As she talked on her cellphone, Bassmaster pro Debra Hengst was having her nails and toes painted. If her body was as animated as her voice, her manicurist had a moving target.
Hengst was pumped about the Sept. 8-10 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open. She was itching to get on the road later this week, to hitch up and haul her Skeeter bass rig from her San Antonio, Texas, home to Muskogee, Okla. There, she’ll practice on the Arkansas River for several days before the three-day competition begins.
Every tournament she enters is exciting to her. This next one, though, carries a special significance. It will be her first major event since she completed treatment for breast cancer in late April.
“I am so ready for competition again,” she said. “I’ve been going to the gym and exercise class, and I am so far ahead of where I was right after treatment.”
Diagnosed in December 2010, Hengst never let cancer interrupt her enthusiasm for fishing. Vowing to stay in the 2011 Central Open season, she scheduled surgery around the February season opener on Lewisville Lake near Dallas. About three weeks after two surgeries, she towed her boat across Texas by herself, a six-hour trip. In Dallas, kind friends put her up, fed her and helped her launch her boat each day. But she was still sore and weak from surgery. The trolling motor seemed extraordinarily heavy. Standing on a boat deck all day was a chore. Working a jerkbait — the lake’s most productive bait — was painful.
She caught bass, but none large enough to weigh in. Her victory was in completing the tournament.
Back home, Hengst faced a series of 40 radiation treatments. Concerned about making it to the Central Open’s second event in late April, she selected a stepped-up course of treatment.
She completed the course just three weeks before the April 28-30 tournament on Table Rock Lake was to begin. But Mother Nature interrupted. Hengst was traveling to the lake when flooding forced the event’s cancellation. She turned back toward home, disappointed yet relieved.
“I don’t regret at all that the tournament didn’t happen. It was the best decision for our safety,” she said. “And now, looking back, I don’t know if I would have had enough strength to fish.”
She does now, and she’s done her homework. The Arkansas River out of Muskogee is new water for her, so on the July 4 holiday, she spent a long weekend scouting the river.
“It’s a river system with barge traffic, so I wanted to familiarize myself with navigation and the lock to Kerr Lake,” she said. “After seeing the river, I think heavy bags will be weighed in, and 12 or 13 pounds a day will get you there. It’s going to be a shallow bite, but river fish always change, so we’ll see.”
Tournament fishing has always been important to Hengst. Before the Opens, she fished the Women’s Bassmaster Tour and other circuits. Like most tournament anglers, she thrives on competition and wants to score a good finish. There was a time when a tournament gone wrong might have discouraged her. But now, just being able to compete again is a victory.
“Since my diagnosis, I look at things differently. I treasure each day, every moment,” she said.
Encouragement from friends, like the reception she received when she worked the Skeeter Owners Tournament in June, helped her through her cancer experience. She said the appearance for her sponsor, Skeeter Boats, was a milestone in her recovery because she had enough energy to travel and be on her feet all weekend. And when person after person expressed their delight at seeing her back at it, she began to be able to put cancer behind her.
“Everyone told me how good I looked, and that if they didn’t know better, they wouldn’t suspect I’d been through all I had,” she said. “It was overwhelming, awesome support.”