Chad circles back

As far as many of you are concerned, Chad Morgenthaler’s 2013 season started in December at Lake Okeechobee when he won the Wild Card event and qualified for his first Classic in eight years.

As far as I’m concerned, it started in January, also at Okeechobee.

That’s when I joined him for a few days of fishing on the big lake. We’d worked together for nearly a decade, and in the past five years I’ve spent dozens, if not hundreds of hours, yapping with him on the phone, discussing techniques, equipment and tournament results. Despite all of those conversations, though, I’d never spent any time in the boat with him.

I thought I had a sense of what he was all about, but in hindsight that was kind of a silly concept. It was as if I’d been writing about LeBron James without ever having seen him dunk, or about a musician without ever having heard him play his instrument, so the three days on the water provided me more insight into his drive and skills than I’d gotten in all of that talking combined.

It’s not like Chad was an unknown commodity. He’s been knocking around the pro ranks for well over a decade, qualifying for three Bassmaster Classics (2003, 2005 and 2006) and an FLW Cup (2007) before hitting a tough spot in his career. He didn’t totally fall off the map, fishing multiple Toyota Texas Bass Classics, and notching the occasional solid finish in tour-level or Open-level competition. For someone who’s been near the top before, though, the inconsistency is like a plague, and as the years rolled on he talked more and more about the desire – or actually the need – to win an event.

At Okeechobee, we fished and we fished and we fished some more, stopping only when it got dark to head back to his camper so he could grill venison and fry crappie fillets his father had given him. The conversation was mostly light, but every time I brought up the 2013 season, he replied with some variation of “I need to win an event.” That’s largely why he was down in Florida the whole month, rather than at home in the Midwest hunting for deer or catching up on soap operas. He was there because he had multiple Florida events and also because it kept him welded to his flipping stick. We caught fish swimming jigs and pitching Senkos, but given the choice, he fished the 8-foot extra-extra-heavy meat stick with a creature bait and a big chunk of tungsten. That’s what wins tournaments in Florida.

He was signed up for all nine Opens this year, with the goal of garnering an Elite Series invite, but I got the feeling that there were two elements at play there: One, he would’ve fished an Open every week of the year if they’d been available to him; and two, requalifying was a secondary goal, far behind getting his mojo back.

Lots of fishing fans, myself included, have written countless words about the relative merits of the “win and you’re in” Bassmaster Classic qualification, so I won’t rehash the issues here, but the bottom line is that by the time Chad got to Okeechobee in December, it was his only chance to get into the field at Guntersville. That might’ve created a sense of desperation, but I think Chad’s desperation – or rather his drive – long preceded his win in Florida. For most of the guys who’ve flipped around the sport for a while, it’s not really about 10th place finishes or Classic qualifications or new sponsors. Those are fine, and they obviously keep the career on track, but they’re not the shot to the bloodstream that keep them going. Most of these anglers are adrenaline junkies and gamblers – that’s why if you read the media guide you’ll see in the hobby section a disproportionate number of poker players, day traders and motorcyclists. The win’s the thing and at the start of each tournament, whether it’s an Open, an Elite, the Classic or even the Wild Card, the chance to hoist the trophy is what keeps them coming back.

That’s a cruel truth, because while most of them were world-beaters at home and at the lower levels of competition, few of them win with any regularity at the Elite level. Just as they got used to getting a victory fix, the pipe got taken away. A third of the Elite field has not won even a single B.A.S.S. event at any level. In the nine year history of the Elites, only 44 anglers have won a regular season full-field Elite Series tournament, and five of them are retired (voluntarily or involuntarily) from the tour. Double-check my math if you want, but that means that at the start of every Elite Series tournament if you pick an angler at random there’s a better than even chance that he has not won an Elite event. Winning is hard at this level, as it is at the Open level, where you take a handful of Elites, sprinkle in some FLW pros and add the best local talent to make a field that likewise runs deep.

You can knock the Wild Card win all you want, saying that it was a severely reduced field, but I’ll give you a challenge: go out and fish on your home water against 48 other competitors, even just regular bass club guys, and see how often you win. Douse the field with top locals and a few touring pros and that percentage will go down even further. I know that every gas station near every lake in the country has at least one guy manning the pumps who claims to be unbeatable on the water at any time, but if that’s the case why is he pumping gas instead of getting paid to cast? There are “sayers” and there are “doers” and the latter category is infinitesimally smaller, more so in our sport than most others. The record books don’t lie and trophies don’t grow in mats of milfoil.

Chad’s win provided the Golden Ticket to the Classic, but it doesn’t provide any rest for the addicted. Just as he was one win from getting over the mental hump before, now he’s one more win away from cementing his place in the sport’s history. That’s what keeps rookies and Classic winners alike coming back – the lure of “one more win.” We have a sport where perfection is impossible, yet the field is filled with perfectionists.

If this fishing deal doesn’t work out, I think Chad’s got a hell of a future as a crappie fillet fry cook. With the addiction sparked, though, I don’t think he’ll be giving up any time soon. There are a lot more days on the water, in January and December alike, for him to chase the next thrill.