Muskogee, a place where even squares can have a ball

By my most recent count, I have fifty-something fishing-related t-shirts. That’s a fluid number, though, partially because I keep on acquiring more and partially because I’m sure that my wife has secretly donated some of the old favorites and deposited others in the trash.

Among my first-out-of-the-wash go-to’s is one that most ardent fishermen wouldn’t even recognize. It depicts a caricature of a musclebound goat, flanked on either side by caricatures of fawning female goats. It came from Pima Ranch Boers in Vian, Oklahoma. The goat in question, named “Chics Crave Me,” was raised by Stacey Stoneman. Once again, many of you probably don’t recognize that name. Stoneman is the girlfriend of former Elite Series pro Mark Tyler, who happened to win this year’s final Central Open, held on the Arkansas River out of Muskogee, Oklahoma.

As a general rule, fishing fans have short memories and little interest in history. There’s a whole generation that likely has little appreciation for Roland Martin’s incredible tournament achievements, if they know him at all. Since Mark Tyler departed the Elites after the 2011 season, which might as well be ancient history to many, lots of top notch fishermen have come and gone, and new stars like Brandon Palaniuk have hit the scene. It’s all a matter of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, and lately Mark Tyler has been more of a farmer than a fisherman.

Until last week, for those who remembered, his most notable accomplishments were probably his 2001 Bassmaster Classic appearance, his 2003 Western Open win on Clear Lake, and perhaps most of all the 14-09 largemouth he caught on the Cal Delta in 1999, setting the B.A.S.S. tournament big bass record that still stands today. All of those achievements derived from his skills as a western bad-ass, but make no mistake–even if he has no clue what a “surrey with a fringe on top” might be, as of September 2014 he’s less a westerner than an Oklahoma river rat.

Which reminds me – just about everyone fishing the Opens has a story.

A confession: Over the years, I have attended and covered a number of Bassmaster Opens (and their predecessors, the Invitationals), but I’ve always had uneasy thoughts about them. Sure, there are lots of Elites fishing them for their own reasons, as well as local top sticks, and quite a few up-and-comers, but there are also usually a few dozen guys who have no chance of winning, and even less chance of ever being competitive on the Elite level. Somehow that has lessened them in my eyes. Truth be told, given the choice I’d rather cover an Elite Series event than an Open, for several reasons: (1) The weigh-ins are shorter because of the smaller field and lack of co-anglers; (2) The anglers are more easily identified; and (3) The anglers are usually more capable of giving reasonably coherent interviews. Of course, there are exceptions to these generalizations, but for the most part they hold true.

What I’ve failed to remember, however, is that the Opens are most decidedly not the Elites, nor should they be. In the Elites, pretty much every competitor has the same reasons for being there – kick butt, make the Classic, earn money. It’s the 50 Cent model (aka, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”). At the Opens, it’s not that simple. For some competitors, their reasons mirror those three. For others, however, there’s a rationale that’s not necessarily apparent. It’s our version of “eight million stories in the naked city,” except in our case the number is more like 150.

Just look down the season-long Central Open standings and it becomes obvious: In first, there’s Stephen Browning, veteran Elite Series pro and the latest King of the Red River. In second, there’s former college champ Jordan Lee, fresh off a 6th place finish in the Classic, itching to get his Elite career started, followed by Carl Jocumsen, another aspiring Elite, from Australia of all places. In 4th and 5th you’ve got Brian Clark and Randy Allen, former Elites whose goal in entering may have been a return to the tour, or perhaps they just can’t fully wean themselves off the competition. And in 6th is Ken Iyobe from Japan, which would be an oddity if there weren’t already a bunch of his countrymen in the Elite ranks.

The leaderboard of the Muskogee tournament itself is equally compelling. After Tyler, there’s Kenta Kimura, a Japanese tackle designer. Then there’s veteran Oklahoma pro Tommy Biffle, coming off of a season most notable because he had to leave to deal with his wife’s health problems. In 6th is another legendary pro, Rick Clunn, who some would argue is the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.), trying to qualify for his 33rd Classic, and directly behind him is Vu Au, the competitor with the shortest name in Bassmaster history.

It has the making of a joke: “A goat rancher, an Aussie and Tommy Biffle walk into a bar….” except for the fact that everyone is dead serious about their own personal reasons for being there.

Clearly Mark Tyler’s reasons for being there were not to make the Classic or to return to the Elites. By fishing only one of the three Central Opens, he was not eligible to do either, no matter how he did in Muskogee. Maybe he just saw it as easy money. Maybe he just wanted one more taste of the limelight. Maybe there was just nothing good on TV. Or perhaps he just wanted to get away from the darn goats. He doesn’t have to explain himself to me or anyone else, especially not with the trophy back on the farm. There may only be one spot for a winner, but there are a thousand legit reasons for getting there.

Mark Tyler has been there, done that, and like me, he’s got the t-shirt.