In August of 2009, standing on the shores of New York’s Lake Oneida, Billy McCaghren claimed the Bassmaster Elite Series Rookie of the Year on the strength of a 25th place finish that allowed him to edge out Matt Herren by one spot in the final standings.
Standing over 1,200 miles from his residence in Mayflower, Ark., he had qualified for his first Bassmaster Classic. He was coming into his own.
Over six years later, he’ll finally fish his second Classic when the big show goes to Oklahoma in March.
“I knew that I wouldn’t make it every year,” he said. “But I had never missed a championship on any circuit I fished. I took a lot for granted.”
The ease with which he comported himself as a rookie seemingly drained out of his body the next year and didn’t return for quite some time. The checks slowed down, too.
“Every year after about my third or fourth year (on the Elite Series) I’ve thought about quitting,” he said. “There’s always been a way to keep going. This is what I’m passionate about, but at times it hasn’t seemed fun, and not just when things were going badly.” He’s earned a Top 10 finish in single events in four of the past five years, but there have also been a few bottomed-out disappointments. He finished 14th on Dardanelle his rookie season, but when the tour returned in 2014 he finished a disastrous 90th.
Had he quit, he wouldn’t have been the first of his peers to do so. Of the nine rookies in the Class of 2009, only four remain, including McCaghren. Matt Herren and Greg Vinson have both qualified for multiple Classics since then. J Todd Tucker has yet to make one. The long gone Chad Griffin was the only one to win at the Elite level. McCaghren is a survivor, not the most heralded, but still more than a footnote, and his career is at a crossroads.
When KVD or Skeet or Ike fails to do well, or bounces all over the place in the standings, fans take note. When the Billy McCahgrens of the tour – quiet grinders who don’t talk much or get much press – suffer the same fate, it generally goes unnoticed, except in their home towns, in their households and in the recesses of their own minds.
McCaghren said that there were several things that contributed to his decline, some of them in his control, others outside of it, but the most significant one was that he put too much pressure on himself.
“I had just planned on fishing for one year, just to say that I did it,” he recalled. “I didn’t put any pressure on myself that first year. But then, after experiencing that success, I started pressing a little too hard.”
He hasn’t given up on pressuring himself altogether and noted that his nerves got frayed as he teetered this year on the edge of Classic qualification, but he added that he’s been working harder, pre-practicing whenever his schedule allows, which isn’t quite as often as he’d like since he still works a full-time job on top of the Elite Series schedule’s demands.
“I feel like it shouldn’t have taken this long, but it’s getting harder and harder to qualify every year,” he lamented. “Now it seems like you have 20-year-olds coming out on tour who know as much or more than I do.”
They may know more – that’s subject to a bit of healthy debate – but he’s convinced that no one in the field is going to appreciate the opportunity more. He sweated out the cut until the end of the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Sturgeon Bay, eventually finishing an in-by-the-skin-of-his-teeth 40th in the AOY race. Since then he’s been working all fall, stealing off to Grand, 230 miles door-to-door, whenever he can find a free day or two.
“I love to deer hunt,” he said. “But I haven’t hunted one time this year. Every spare moment I can get, I’m up there. I’m going to fish like I’ll never make it back again, and I hope I make it back every year.”
Even if he wins, there’s no doubt that McCaghren will continue to grind away, both on tour and in his “other” life. That doesn’t mean there won’t be other surprises to come. To the fans and members of the media who’ve been around him, he’s known for being respectful, thoughtful, but most of all quiet. He said that if granted a moment in the spotlight, he’ll turn that notion on its ear. “I was raised not to be loud and flamboyant,” he said. “But people who don’t know me don’t know how much I like to talk. Maybe if I get an opportunity they’ll learn that I’m not as quiet and laid back as they think.”
Yes, some would be surprised by the sudden flood of words that he’s promised, but it is McCaghren’s hope that the people who know him best will recognize him as the same mid-40s workaholic who set out to fish a year on the big tour, found immediate success and then struggled to get his ship back on course.
“I haven’t even caught the first fish at the Bassmaster Classic yet,” he said. “But if I am blessed enough to win, I will be different from most of the other recent Classic winners – I will not move to Guntersville. I love it there, but I am a homer. I am an Arkansan. I don’t know the word for it, but I guess you could say I am a Mayflowerian. I hope that people around here will think I’ve never changed.”