We all have a "one that got away" story. I have two. The first one is short and generally meaningless in the grand scheme of things. The second one altered my life; I've never been the same since that day.
I was fishing in Florida early in my career when I hooked a bass that weighed a solid 15 pounds. She wallowed on the surface and broke off. About 10 minutes later I hooked one that would have gone at least 10 pounds. She wallowed on the surface and broke off, too. How's that for hard luck? I lost 25 pounds of tournament bass in about 15 minutes.
But the real story — the one I want ... better make that "need" to tell, the one I've never told before — comes from my 1995 season. BASS had just switched from a weight to a points system to determine the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. It was the last tournament of the season — the Mississippi River out of Illinois as I recall — and I had a pretty healthy lead in the AOY race.
My tournament was awful. I zeroed the first two days of the four-day competition. In my mind, however, all was not lost. I'd saved a little pocket for the last two days, and it paid off. I caught several good bass from it on the third day and was feeling upbeat. I knew I still had a shot to win AOY, the most coveted title in professional bass fishing.
Don't misunderstand me. I don't mean that a Classic title, or any other title for that matter, isn't important. It is. Nevertheless, among anglers, the AOY title is where it's at. That represents performance over the course of a whole season, not just one tournament.
I fished that pocket the final day and was one fish short of a limit. I knew if I weighed in a limit I'd win the AOY title for 1995. With about an hour to go I eased toward a big log. I tried to flip a plastic craw against the front of it, but missed by a little, sending the craw into the log where it bounced over to the back side and into the water.
A 3 1/2-pound bass grabbed my bait immediately. I set the hook and the fish went nuts. It was like I hit it in a nerve or something. It started swimming straight towards me and, in the process wrapped my line around the log like a horseshoe. It shot up and, with a spectacular tail walk, broke me off.
I lost the AOY race to Mark Davis — who also won the Classic that same year, becoming the only angler ever to win both titles in the same season — by less than a pound and a half. My career has never been the same.
That fish broke me inside. It was like I didn't have what it takes to be a champion anymore. That's not easy to admit, but it's the truth. I was never the same angler after that. Look at it for yourself. From about 1989 through 1995 I was always in the running, near the top of the standings. It hasn't been the same since that day. True, I've won a tournament here and there over the years, but that's all — a win here and there.
That fish hurt for a long time. The truth is it still hurts. I remember thinking at the time that no matter how good things went for me, I'd find a way to lose or screw it up. I was never able to shake that feeling.
That's death to a professional angler. You have to believe — not just think, but believe — every time you launch your boat you're going to catch a heavy bag and win the tournament. I lost that attitude that day.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a Christian man and don't believe much of anything happens by accident. I lost that fish for a reason. My Lord knows what it is even if I don't. And I've had more happiness and success than any man can hope for.
My family and my faith are wonderful. They're the center of my existence, the core of my being. And my career and TV show have provided a good living for us. I mean, I'm paid to fish. I could be working a job I hate and paying money to go fishing. So don't think for a minute I'm complaining. I'm not, haven't and never will.
But I still think from time to time about what might have been. What if I'd landed that fish? What if I'd broke her instead of her breaking me? Would I have an AOY or Classic title on my résumé?
It took me a long time to come to terms with that fish and tell this story. I feel better now. And I hope that fish has had as good a life as I have.
She earned it.