Bassmaster Elite Series angler Brad Whatley is returning to fish the final two Elite tournaments of 2022 after missing three tournaments due to a medical hardship. Whatley, who has been battling the effects of Crohn’s disease for nearly two decades now, ran into the worst fight with it he’s had thus far back in the spring.
Whatley had been in and out of the hospital since January, but by the end of the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Chickamauga Lake, the fourth stop of the season, Whatley had done all he could do. This time it was different, and he had to take the medical hardship that B.A.S.S. offers anglers on the Elite Series once during their career.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to the emergency room several times,” said Whatley. “But I’ve never been admitted to the hospital for serval days. I wound up spending five days in the hospital.”
Reader discretion advised — during this trip, Whatley had a tube run through his nose and down into his stomach to pump out the bile that was building up. His intestines had closed up to the point his body could not get rid of waste. Whatley’s body was doing all it could to fight off infection after infection, but it was time for medical intervention.
“They thought my small intestine was completely closed off. That’s why I was getting the infections. I got really, really sick at Harris Chain.”
Whatley, who was rooming with Brock Mosley, Hank Cherry and Tyler Rivet, and he was so sick during practice that he couldn’t out of the bed.
“They’d come in there and check on me, and I’d be in the bed with three jackets on and covered up. It wasn’t that it was cold. I’d get an infection, and then I’d get a fever and freeze to death. Then the fever would break and I’d sweat like a hog. It was a vicious cycle. And then while all that was going on I’d feel like I’m getting my guts ripped out.”
Whatley admits now in retrospect that he should have probably never started the season. But he’s a fierce competitor, a Texan and a self proclaimed with a little distain “redneck country idiot.” All that added up to him trying his best to rough it out and push through. But there’s some things that sheer willpower can’t compete with alone.
“I had friends going and getting my boat and getting it rigged (before the season started). I couldn’t even do that stuff. But here’s what made me take the medical exemption, that actually scared me. When I did go to the doctor, she said, ‘You can try to keep going, but if you get a small tear, which you’re very likely to get, you could get sepsis.’”
“And I’ve got enough people in my family in the medical field that I know what that means. You get sepsis and dude it’s over. I’m not trying to make it sound life or death. But at the same time, it is. And I hurt so bad when I get sick I don’t know if I’ve got a tear or if I’m just hurting. You don’t know the difference. If you just try to fight through it, then you get a tear and it gets into your blood system, it’s over with. That’s what pushed me to do it basically.”
Whatley, now 42, recalls he started having issues with Crohn’s disease when he was around 20 years old. He knew something was wrong, but his fear of knowing exactly what was wrong led him to avoid going to the doctor for several years.
“I thought it might be cancer, so I didn’t want to know. Then I got bad, bad sick (when Whatley was about 25). I lost 15 pounds in a day and a half. I felt like I was on my death bed. My wife told me I was going to the hospital right then, and if I didn’t get up and get in the truck, her daddy was going to come over there and pick me up and put me in the truck.”
So Whatley went to the doctor, and it was determined that Crohn’s disease was the culprit. It sounded about as bad as cancer to Whatley at the time, not knowing anything about the disease.
“All you hear is the word disease, so it’s scary. It can kill you. It scared me to death when they told me I had it because I didn’t know what it was. If you’ve never been around it, it’s like speaking a foreign language when you hear the words Crohn’s disease.”
What Whatley has learned since the diagnosis has put his mind at ease a bit, though his body has obviously still suffered a lot of turmoil. Crohn’s has just been something he’s had to live with. But after starting a new medication and having a small procedure done, Whatley’s Crohn’s disease is finally in remission again.
“I started infusions at the end of April and wound up getting sick again. I thought the medicine wasn’t working. But that wasn’t the case. It takes eight to 10 weeks for it to get into your system. I have not been sick since the last day of that Fork event and feel better than I’ve felt in 10 years.”
The medication Whatley started taking back in April is called Stelara. It helped to fight off the infection, and once that was under control, it was then time to talk about surgery.
“I had two options. They could cut out part of my small intestine and reattach it, or if we got the inflammation down, they could put me under and basically put a balloon in me and blow it up and stretch out where I have a lot of scar tissue and I’m really constricted.”
Whatley was able to undergo the second and less aggressive surgery a few weeks ago, and it has made an enormous difference in his quality of life. This is a procedure that is not expected to have to be done again. Though there are certainly still some negative effects of having Crohn’s, Whatley is feeling optimistic about the long term.
“From what I understand, if you can get to your golden years, it finally lessens up and you don’t have the problems.”
Focusing on the near future, Whatley is excited to get back onto the Elite Series trail. He’s certainly missed the competition and camaraderie.
“I’m no different than anybody else out there. I eat, breathe and sleep competition. If we’re going to sit down and play dominoes, I’m here to beat you.”
It was tough for Whatley to sit out for three events, especially with those fisheries traditionally being good to him. Whatley has finished fifth, ninth and 26th at Lake Fork, the St. Lawrence River and Pickwick Lake respectively.
“Feeling like I feel now, I could go ahead and not fish the remaining couple of tournaments on the schedule. At the same time, I’m a competitor and I want to fish. It’s killing me to not fish.”
So Whatley will soon start the long trek north to Lake Oahe in South Dakota, and then slide over to La Crosse, Wis., the next week for the final Elite Series event of the year. He’ll be rejoining the remainder of the field that will be competing in the final two events, and he’s happy B.A.S.S. has set it up to where he is unable to negatively affect the outcome of the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race.
“I’m going to fish to win, but I’m going to stay out of everybody’s way. I wouldn’t come back if I was going to affect somebody’s points. And I haven’t had any negative feedback. I’ve had lots of guys that have texted me, ‘Man I miss you out here.’ Everybody’s been cool about it and checked up on me pretty often, which I appreciate.”
Whatley will not receive AOY points for the remainder of the year, and the cut to fish Day 3 will remain at 47 boats. The last check will still go to the angler who finishes in 61st place.
Circling back to Crohn’s one last time, Whatley is passionate about using his story and hardship to help others. He understands better than anyone that hospitals and diseases are scary, but he knows that ignorance and fear are the enemy.
“I don’t have a problem talking about it, cause it is something that’s common these days. I might have gone a little earlier if I knew it wasn’t cancer.”
The Texas native recently had an old friend from high school reach out to him and inform him that her 12-year-old son had just been diagnosed with the same disease. She was looking for someone to tell her son, and herself, that it was going to be OK.
“He wants to design baits. He likes fishing; that’s what he wants to do when he grows up. She said he’s just scared to death about this disease, and wanted to know if it would be possible for me to talk to him. I said absolutely.”
Whatley is planning to take this young angler fishing soon and explain that Crohn’s is far from the death sentence that he first thought it was. That’s especially true if you seek treatment early on and do what the doctors say. His advice for this young man is the same he’d give to anyone with Crohn’s.
“You’re going to have to deal with it. There’s going to be bumps in the road, and it ain’t easy. It is what it is. But life still goes on. It ain’t over with.”
Proving that dreams are certainly still attainable with Crohn’s disease is a passion and purpose that burns white hot in Whatley’s soul. And he’ll soon have the opportunity to do just that as he continues to chase his first blue trophy on the Elite Series. There are certainly a lot of guys who have their eyes on these last two events, but there won’t likely be a dry eye in the crowd if it’s Whatley’s time to hold one up in the coming weeks.
Only time will tell on the fishing front. For now, he shares a last bit of advice.
“If there’s something going on with you, you’ve got stomach problems or you don’t feel right, go to the doctor. Basically the reason I’ve got such a restriction is because of the years I didn’t go with treatment, which caused a build up of scar tissue. So if you can head that off early enough, you may not have quite the problems that I’ve got.”
The last words Whatley leaves fans with carry a lot of weight, considering this man hates going to the doctor as much as any other ever has.
“Go to the doctor if you get sick.”