Important life choices

I grew up in Addyston, Ohio, right on the Ohio River. It was a small town about 10 miles outside of Cincinnati. There wasn’t anything fancy there, but I had a wonderful childhood. We spent most of our time doing local things, and most of those centered on the river and the tributaries that ran into it.  

My dad fished local bass tournaments when I was a young boy. But he also had a family to support. He took that obligation seriously and so, as the years went by, he didn’t always have the time to pursue his own interests. He was too busy with his flooring business and taking care of his family. 

As I got a little older I started fishing more local tournaments myself. It was something that grew on me over time. I honestly don’t remember if I was a donator or a feared stick in the beginning. I suspect I don’t remember because I was a donor, but I hate to admit that.

In those days it was more about having fun than anything else. I remember as a 12-year-old idolizing Denny Brauer and his pitching and flipping technique. He was all I wanted to read or hear about.

I remember something else, too. When I was about 17-years-old my dad did a flooring job for a fellow, carpet all through his house. My dad’s fee was a pickup truck and a fishing boat for me. Over the years I’ve owned fancier trucks and boats — like the X xpress boat I now fish out of — but there will always be something special about that first rig. It came from dad, with love.    

At that time I was fishing tournaments with several other guys. I’m grateful to each and every one of them for teaching me something about bass fishing. But, there’s one former partner who stands out in my memory.  His name was Brian Woelfle. 

Brian will always stand out in my memory because he’s the one who taught me how to pattern bass by lure choice and by location. And, with him I learned the difference between catching bass and catching tournament bass. But, maybe the most important thing he taught me was to love the outdoors and appreciate the challenge of tricking a bass into biting something that wasn’t real.  

Brian and I still fish together sometimes. In fact, we went walleye fishing this morning before I started work on this column. It rained a ton yesterday so the water was all screwed up, the wind was blowing hard and it was nasty cold. We were stupid for going. I’ll give you that. But I did catch a 3-pound smallmouth and had a great time with an old friend. 

While my interest in bass tournament fishing was developing, I met a guy by the name of Billy Backman. I was fishing BFLs at the time and so was he. Billy was one of those guys who, when you first met him, you knew he would be a friend.  

We fished and hunted together frequently. But then, things started to change. Billy would make excuses for not going fishing or hunting, and he started hanging out with a different crowd. We didn’t have a falling out or anything. He just kind of drifted away in a different direction.

I didn’t know it at the time, but he’d gotten hooked on drugs. They’re so terrible I can’t hardly talk about them except to say that they take over your whole life. And that’s exactly what they did to him. They took over his life, and then they killed him. Illegal drugs are a form of cruelty that’s beyond belief. 

His death was devastating. I didn’t see it coming. I’d give anything if I had. Maybe I could have helped him in some way. That’ll haunt me for the rest of my life.  

About a year after Billy’s death I ran into his dad at a bass tournament. He said he wanted me to stop by his house for a talk. I did that. They (he and his wife) said they knew that it was both of our dreams to fish professionally. They offered to help me with expenses if I wanted to turn pro.  

We were all members of the OutKast Bass Club — B.A.S.S. affiliated. Billy and I had always dreamed of fishing a Bassmaster Classic. But for reasons that escape me now I decided to fish the EverStart Series and try to qualify for the FLW Tour.

I didn’t make it. Now I can honestly say that I’m glad I didn’t because the next year I fished both the EverStart Series and the Bassmaster Opens. I qualified for both professional level competitions and decided to go with B.A.S.S. In 2006 I was invited to fish the Bassmaster Elite Series. I fished it then, and I’m fishing it now.  

Our whole lives are made up of the decisions we make and have made in the past. Decisions have consequences, good and bad. When I look back I can honestly say that my dreams have fallen into place. Some of them by my own hand and some of them by the hand of another. 

I want to repeat something: Decisions have consequences. Sometimes when we make big decisions that amount to life choices — like those I faced three or four weeks ago — we need to keep that in mind. 

B.A.S.S. is where I belong. I know that because I feel it in my heart.