MONETA, Va. — Rick Morris went overboard to retrieve a fish — literally — and it cost him a shot at winning an Elite Series event in his home state.
BASS officials on Friday deemed that Morris violated Rule 14, which states that "competitors must not depart the boat to land a fish or to make the boat more accessible to fishing waters," and disqualified him from the Blue Ridge Brawl presented by Advance Auto Parts.
But the Virginia pro said that he believed he was within the letter of the bylaw because he kept a hand on his boat when he slid into the water to free a hung-up bass on Thursday.
"I feel like I got railroaded," Morris told ESPNOutdoors.com. "And I feel like [the disqualification] was a bad decision."
The disqualification could have far-reaching implications. Morris was in 44th place in the Angler of the Year race, and without any points for this event, his standing will drop substantially. The top 37 anglers receive berths in the 2008 Bassmaster Classic, and a solid finish here likely would've moved Morris closer to a Classic berth. There was also money at stake. Top-50 finishers are guaranteed at least $10,000, and Morris would've made the cut to 50 anglers.
"I just lost a shot at the Classic," Morris said. "I was close to qualifying for the Majors, and I lost a lot of money."
The infraction took place on Day One, but tournament officials didn't issue a decision on the disqualification until after Morris weighed his catch on Day Two.
Morris landed in sixth place after Day One, catching 15 pounds, 1 ounce, and giving his home-state fans something to cheer about at Thursday's weigh-in. Morris' weight dropped off on Day Two, but he was still in contention, about 9 pounds behind the leaders.
"He went over the side of the boat to retrieve a fish," said BASS tournament manager Chuck Harbin. "We found out about it from another angler after the weigh-in [on Day One]. We consulted a lot of people and talked to a lot of anglers because we wanted to make sure we were making the right decision."
BASS officials said Morris was allowed to fish Day Two because they had to determine if, in fact, he had broken a rule.
"We always weigh the fish in case something happens and the decision goes the other way," Harbin said.
Morris was steaming when reached by phone on Saturday morning. He contends he did nothing wrong, and that Rule 14 is too broad, leaving too much room for interpretation.
"I'm pissed off. I don't agree with it at all," he said. "My understanding is that as long as you have one part of your body in the boat, you're OK."
Morris said he hooked a 4-pound bass on a topwater lure. He briefly played the fish, letting it to run so his line wouldn't break.
"The fish got stuck in a rope in about 5 or 6 feet of water," Morris said. "The rope was about 3 or 4 feet long, so I could see the fish, but I couldn't quite reach it. I tried to get him loose for about 10 or 15 minutes."
Morris eventually decided to get into the water to get closer to the fish.
"I took my wallet out, and I got in the water, but I kept my hand on the boat the whole time," Morris said. "I thought that as long as I had my hand on the boat, I was within the rules. I had discussed it with my co-angler [Brandon Pedigo of Lawton, Okla.], and I asked him if he had my back. He even yelled at a spectator boat, 'His hand stayed on the boat!' I thought everything was good."
Morris said he returned to fishing and didn't again think about the incident. But he now surmises that Pedigo played a role in the disqualification.
"He's a real aggressive co-angler, and he wanted to fish more boat docks, but I went out to deeper water," Morris said. "I think he got back to the weigh-in and told every pro he could what happened, and then someone told [tournament director] Trip [Weldon] about it."
Pedigo was competing in the co-angler final Saturday morning and was unavailable for comment.
Morris said BASS officials initially told him he'd be required to take a polygraph test, and that their decision hinged on whether or not Morris' hand stayed in contact with the boat while his body was in the water.
"Trip told me the issue is, 'Was your hand on the boat?' " Morris said. "He told me they were going to bring somebody in to give me a lie detector test, and I said that's fine. And then [Friday] there was never a lie detector. They came and told me I was out for breaking the rule."
BASS tournament officials frequently are forced to make judgment calls on possible disqualifications, and this time officials ruled that Morris had violated the rule about leaving the boat to land a fish.
Morris vehemently disagreed, citing a meeting of pros and tournament officials during the season-opening tournament on Lake Amistad in March.
"We had a special meeting about co-angler rules and this subject of leaving the boat came up because a lot of guys were getting down in the water to pull fish out of the grass," Morris said. "Trip Weldon told us as long as one part of your body is in the boat, you're OK. But there's no minutes or no recording of that meeting, and that's the first thing I'm going to tell my lawyer. I will appeal this, although I don't think it's going to do any good."
Morris said that BASS needs to make the rule more explicit.
"The rules don't state what has to be in the boat," he said. "Is it the upper half of the body? Is it the lower half? A foot? A hand? What is it? Somewhere along the line it's got to be clarified."
Morris became the second angler to be disqualified from the Blue Ridge Brawl on Smith Mountain Lake. Greg Gutierrez was disqualified prior to the start of the event for breaking a rule governing practice days. BASS officials said Gutierrez fished with a non-competitor who had been on the lake during the off-limits period, a violation of Rule 3.ii.