Well, as you have probably heard by now, I went from winning the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year trophy straight to a hospital bed for six days. Complications from arthroscopic knee surgery made things seriously scary there for a few days. A very rare reaction to the surgery called compartment syndrome threatened to damage the muscle tissue in my right leg – permanently – as in possibly losing the use of my entire leg.
Thanks to some great doctors, I’m back home now and it looks like I will eventually make a full recovery. But I have a long way to go; the healing process will take at least eight weeks.
This has all happened so fast, I haven’t really had time to celebrate my AOY win. So I want to start that celebration today by giving a special shout out to the Bassmaster Marshals who come to watch us pros fish.
Marshals pay money to come sit in our boats and endure sweltering heat, freezing cold, thunderstorms, winds and long boat rides to be our number one fans with a front row seat for the day. Some days they endure the elements all day with little to cheer about. I know I’ve put a few Marshals through some long days with little to show for it.
But this year was different. This year I pulled off some heroic fourth-and-long Hail Marys, giving the one-man cheering section located in the passenger seat of my boat something to fist pump about, something to high-five about, something to scream about and yes, even something to hug about.
Hey, I’m not ashamed to admit it: Several times this year when I boat-flipped a game-changing bass, I found myself bear hugging another grown man who was a complete stranger to me up until that moment. To share something like that creates a memory neither one of us will ever forget. Now that the season is over, these special moments are permanently paved in my mind, and I wanted to recount a few of them from the year.
On Day 2 at the St. John’s River, I had a small limit for 9 or 10 pounds. I made a risky move to a place where some big ones should have been bedding – I never got a bite there in practice, but it just looked right. I started dead-sticking a Z-Craw in some lily pads and the first bite was a 7-pounder. A few minutes later I hooked another giant and as soon as it cleared the gunnel, my Marshal just came unglued from his seat and started fist pumping. For like 30 seconds, he went crazy fist pumping and celebrating.
We both went from a low to an extreme high with adrenaline. What a moment to share with someone else – a one-minute section of life we will both never forget.
At Wheeler Lake this year, I drew a guy who had Marshaled over 100 days, so he had spent some time in pros’ boats. I had five bass that weighed maybe 4 pounds; I had to make a change. On a hunch, I ran to a backwater pond and started slinging a buzzbait around. I caught a nice 3-plus and a few casts later a 7-pounder thrashed my buzzbait just 10 feet from the boat. I got down to lip the fish and when I got it in the boat my Marshal fell to his knees, grabbed me in bear hug and started screaming, “UNN-FRIGGIN’-BEE-LIEVABLE! UNN-FRIGGIN’-BEE-LIEVABLE!” over and over again. He was so fired up I was afraid he was going to have a heart attack. I still had the fish in my hands, and we’re hugging and he is screaming, “This is the most incredible comeback I’ve ever seen!” After all the hysteria, he saw my hands shaking as I was trying to retie my buzzbait and he said, “You still love it, don’t you, son?”
Yes I do, and it’s because of these very magical moments that I still love it.
At Texoma, my very first bite of the first morning was a 7-pounder that devoured my buzzbait. When I lipped it my marshal started screaming, “GAME CHANGER! GAME CHANGER!” I bet he said it 20 times while we were high-fiving, hugging and celebrating. I had known this guy for all of 15 minutes and now we were locked up in a bear hug.
On Day 2 at the Potomac River, I had just two fish in the well with an hour left to fish. On a whim, I ran to the back of a creek that I did not practice in. I dug a flipping stick out of the rod box and started punching. In the next 30 minutes I put 16 pounds in the boat to save my AOY hopes and my marshal was coming unwound with every fish catch. This guy was not even holding a fishing rod, and he was just as pumped up as I was, waiting intently for each bite and celebrating with me when I caught one. The bass is the glue that creates a special bond between two strangers that’s pretty magical.
On Day 2 at Wisconsin, I had one bass at 11:30 – just one bass. I idled out to the main river and proceeded to catch 15 pounds on a spook. When I put the fifth fish in the boat, my marshal started screaming, “Angler of the Year right there, baby! Angler of the Year! That’s how you do it!”
Then he said, “Sharing this moment with you is worth every penny I paid to get here. I’ll remember this forever.”
So just think about that for a moment: How powerful is that? How powerful is the game?
Think about all the crazy stuff going in our world today and when you think there is no hope, just think about how the power of a fish can bring people together like that – complete strangers high-fiving, fist pumping, snoopy dancing, and hugging each other over a fish. It’s the kind of stuff our world needs a whole lot more of.
During my recent stay in the hospital, they gave me different drugs to help reduce pain and swelling. And as I lay awake wondering what was going to happen with my leg, I kept rolling these special memories of fish catches with my marshals through my head: those high-fives, handshakes and hugs are a special medicine to me – thanks guys.