Tough times for Kevin Short

Kevin Short is one of my favorite Elite Series anglers, the type of guy I’d like even if we didn’t have fishing in common. He is whip smart and highly opinionated – and even if I don’t agree with his position, I can always trust it to be well-considered and reasonably conveyed. No gossip, just precise analysis.

If I was trying to put together a three-man team of Elite Series anglers to compete in a Jeopardy-style contest, he’d be an early draft pick. He’d be equally high on the board if we were putting together a search committee for the next MacGyver.

His wife, Kerry, who I’ve gotten to know a little bit over the past year, seems equally direct and equally savvy. I’m sure that while Kevin is the one who finds the fish, hooks the fish and weighs in the fish, he would attribute a sizeable portion of any success he experiences to their partnership. She’s the glue.

They have already been through almost unspeakable tragedy in their life together, losing their daughter Michelle just 10 years and one month ago in a horrible car crash. I know that Kevin doesn’t discuss it much, and he may want to kill me for writing this, but I’m pretty certain that their loss of Michelle almost led him to abandon his career in professional fishing. He almost made the call to go back to work for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, or some similar 9-to-5 respectable gig, and just fish local weekend derbies when the mood hit him – if indeed it ever hit him again. And that’s why I hurt for them now, with the news that their house was seriously damaged by the tornadoes that ravaged Mayflower, Arkansas, on Sunday. No family deserves either of those awful occurrences, let alone both of them.

Kevin and Kerry are not the self-pitying type, but I’m sure right now you’d have to ask not only “Why us?” but also “Why now?”

If he’d gone back to work at the Farm Bureau, or selling insurance, or some other mundane day-to-day job, wearing the pink dress shirt that spawned an identity, he’d have sick days and annual leave to allow him to pick up the pieces. There would likely be co-workers who could pick up the slack. On the Elite Series, though, you are a one-man show, even if you have a good woman propping you up. If you don’t fish, you don’t earn. If you don’t practice, you probably don’t do well. It doesn’t matter how good your excuse may be – the events are set for a particular time and if life gets in the way, them’s the breaks.

Tournament fishing is a cruel mistress. I’m reminded about the old Seinfeld bit about the differences between coffee and alcohol:

Coffee's a drink that seems to encourage a lot of accessories around it. Coffee cake, coffee table, coffee table book, clutches of people. Say what you want about alcohol, but not only are there not a lot of optional accessories, alcohol actually helps you get rid of things. Family, home, job, driver's license. In fact, at a certain point, the only thing you have to remember to get, is more alcohol. And maybe a rag for your squeegee.

In a sport like golf, there’s no real social cost. You go, you play, you drink a beer or three at the 19th hole. Fishing? While not necessarily as potentially harmful as alcohol, it is nevertheless a commitment to losing things. If you have to get up at 3 a.m. on Saturday to drive 200 miles to fish all day in the rain, you’re not going to be much fun on Friday night. After you decline a few such invitations, the invitations stop coming. Then you get home and the fun continues. Everyone’s going out to dinner and a movie. If you were a golfer, the biggest crisis might be getting that splotch of artichoke dip off of your good plaid pants and missing the coming attractions. As a fisherman, though, you’ll spend the evening madly searching for a replacement bilge pump and then finding a way to wire the non-conforming pump cartridge into your existing set up. No popcorn for you!

It’s even worse if you fish for a living. I’d like to take a poll of the 100-plus Elite Series pros and find out how many births, weddings, graduations and other family events they’ve missed. The number would astound you. I’m sure each of them has an estranged friend or family member who resents that they “couldn’t just miss one little tournament” to come to little Susie’s ballet recital or cousin Bubba’s third wedding, but at this level there are no mulligans, no TV time outs, no injured reserve list. Yes, you can take a year off for a demonstrated medical hardship, but unlike in the other major sports, that comes with a salary of approximately zero.

Earlier this year, there was much gnashing of teeth over the decision of New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy to take time away from the team to attend the birth of his first child. No matter which side of the issue you come down on, the bottom line is that the Mets had another infielder to take his place during the gap. If a pro angler’s wife were giving birth during an Elite Series event and he wanted to be there, he can’t just call up the Lane family and see if they have another brother willing to step in for the week. You have to make your choices and live with them.

A few years ago, I spent a practice day on the Potomac River with an FLW pro. In the early afternoon, he asked if I’d mind coming off the water a little early so he could head home to North Carolina for his daughter’s high school graduation that evening. I asked if it bothered him that he’d have to miss the next day of practice. “I’m not missing it,” he replied. The plan was to drive the six hours home, attend the ceremony and the party, then hop in the truck before the seat got cold and drive back to Maryland, just in time to launch the boat. At the time, it seemed like a selfless, Solomonic decision, but I’m not sure I’d feel the same way about it if he’d fallen asleep at the wheel and seriously hurt himself or others.

I don’t know what the solution is to this conundrum. No one forced the anglers to pursue this as their profession – they all knew what they were getting into when they signed on the dotted line. B.A.S.S. used to allow for a “drop” tournament over the course of a tour season, but that created certain perverse incentives that meant that the best anglers weren’t always competing at the end of the year.

Short is currently 44th in the Toyota Angler of the Year race, coming up on a portion of the schedule that you’d expect to treat him well. In particular, looking ahead to Dardanelle, if there are any Elite pros who’ve fished there more than K-Pink, you can count them on one hand. He needs to get back to the Classic. He needs to get to the postseason event in Escanaba. More than that, though, he needs to get the foundations of his life in order and make sure that his property is shored up and his 80-something-year-old father is in the best possible shape. Even if Short returns to Toledo Bend this week to fish, it will likely be with a heavy heart and concerns other than what size slip sinker will provide the best rate of fall.

As I write about fishing week-to-week, it’s easy to see the on-the-water decisions and critique them as brilliant, baffling or chokeworthy. What’s hard to see is the external factors that influence those decisions, the family matters and life issues that may complicate or cloud the process. I hope that going forward I am able to separate the two, writing knowledgeably about fishing strategy and tactics, while also recognizing that these are real live human beings with feelings and motivations that aren’t always abundantly obvious.

Most of all, I hope that my friends Kevin and Kerry Short get things in order and remember that the fishing community is there for them. Every one of us – whether it’s a fellow Elite pro, a pro angler’s wife, or just a weekend club-level duffer – knows the sacrifices that they make to be out there. When it’s good, it’s very good, but there’s lots of slogging through the rough to get to those occasional clear spots.