The first cut is the deepest

On Oct. 10, B.A.S.S. announced that not every Elite Series pro will have an opportunity to fish next year. Those who finished below 71st in the Angler of the Year points race will have to either make it through one of several other criteria, or else once again try to gain their tour card through the often arduous path of the Bassmaster Opens.

I have no quarrel with the decision to pare down the list of those invited back (even if the ultimate short-term total number of Elites will likely remain about the same). I suppose a case could be made that there’s a better way to do it, or some perfect number for the field, but on the whole this seems to me as good as any.

That doesn’t mean the cut doesn’t give me a little bit of heartburn.

Sure, it’s a competition, and by definition that means there are winners and losers. Some get ahead and others fall behind. Among that group of non-invitees, however, there are a lot of good anglers, and a lot of good people, many of whom desperately want to remain on tour. I don’t know all of them, but I’ve worked with the majority of them at one time or another and while the heartless bean counter side of me tells me that the decision was the right one, the side of me that looks for the human stories behind the numbers tells me that there are some heartbroken individuals out there tonight.

For some of them, this setback is but a speed bump on their road to success. For others it is the end of their dream.

The one I feel the worst for is Charlie Hartley, not because he needs my sympathy, or because he needs the glory and riches associated with tournament fishing success, but rather because I know that it means the most to him. Having been around tour-level fishermen for over a decade, I’ve seen the burnout that hits many of them when they hit their 30s, 40s or 50s. Not all of them, but many. From their affect, you’d think they’d rather visit the proctologist than go out fishing on a perfect spring day, let alone into 6-footers on Erie. If that’s what it takes to be a champion, I hope that I’m never a champion.

For Hartley, through good times and tough times, the smile was the same and it was genuine. I’ve seen him cheer on fellow pros who were in contention for a win as well as those who needed a pick-me-up after a tough event or a tough season. I’ve seen him thank fans for asking for his autograph. And I’ve been on the receiving end of texts and emails complimenting me for something I’ve written. All stuff he didn’t have to do, but he didn’t think twice about doing it.

Other than an article we worked on about his youthful skateboarding exploits, I don’t know much about his upbringing, although he’s often implied that he came from modest means. In a sport where anglers change rod sponsors bi-weekly, or break their poles over their knees in a fit of temporary disgust, who but Charlie Hartley could be seen giggling over the fact that some company wanted to give him some rods to use. Free rods – what could be better? He certainly could afford to fish with any rod he wanted – his Signcom business was far more profitable than a career in fishing would likely ever be – but the idea of free rods, that he could have his cake and eat it too, tickled the boyish pro so much that you couldn’t help but be touched by his enthusiasm. Sure, the fact that you had to step on a towel to get in his boat could be puzzling, and he spent more time at the car wash than at the tackle store, but it all spoke to how thankful he was to be there. He was our everyman, one of us among one of them.

While he seemed at times to be just like your fellow club angler, that description does not truly do justice to his devotion to the craft. How many of us would get off work on Friday, drive seven hours to fish for two days in crappy conditions, then drive back just in time to get to work? You might do it once, but in his early years Hartley did it hundreds of times, often on back-to-back-to-back weekends. Maybe that was his downfall – that every parking lot mud puddle looked just as inviting as Okeechobee or Toledo Bend. In a world where many pros don’t want to fish unless they’re  fishing for money, Charlie Hartley stood alone as someone for whom every day was the Bassmaster Classic, whether on a big reservoir or on an Ohio strip pit, whether he was fishing against KVD or just all by himself.

When he finally made it to the Classic, in 2008 at South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell, he radiated joy on Day One as he hefted his leading catch of 21 pounds, 1 ounce. The loudest cheers I’ve ever heard for one angler were for Mike Iaconelli this year at the Delaware River, but Hartley’s big Hartwell limit produced more goosebumps per capita than any other I’ve seen or felt. The guys who are there every year, for them it’s just another big tournament. For Hartley, though I’m sure he burned to win, it was the culmination of a dream. Now he has to hope that the dream will have another chapter, whether that’s in 2016 or beyond.

I’m sure he was heartbroken to learn that he likely won’t be back next year, but as anyone who’s been around him would expect, in public he handled the news with class.

“My only response would be that we knew the criteria and I knew what was going to happen if I didn’t catch ‘em,” Hartley told BassFan with a characteristic level of grace. “It might be just the kick in the butt I need to go back to the Opens and win Angler of the Year and prove to myself I can still fish. I take full responsibility for where I finished.”

I truly hope that Charlie Hartley follows his own advice and fulfills the mission to return. If not, though, I hope that the other Elites, the ones for whom it is a business first and a labor of love as a distant second, remember his joy. No one has ever enjoyed fishing tournaments as much as Charlie Hartley does, and I doubt that anyone ever will.