Daily Limit: Grosses keep getting back up on horse

Let’s ride. That’s Buddy Gross’ latest mantra, for himself and his daughter, who’s progressed from dark horse to front-runner in the rodeo world.

“She’s the Trey McKinney of barrel racing,” Gross said of Bella, 15, in reference to last month’s youngest Elite Series winner whose family also is big in the sport.

In three years, Bella has become a force in the rodeo event where riders attempt to gallop their horse around three barrels the fastest. Hesitant at first, maybe even a little scared, Gross is now rather proud of her.

“It’s like putting a kid on a GSX 1000 crotch rocket, but it’s got a brain,” Gross said. “She’s doing great. We entered her in four pro rodeos last year, and she won three.”

That’s better than dad did in 2023. After winning a title in each of his first two Elite seasons and qualifying for Classics, Gross had a disastrous season. He made only two cuts and finished 87th in the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings.

“It hurt my feelings. It hurt my pride. It hurt my bank account. Hurt a little bit of everything,” he said. “I know what I did wrong. We didn’t scope enough. I was out catching the weight I would usually do good, but with the scopers, the weights went up 10 to 15%.

“They got a saying, ‘If you ain’t scoping, you’re hoping.’ I was hoping too much last year. I’ve been sucking so bad I’m trying to get it back together.”

Buddy Gross celebrates his 2022 Elite win on the Harris Chain with wife, LeAnn, and daughter, Bella.

Tournament fishing is a horse of a different color with the advent of forward-facing sonar, and Gross has enough sense to saddle up and try the new tack.

“I think technology just got past me last year,” Gross said. “I didn’t want to do it, but I think I might have to, so I’m learning it now. I’ll catch back up.”

When contacted, Gross was doing just that in preparation for this week’s Lowrance Bassmaster Elite at Harris Chain, site of his latest win. He was LiveScoping in 3-foot waves on nearby Yale Lake, hoping to gain on the herd.

Gross said he expects the Harris Chain to be radically different from when he won in February of 2022 with 77 pounds, 11 ounces. The April swing in Florida, two months later than usual, presents a twist with changed conditions and bass expected to be mostly post spawn.

“All my research says it’s not the same place. They’ve had a pretty big fish kill on Harris, water’s dirty, no grass, so I think people are going to have to gamble on the locks, travel to try to catch them,” he said. “I might have to fish history for a little bit.

“I always wanted to go to Apopka, but I don’t ever like to gamble with the locks. Depends on how bad the fishing is on the other lakes.”

Getting a glimpse of Lake Eustis, Gross reported the water is as dirty as he’s ever seen, which will add to the puzzle of mapping out a winning formula.

“The only good news is the Harris Chain has had a few tournaments on it lately, so they’ve brought some new fish into it,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s going to be wide open. I think the scopers are going to have a little bit of fun.”

There’s an inherent dilemma for those who didn’t cut their teeth on that technology, which produced top finishes in the first two Elites of the year. With a 25th on Lake Fork, Gross rebounded from finishing 101st at Toledo Bend, where he fished the same creek as five in the Top 10.  

“It wasn’t that I missed them, I just didn’t want to go out and do what they were doing,” he said. “I’d go out there and fish for about an hour, then go fish grass for two hours, then go back out. I just never got comfortable. You’ve either got to go all in or get out.”

Saying while veterans have the same electronics, Gross thinks the natural tendency is to ride with what got you there. While you can lead an angler to water, you can’t make him scope.

“I don’t have that confidence to do that,” he said. “Until I get it, I won’t be able to do it. I’ll always think I have to be on the bank or a ledge.

“What I have learned, I can find them, I can throw it at them, but you still have to figure out how to catch them. There’s a little trick to everything, and I haven’t figured out the exact trick.”

Catching 20 pounds a day and missing the cut had many Elites scratching their heads in Texas, he said. Forward-facing sonar is long out of the barn, and they can’t simply wish it away. Gross agreed that many Elites worked on that aspect of their game after the first two Elites, even if they didn’t want to.

“Nobody wants to look at their screen all day,” he said, likening it to being stalled all day. “I don’t want to do it either, but my baby’s got to eat, so I got to do it.”

Bella proved a natural in the sport from the first time on a horse.

Buddy and wife, LeAnn, are splitting up this year and putting in the time, miles and money in support of Bella’s career, which began after attending an overnight clinic. She proved to be a natural.

“First question we were asked, ‘How long has she been riding?’” Gross said. “LeAnn said, ‘Other than the quarter machine at K-Mart, however long she’s been here with you.’”

The Grosses put off her multiple requests to buy a horse, finally jumping when a barter opportunity arose.

“I traded two rod and reels and $400 for her first horse — that was the biggest mistake of my life,” quipped Gross, who laments they’ve now gone through 12 horses, four horse trailers and three trucks.

With the help of other trainers, Bella proved a quick study and climbed up in the barrel racing world. There are open competitions most weekends, requiring travel that Gross said rivals Elite windshield time. But they see great value in her endeavor.  

“Last weekend, Friday she got second out of 300 entrants, then 12th out of 400 on Saturday, and she hit a barrel on Sunday,” Gross said. “Won over $1,200 last week with $500 entry fee.”

In 2023, Bella won $35,000, enough to invest in a colt and pay bills for hay and veterinarians. Becoming immersed in the field, Buddy purchase Bella a winner in Cruz, and her successes have increased that horse’s value immensely.

Bella has done well competing against men, women and other youth in events across the country.

“The good thing, that horse she rides and does real good, I gave $14,000 for it, and I turned down $150,000 for it the other day,” Gross said.

Their future is bright in the sport.

“She’s just going to keep rocking on,” Gross said. “She’s in ninth grade, almost 100% sure to get a college scholarship. All this stuff she’s learning, she’ll be able to train horses the rest of her life. She’ll be able to teach or be able to rodeo.”

Bella qualified for the BBR World Finals later this month in Oklahoma City. It’s the largest and richest division event in the country, boasting some 6,000 entrants with payouts approaching $1 million.

For other big events, there’s an age restriction of 18 to be on TV, along with an earnings threshold to qualify. The Calgary Rodeo has big payouts, but Bella’s greatest hope is to make the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

“That’s like the Bassmaster Classic. That’s where she wants to end up,” Gross said. “She’s got to qualify for it, earning like $135,000 in a year. You got to be going and going.”

The Grosses are certainly going and going. Buddy will be riding his Phoenix on the Elite trail while his girls embark on the barrel trails.

“LeAnn and Bella, they left today for a three-day race without me,” said Gross, who admits all the travel as well as moving homesteads might have taken away time from his fishing. “It did last year, but we’re not making that excuse no more.

“LeAnn is focused on Bella, and I’m focused on trying to make money so they can go. I don’t like losing. I ain’t ever had a year like I had last year.”

So like his daughter, he’s saddling up and looking to ride high.