If you look over the Pro Results of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open at Cayuga Lake, you’ll see my name at the very bottom of the list. It’s followed by a string of zeros.
The reason for those donuts is that I was disqualified the night before the tournament started. I wasn’t allowed to compete.
Before you form a lynch mob, let me assure you that my disqualification was due to an honest mistake. How did this happen?
Early last spring, a longtime friend of mine, Mike Rex, asked me if I would be willing to take his 19-year-old son Ryan to one of the Bassmaster Opens. I was happy to oblige.
Ryan has the bass bug bad and idolizes many of the Elite Series pros, especially Michael Iaconelli. I knew it would be a thrill for Ryan to compete in one of the Opens as a co-angler.
I recommended the Cayuga tournament. I had never been to Cayuga but I figured Ryan would have an excellent chance of catching bass there without suffering a bone-jarring boat ride, as might happen at the Detroit River/Lake St. Clair Open.
Ryan signed up online to fish the Cayuga Open last April. He put down his deposit and got an email from B.A.S.S. saying he was registered for the tournament.
Ryan thought the email confirmed that he was in the tournament. Unfortunately, he was only registered to be on the waiting list for the tournament.
I suppose I should have double-checked Ryan’s status. The extent of his tournament experience was Thursday evening pot tournaments on a 160-acre lake near his home in southeast Ohio. He had never registered for any type of Bassmaster tournament before and probably didn’t realize there was such a thing as a waiting list.
When Ryan told me he had received his confirmation from B.A.S.S. for the Cayuga Lake Open, I assumed he was in the tournament. That assumption cost me dearly.
Ryan and I drove to Cayuga Lake full of hope and anticipation. We talked fishing throughout the 8-hour drive.
After my guardian angel, Michael Murphy, fixed my trolling motor bracket Sunday (see my previous blog), Ryan and I boated straight to one of the waypoints I had punched in the evening before on our initial boat ride.
I caught a 5-pound largemouth on my first cast. It was the beginning of a pattern that far exceeded my expectations. Over the next three days, we caught about 15 largemouths a day as we refined the pattern and zeroed in on the most productive water.
Although we weren’t catching a world of bass, half the fish weighed 3 to 5 pounds. We hooked the bass because we never fished the same water twice or sat on any one spot after catching a fish.
And, since Ryan is young and new to bass fishing, every bass he catches is a thrill. I didn’t have the heart to tell him not to set the hook. I have more experience – which is another way of saying I’m an old fart – so I’m more interested in figuring out a lake (during practice) than catching bass.
The word was that a 15- to 17-pound limit would be a solid day’s catch during the Cayuga tournament, and that the winning weight could be as low as 45 pounds. The bass that Ryan and I were catching belied that.
I knew someone would haul a 20-pound sack to the scales. I was hoping it would be me.
I went to the pre-tournament registration Wednesday evening more confident of a Top 12 finish than I have ever been at any Bassmaster Open. My good mood went south when Ryan and I learned that he was on the waiting list and not in the tournament.
Tournament Director Chris Bowes pulled us aside and explained to Ryan that he would not be fishing in the tournament. Then Chris turned to me and said:
“Mark, since you fished the official practice days with someone that wasn’t in the tournament, you’re disqualified.”
Editor’s Note: You can see the Opens official rules here: 2012 Bassmaster Opens official rules. Below is an excerpt of the rule that was broken and caused the disqualification:
“Rule 3(ii) During practice and competition a competitor can only have the assistance or advice of another competitor for the purposes of locating or catching bass on tournament waters. Competitors may only fish with other competitors during practice and competition.”
Those words hit me like a sledgehammer to the gut. I suddenly found myself bent over at the waste with my hands on my knees. My head was reeling. I stood up slowly. I turned away from Chris without a word.
I ambled into the empty, dimly-lit auditorium where the meeting was to be held a few hours later. I didn’t know where I was going or why.
I wound up sitting in the front row, alone. I sat there for 15 minutes waiting for my head to stop spinning.
“What the hell had just happened?”
I finally came around and went back to find Chris. My daughter, Valerie, had just arrived from Ohio and was as distraught as I was about the disqualification.
We pleaded to Chris that it was an honest mistake, that fishing with Ryan wasn’t the same as fishing with a local angler or a guide, or even an experienced angler that could have helped me find fish.
None of that mattered. Nor did it matter that Chris is like family, especially to Valerie, or that I’ve been writing for Bassmaster Magazine for more than 35 years.
It also didn’t matter that it was killing Chris to disqualify me. You could hear it in his voice.
I heard myself speaking some regrettable words to Chris before I stormed out the door. Valerie soon followed, nearly in tears.
As devastating as it was for Chris and Valerie and I, Ryan took it even harder because he felt responsible. We found him sitting on a bench overlooking the football field behind the school where the registration was happening.
Ryan hardly spoke for the next two days. Nothing Valerie and I said or did could coax him out of his abyss.
That evening, after a few shots of Crown Royal and Miller Lite chasers, I was able to accept the fact that Chris had no choice but to disqualify me. If B.A.S.S. fails to strictly adhere to its own tournament rules, it loses the high level of integrity it has established.
Without this integrity, B.A.S.S. lacks credibility. If that ever happens, the sport we cherish is in deep jeopardy.
Between beers, I was left to ponder what could have been. We’ve all heard dock talk before tournaments from competitors who boast of big catches. More often than not, the big talkers wind up low in the standings when the tournament is over.
So, the next day, the first day of the tournament, I fished some of the areas I had found in practice.
I started casting at 7 a.m. and photographed the fish I caught from then until 2 p.m. That gave me seven hours of fishing. I subtracted an hour for running time to and from, which was less than I would have needed had I fished the tournament.
I caught 10 bass during my pseudo tournament. The best five weighed an estimated 17 pounds or more. I didn’t have a scale with me.
I’m not implying that I would have done as well had I fished the tournament; I had no tournament pressure whatsoever, which can drastically alter your performance.
However, I know for certain that I was on quality bass, and that I had figured out a solid game plan quickly on a lake I’d never been to before. Catching those bass on Thursday also did a great deal to sweeten my sour mood.
It was uplifting for Valerie, too. She was in the boat, taking photos of my bass and jotting down the catch times. She also put a line in the water from time to time and caught a keeper smallmouth.
Ryan was also onboard. I urged him to fish all day to simulate a tournament partner. He caught three bass, but his heart wasn’t in it. When we fished together during practice, he caught just as many bass as I did.
At every pairings meeting, Chris stresses how important it is to read the tournament rules carefully. I suggest that you follow his advice so you aren’t inadvertently disqualified.
Good intentions aren’t good enough if you break a B.A.S.S. tournament rule. You don’t want to experience what I’ve been through.
Before Ryan, Valerie and I headed home Saturday morning, we boated to some of the areas where I had found bass at Cayuga. We were on the water by 6:30 a.m.
We came across three of the Top 12 competitors fishing in the final round, but only one was near any of the places I had found. That angler was Pete Gluszek, the eventual winner.
I’ve known Pete for years. The winner’s trophy couldn’t have gone to a nicer guy.
We watched Pete fish a spot where Ryan had caught a 4-pound largemouth in practice. We were the last of six spectator boats to arrive. One of the fans told us that Pete had just caught a 4-pound bass there.
Was that news a bummer? Not really. It confirmed that I had been on the right track.
We loaded the boat 45 minutes later and began the long drive back to southeast Ohio. It was my 64th birthday.
“Life is short.
Do your best.
Remember the good stuff.
Forget the rest.”
“The years just flow by like a broken down dam.”
“Angel from Montgomery”
“If you ain’t havin’ fun, you ain’t livin’.
You ain’t playing the right game.”