Epic fails

I just read Steve Bowman’s description of Jim Bitter’s tears at the final-day press conference at the 1989 Bassmaster Classic. Even though I’ve heard the story a million times, it still hurts to think about it. I’m sure anyone who has ever fished a tournament and come up a bit short still cringes when they think of what he lost, just the way most of us instinctively cringe when you see another man get hit in the crotch. I wasn’t even there and it still makes me feel queasy.

I was at Lake Okeechobee last month and someone brought up Jim’s name, not in reference to the Classic per se, but rather in regard to what he was doing today. The rumor I heard was that he doesn’t fish at all. Strike that – doesn’t fish for bass at all, even though he still regularly gets on the water to chase crappies and other species.

That rumor might be totally false, but it’s believable because of all that Jim went through.

In addition to the crippling Classic experience, he had some late-career on-the-water battles that were televised. He might’ve been in the right, or in the wrong, or the truth may have been somewhat more gray area, but my long-distance guess was that he left B.A.S.S. competition after the 2005 season because he was burned out or bitter (no pun intended). That couldn’t have been easy – he first competed on the senior circuit in 1977, and started doing it full-time in the mid-80s. Along the way, he earned five wins and seven Classic appearances. It must’ve defined his identity to some extent. The memorable James River tournament was his first Classic, and he only made the top ten one other time. His last best chance to be an immortal flopped back into the muddy James River.

Your most important fish, of a season or of a career, can come on the first day or the last. It’s a cliché to say that it’s a game of inches, but in a sport with no guaranteed contracts, no firm retirement date and a fickle pea-brained legless beast for an adversary, the margins are slim.

I think of Dalton Bobo, whose dead fish penalty cost him the 1997 Classic to Dion Hibdon.

I think of Clark Reehm, who had a fish die in his second Elite Series tournament. That prevented him from culling it out, which he could have done easily, and he finished second to Todd Faircloth. He hasn’t come nearly that close to winning again.

I think of Terry Butcher, who arrived to check in late at Oneida last year because he forgot his check-in time. If he’d made it, he’d be fishing this Classic. Now he’s not even fishing the Elites this year. Did a 15 minute misunderstanding cost him his career?

I think of Josh Bertrand, who lost a fish-off to Brent Chapman at the first Central Invitational of 2013. Brent caught a single fish on that last day. Bertrand caught none. Brent went on to have a season for the ages, winning at Toledo Bend and claiming the AOY title. Bertrand still qualified for the Elites, but he’ll be fishing a tournament on his home lake next week instead of the Classic. I hope he has a long and successful career ahead of him, but it makes me wonder – if he never wins a B.A.S.S. tournament, or qualifies for a Classic or wins a Classic, was Brent Chapman his Hank Parker?

A tournament angler’s stock in trade is looking forward. Reminiscing about lost fish and lost opportunities doesn’t affect the scale one iota. Crying won’t bring them back.

Someone will boost their career in Tulsa, but for a few anglers it’s their last best chance. They just don’t know it yet.

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