I suppose every angler has a story about a fish that got away that sticks with him for years. I know that I do.
My one-that-got-away story happened in 1986 on the biggest stage in bass fishing, the Bassmaster Classic. That year's Classic was held on the Tennessee River, and it was a tough one. If you caught 5 or 6 pounds of bass a day, you were in the hunt, and I was feeling pretty good going into the final day.
The lead changed hands every day of that Classic. Roland Martin led after the first day, but couldn't hang on. Jerry Rhyne took the lead on the second day, but since the weights were so low, there were still lots of anglers who had a chance to win. I was one of them.
Sitting in the Top 10 going into that final day, I had saved my very best water for last. It required a 70-mile run to the upper end where there was a dam on the river. At Noon that day, they were going to start generating water, and I knew the current was going to turn my fish on. The key area was a 50-yard long stretch of matted grass.
Obviously, when you make a run of that length and the generating schedule starts so late in the tournament day, it's your last stand. I knew I wouldn't have enough time to fish anywhere else. I was going to win... or lose... right there.
When I made the run, I had one little 12-inch bass in the livewell. Things needed to get better in a hurry if I was going to have a chance to win my first Classic.
As I pulled up to the grass, everything looked right. I turned to my press observer and told him that I was going to win the tournament right there.
I started flipping and pitching a 7 1/4-inch Ditto Whip Worm on 25-pound Berkley Trilene XT with a 1/2-ounce sinker. Almost right away I got a bite and put a 3 1/2-pound largemouth in the boat. It was a really good fish for that Classic, and I needed it.
A few flips later I caught a bass that was about 4 pounds — one of the biggest fish of the entire tournament. I turned to my press observer and said, "One more bite and it's history." I just knew I was going to win.
Right away I got another quality bite and managed to pull the fish up through the matted vegetation. When I got her on top, the hook popped out of her mouth!
I couldn't believe it. I had done everything right, but the hook came out. The fish weighed 4 pounds — maybe a little more — and was just laying there on top of the matted grass. If she had been a few feet closer, I might have been able to reach her.
She laid there for what seemed like an eternity before finally squirming and slipping back through the grass and into the water. I couldn't believe it.
I kept flipping and pitching to the grass but it was over, and I knew it. I never got another bite.
I took my three bass to the weigh-in and managed to move up into fourth place overall. Charlie Reed won that tournament, and I finished just a pound and a half back.
If I could have put that last bass in the boat, I would have won that Classic by more than 2 pounds.
I guess it just wasn't meant to be.