One fish from glory: Keith Combs

“To be honest db I have never gotten over it.”
— Keith Combs

“And neither have I.’
— Jennifer Reid Combs (wife) 

Dateline: Lake Champlain, N.Y. and Farmington, Conn.

“It was 2016. I was in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race all year, but this one event, Bull Shoals, I weighed in only four fish. I had a 2-pounder, maybe 2 1/2-pounder hooked for my limit, but it came off at the boat …” 

And then there is a long pause. 

Keith Combs is in Plattsburgh for the Lake Champlain Elite gig. I’m in the spare bedroom at my house in Connecticut, off the road this year with a bad immune system and an even worse virus lurking out there.

Keith is a bud, I called him to give him some grief, but right now I’m just listening because this is a man of few words.

“… every fish counts out here, db, every fish. At the end of the year that fish would have done it for me, that one fish.” 

From somewhere in Texas, Keith’s wife Jennifer: “It was monumental, db, that one fish. He doesn’t open up much, but oh yeah, we talk about that one fish a lot.”

“db, I have one goal every year, every year, and that is to win AOY, to win Angler of the Year…”

And then once again it goes silent up there in Plattsburgh … and here in Connecticut as well.

“Failure does not come from losing, but from not trying.”
— Larry Brown
2002 Basketball Hall Of Fame Inductee 

So, why am I talking to Keith now? Here’s the honest to goodness truth, I called him up to give him some grief about his performance on the water these last two years. Yep, I did … and I even told him that was the reason I was calling.

“Um … OK … db..”

But then I said this: “Yeah I thought you kind of stunk up the place, but right before I called you I happened to look up your record these last two years …”

Keith says nothing. He is well aware I don’t do math … or much story research either … gets in the way of truth and spontaneity. 

“How do I look?” said with a bit of an attitude, which is fine, and I’m deserving of a little smack back.

“So dude, in the past two years your average place is 28th.”

“Uh huh.” It’s here where I figure I’m the only one on this phone call that didn’t know that. 

“In fact I did your batting average, so to speak, your number of at bats would be your number of tournaments, and the amount of times you got a hit would be your times in the money.”

“Uh huh,” again I’m thinking he is a head of me on this. 

“So, with that crazy figuring you batting average is .814 …”

Keith says nothing. 

“… in 102 tournaments you’ve made a check 83 times, says you’ve caught about two tons of fish (that gets a laugh) and have won about $1.4 million in the 10 years you’ve been doing this.”

“Huh, that’s just B.A.S.S. If you count everything probably more like, two-and-half-mil.”

So much for telling him he stinks. Actually with those numbers, he’s one of the best to have ever suited up. 

“You know, db, all of that is pretty special, but to be honest, if not for a miracle week, I wouldn’t even be here.” 

“If you want to make your dreams come true, the first thing you have to do is wake up.”
— J. M. Power

I’ll get out of the way here, going to be a bunch of quotes, but it’s all Keith, pretend you’re listening:

“My parents took me fishing, bank fishing, they didn’t have a boat. I was young and living in central Texas, but I knew from the first fish I caught that it was what I wanted to do for a living, but didn’t even know there was such a thing. 

“A 12 or 13 I began tournament fishing with a next door neighbor who had a boat, did well, real well, but again I was young in school but had the bug. After school I got a job in a machine shop, would work nights, fish in the day and weekends. I was at the machine shop, it was going through some changes, hard times I guess, the owner came up to me and told me he knew my dream was to be a pro angler and he said ‘you know what, you are young, not married, no kids, now is the time if you are going to do it,’ and he was right. So I quit and moved to Del Rio to guide.”

I’m sitting at my desk eating ice cream and Fritos and writing this stuff down. 

“So I’m guiding some oil guys, we hit it off, they say I should give the Toyota Texas Bass Fest tournament a try. I tell them I’m broke, they offer to sponsor me, I enter the tournament and while there someone else who knew about me comes up to me and offers to sponsor me. I had won the Central Open and qualified for the Elites but had no money to do it, so suddenly in a couple of days I have two sponsors and then I win the Bass Fest event, get 150 grand, and just like that, one week, db, I go from no chance to get into the Elites to signing up and joining the tour. It was 2011.”

“One week changed my life, changed my life.”

And once again from Plattsburgh, there is silence. 

“Most do not understand the wonderful opportunities life gives until they look back at their life.”
— Eric Handler

Since 2011 Keith has fished in eight Bassmaster Classics with an average finish around 22nd place.

“db, I know him as well as anyone, and I know this is what he was made to do. He’s a great, great angler …”

Keith doesn’t know this at this time but I also called out to Texas to talk with his wife, Jennifer.

“… he’s so good. I only beat him once you know.”

Um what? Wait.

“I grew up fishing the same lake as he did, Lake Belton, I’m passionate about fishing as well, used to fish against him in tournaments, you knew then he was something special on the water.”

This my friends is why you call the wife.

“Back then I used to fish the Texas Tournament Trail, a pro-am thing. I was a co-angler, we fished together every once in awhile. One day I caught three keepers behind him on the boat, beat him that day.”

“I get what he is doing. He calls me every night before bed, tells me about his day, what he is doing, what he is going to do. I listen I don’t say much, he doesn’t open up much to a lot of people. I think it’s just a way for him to get out what he is thinking when he calls. It’s been great, what he is doing, great highs but a couple lows to that will haunt the both of us.”

“I’m sure a lot of players say it, but winning is almost so you don’t lose. The thrill of winning is not as great as the pain of losing.”
— John McEnroe

I believe that if you want opportunity you don’t wait for it to knock. You kick the door down and go get it.

To Keith, and all those Elite dudes up on Lake Champlain, a simple piece of advice heard once at a Chuck Noll pressor after a loss to the Browns: “Losing has nothing to do with geography.”

On a shelf next to my desk in my home office/spare bedroom are a stack of old, wrinkly, some tore up pieces of paper.

A pile 6.25 inches high …

… of rejection letters.

All the winning stuff, the awards, are downstairs. The losses stare me in the face when I write.

What coach was talking about was, the way the players played, they would have lost anywhere. I was at the game, they may have lost at a high school field that day, but it had nothing to do with the conditions outside.

It had everything to do with the conditions within themselves.

Keith as you launch during the money time this week remember what it felt like to weigh in four fish.

Fear of losing helps to win. I believe McEnroe. Use it and bring in 20 fish one at a time, and you’ll be on the Sunday stage.

Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in his career.

Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times in his career and lead the league five times in that category.

“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from coming up to bat.”
— Babe Ruth

To all those taking to the big lake up north, this is your next at bat.

Swing hard.

The fences await you.

Miss ya,

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”
— Dan Stanford