfooting, no toe-dipping, no transition period. Get with the program or the program will chew you up and leave you behind.

This is the message that Massachusetts pro Byron “BJ” Haseotes conveys as tears well up in his eyes. It’s barely an hour into the second day of his practice for this week’s Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open on the James River and emotion is getting the better of him. Midway through his 2010 Elite Series rookie season, fishing against the best of the best at Pickwick Lake, he got the call from his wife Tiffany that something wasn’t right with her pregnancy.

Their little girl had an outsized hole in her heart. Not yet born and she already had letters ascribed to her – ASD, atrial septal defect. She needed surgery, perhaps at a week old, or maybe a couple of years later, but it could be corrected. Unfortunately the alphabet soup kept coming, and when little Evangelina was born in August, the doctors came out of the delivery room looking “like they’d seen a ghost,” he recalled. Then they slapped three more letters on her notebook – LPA, a left pulmonary artery sling – which in layman’s terms meant that her airways were being suffocated, making her breathing labored, when it was possible at all.

Today Haseotes is initially reserved and philosophical – “God only gives you what you can handle,” he’ll say – but the still fresh tears belie a different reality, one he’s quick to verbalize: “When things get thrown at you so hard and so quickly, it’s only human to question things.”

He’d been through a lot in the prior years, so what should have been a happy time, the culmination of his goal to become a professional angler, was in some ways already tainted. He’d recently lost his father, the patriarch of the Haseotes clan. And Nicholas, the young son of his younger brother and best friend Ari, had been treated for leukemia starting at the age of seven months. For someone who up until then had by his own description led a relatively charmed life, the bad news was snowballing at an unprecedented pace.

“When I was at (Boston) Children’s Hospital with my brother, they were there for six months,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘I hope I never have to come back to this place again.’ But five years later there I was, and it was 16 months for us.” Haseotes is a competition junkie, but noted that “nobody wants to compete that way.”

The thing that Haseotes likes the most about tournament fishing, the complete dominion over all of the decisions throughout the day, is exactly what tortured him throughout those months in Boston. “I’m so used to being in control and making decisions and not worrying about the consequences,” he said. “But for the first time in my life I wasn’t in control, and it killed me to not be able to get her better.”

He and Tiffany spent long hours in the waiting room, hoping for a whiff of good news, a miracle cure that on some deep level they probably knew wasn’t coming. One surgery was 7 hours. Another was 8. Another was 15. He’s lost track of the others, their numbers and durations melded into a stew of time and frustration and anger and sorrow represented by the image of the waiting room clock, the only part of the experience that remains indelibly etched in his brain.

“There were so many surprises with this kid,” he said. “She fooled us a lot.” But every time things seemed to be taking a turn for the better, they quickly went downhill. To this day, he keeps pictures of young Evi in his boat, secured in a Ziploc® bag, and every day on the water he consults the “smile that would light up your day.” That’s the image he wants to remember, not the times where her face would go from pink to white to a painful blue, a palette of pain for the tiny girl and frustration for her parents who were unable to make the problems go away.  

Haseotes also wants to remember the nine days that she spent at home, not totally free of the feeding tubes and treatments, but as far removed from the sterility of the hospital as she’d ever get. Nine days in 16 months, a small fraction of her short life, but a period that he calls the “best time of my life, the four of us (the couple has an older son, Byron III, now 3) laying in bed together, like a real family.” Then, on day nine, the blue face came back, and Evi never came home again. When the time came this January, it was clear, BJ explained, that “she was already with God, looking down on me and giving me strength.”

Now, as life goes on and he tries to resume his life on tour, he’s occasionally reminded of the guilt that he felt, letting fishing creep into his thoughts as his daughter lay strapped to a machine. “I wanted the perfect family we’d talked about, the one we’d dreamed about,” he said, a tear or two dripping out from behind his polarized sunglasses. “Before she was born, when Tiffany was pregnant, I had the cell phone glued to my rear end, and every time it rang I’d be worried. I’d call her every 10 minutes. Then, after Evi was born, I missed fishing so bad. It made me so mad at myself. My daughter didn’t even have a chance to have a passion, to have a chance in life. I’d feel like such a jerk. Even today, I have a little bit of guilt being out here.

“There are still days when I wake up and hate the world; even though the doctors were amazing, I still hate that they couldn’t save her.”

If the torture of watching your child isn’t enough to make any adult fall to his or her knees, the aftermath of such trauma on a family can be equally rough. “The doctors told us that 50 percent of couples who go through this either leave divorced or get divorced down the road,” he relayed. It changed the way he parents, too. “My son is now three and when he takes a swig of water, if it goes down the wrong pipe, it scares me to death.” In his son’s discomfort, he can still see Evi’s blue face.

While Haseotes was able to grieve with his wife and rely on the expertise of a truly world-class team of doctors, the one person he wanted to console him and give him advice throughout the process wasn’t there to offer counsel. In a crisis of fatherhood, he needed someone with a lifetime of experience to act as his crutch, but his father, also named Byron, had died in May 2009, before he could see his son qualify for the Elites or catch a glimpse of Evi’s fleeting life. The son referred to his father, a second-generation Greek-American, as “strict” and “old school” and “all about business.” The idea of a career in professional bass fishing seemed farcical to him, until his son started garnering sponsors. “Until then, he didn’t think you could make a career out of it, and he would never say it directly, but not speaking about it meant he had no problem with it.”

While the first Byron was not there to help his ailing son, the son found surrogate parents elsewhere.

“(B.A.S.S. Tournament Director) Trip Weldon was the first person I called at Pickwick,” he said. “I told him that I didn’t know what to do. He told me that family is always the most important. He’s been like a dad to me, with prayers and advice. Jerry McKinnis is the same way, always checking on me. They both told me to take care of my family first and don’t worry about the fishing end. That made me cry. Unless you’ve been there, nobody could possibly know.”

He similarly refers to the doctors who worked miracles against the odds to give his family those 9 days together as family. Peter Lawson, the head of the ICU where Evi spent most of her days, “is like a father to me.” Haseotes recalled the upside-down sketch drawn by Chris Baird, the young cardiac surgeon who looked more like Doogie Howser than Marcus Welby, to explain Evi’s condition, and compares it to something from Michelangelo. Despite the pain that her condition put all of them through, they bonded and took some solace in Baird’s statements about how much Evi’s condition taught them. “She changed the way they do things,” Haseotes said, the tears again rolling. “My daughter touched a lot of people in her 16 months of life.”

So after all of that tumult, how does one return to the pro tours? Do you just show up and start casting or is the journey more circuitous and pitted than that?

Haseotes had a hardship exemption in hand, allowing him to sit out the 2011 season and guaranteeing him a spot in the 2012 Elites, but even after Evi’s death in January, it wasn’t as easy as packing up the truck and boat and heading south from his Cape Cod home. While partners like Skeeter, Yamaha, Lucky Craft and title sponsor Gulf Oil had stood by his side, awaiting his return, Haseotes had doubts.

“I was a wreck and my wife was a wreck,” he said. “’Please don’t leave me this year,’” she implored. “My wife is the strongest person I know. If I had her strength and her never quit attitude, I’d be Kevin VanDam.” The choice was clear – he’d sit out the 2012 Elite season and hope to regroup in 2013. If B.A.S.S. wouldn’t extend the hardship, then it wasn’t meant to be.

So now he finds himself expecting to be back on tour in 2013, with a smidgen of doubt of whether it’ll happen. Even if it does, can someone who struggled in his rookie season expect to come back from a two-year layoff and compete with the Skeets and KVDs of the world? As he strives to right his world towards normalcy, the Opens are the first step toward answering that question.

“It’s like riding a bike,” he said. “You never forget how to fish. But it’s the routine that’s hard to reestablish. Look at me – I’m so excited to get out here today that I forgot to drink any water.

“Of course I want to make the Classic, but I wanted to fish the Opens to get used to being on the road again. I had to knock the rust off. It was really hard for me to leave the other morning, but you can’t stop living life. If you do that, you’re better off being dead. I’ve always been an optimist – maybe too much of an optimist sometimes – but I think it generally helps. One of the most important lessons my dad taught me is that if adversity gets you down, then right there you’re conquered. You will fail no matter what you do in life.”

After sitting on the sidelines for two years, he’s ready to jump back in the fray. “I need to get my mind and body adjusted, and this is a good start.” While the Opens certainly aren’t easy, pitting the best local talent against competitors from multiple major league trails, it’s someplace he can work toward that goal, with a shot at fishing the Bassmaster Classic to boot.

He admits that he didn’t have a fraction of the experience that most of his Elite amigos had on the big Southern impoundments. Hell, he’d never fished a tournament of any sort until he was 18, and even those were on ponds on the Cape, not massive inland seas. But he declared himself a glutton for punishment – “I got kicked and I wanted to get back up and get kicked again.”

Now, if everything goes right, Haseotes has nine days to drive the rust away – three days of competition in each of the three Northern Opens. He’s a man who knows that when things are good, like when your infant daughter comes home from the hospital for the first and only time, you can cram a lifetime of love into that short period. But he also knows that time holds a funny sort of elasticity. Just as you thought everything was getting right, it can be taken away from you in an instant and you go back to living at sundial speed. The minutes waiting for that same daughter’s blue face to clear up can seem like an eternity. So what will these Opens hold for BJ Haseotes?

At this point, fishing is not just an obsession, nor is it solely a career. Instead, despite the occasional pangs of guilt, it is his therapy. “Just to be back on the water is good for me,” he said. “It’s good for my family because it gives me a chance to clear my head and focus.” With a year of Elite experience under his belt and having suffered through a crisis that would force most men to retreat into a shell forever, Haseotes is no longer a wide-eyed newbie.

“My rookie year I was a Yankee from New England with no experience on the bodies of water,” he explained. “That killed me. My first time on any of the bodies of water was the first day of official practice. My father always told me that a man gets better by his mistakes. I learned so much by getting my ass kicked. It’s like I paid my tuition.”

The Classic berth would be a bonus, one that he sees no reason he can’t achieve, but he recognizes that getting his fishing life back together is a day-by-day process, just like dealing with a sick child or the loss of that same child. No setback is too small to overlook and no step forward can be taken for granted.

“To win an event, everything has to go right,” he said. “You can’t lose any fish and every decision has to be the right one. I’m still learning how to do that. I expect to do well in every tournament I fish, but there’s a huge learning curve. The Elite guys in particular are incredible fishermen. Even if they haven’t been to the place, they’ve seen just about everything.”

Haseotes has never been to the James, but feels it fits his power fishing strengths. Next month, he’ll head to Michigan to fish the Detroit River. The final cog in his nine day comeback tour will be at Cayuga, in New York, this year’s closest venue to his Massachusetts home. That one has a special place in his heart.

“The Cayuga tournament starts on Evi’s birthday, August 16,” he said, a fraction of a tear once again making an appearance, threatening more. “And if you look at the registration numbers on my boat, they’re oh-eight, sixteen, ten, then E, then H, her birthday and her initials.”

On each of his tournament days this year, he’ll get up and say good morning to his precious daughter. After the charger is plugged in, baits are tied on, and the last piece of map study is over, he’ll tell her good night. That’s the same routine he follows at home, or wherever he may be, and there’s no reason to deviate from it just because he’s climbed back on his bike and started peddling again.

“I told myself I’d be strong now,” he said. “But no matter how much I know she’s in a better place, I still miss the hell out of her. Some days are more difficult than others.”

He’s getting on with it, though, one cast at a time, one hug of his wife at a time, one hug of his son at a time. Each moment is precious to BJ Haseotes. Nine days can mean everything.