Every angler needs a great teammate

Vance and Christy McCullough

We’re irrational. All of us. A man will cling to a belief, a hope, the slimmest chance in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Sometimes this is good. It allows us to overcome unconquerable odds. To put people on the moon. Or maybe even marry the girl of our dreams.

I don’t deserve her.

I swear I don’t, but neither does anybody else so I’ll let her keep me.

Of all the things I learned through my involvement in the recent Bassmaster Kayak Series the most important lessons were personal in nature, having little to do with fish. My faith in humanity was restored to a great extent. If you turn off the news, which habitually shows us the lowest common denominators of society, you’ll discover that most people are essentially good.

 A few are rock solid.

Momentum is real. In bass fishing and in life. A guy will go on a winning streak that even he can’t explain. Then there’s the flip side when he can’t seem to get any traction at all. Every little loose end that can come unraveled will do so. It makes you doubt yourself, doubt your decisions, and confidence in yourself and your decisions is key to success in bass fishing.

So, this is where I was as I began practice for the Kayak Series tournament on Harris Chain. Bootstrapping it. My specialty. A minimalist by nature, I hate unnecessary things. Anything extra is just something else that will break, let you down, just another distraction. A wise person once said that to have all you need is riches. To not need it in the first place is power. I’d rather be powerful than rich.

I lived for three days on several pre-fried burger patties that my wife cooked before I left and ziplocked them, put them in my soft-sided Engel cooler. It allows me to take home-cooking with me anywhere and save big bucks against the cost of eating out. Healthier too. Talk about something that’s earned its keep. Talking about the cooler here, not the wife – not yet anyway.

I drove some distance each evening out to one of my favorite spots on Earth, a campground in the heart of the Ocala National Forest. I stayed for $11 per night, which is a great price, but the real value was the ride through the forest that gave me time to digest what I had found on the lake and just enjoy the solitude and stunning beauty that drew me to fishing and the outdoors, in general, at a very young age. It centers me, helps me deal with the disappointments of each day that just passed as the sun blazes the western horizon through scattered pines and to look forward to the blessings that will surely come tomorrow while I watch the moon, full of promise, climb the trees to the east.

No water at the primitive camping site where I stayed so I bathed each evening in the drinking water clear Emeralda Marsh on Lake Griffin. Growing up on a clear, spring fed lake, I’ve taken many baths outdoors, so this takes me back to that childhood that, again endeared me to wild places to begin with. I don’t count it as a sacrifice.  

In fact, I don’t mind any of the above concessions. They fit my spartan lifestyle beautifully.

Dirty hotels, crappy food, city water? Been there. I’ll be there again. But not when I don’t have to be.

Oh, and as this tournament took place just two-and-a-half hours from my house, I took my old Trailblazer, leaving the newer, more dependable Toyota for my wife to use because Momma deserves the best.

As I left the pre-tournament board check Friday evening, looking forward to getting to the camp site before dark and prep tackle beside a fire, I heard the ugliest noise. A high-pitched whine rising from beneath my hood. A faint smell of antifreeze. Is that, no, it can’t be my vehicle. I turned up the 80’s hairband rock and rolled on down the road.

We’re irrational. A man will cling to a belief, a hope, the slimmest chance in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

I turned a corner and felt the power steering lose all power. The battery light came on. The whining stopped. I knew I had lost the serpentine belt. I pulled over. Popped the hood. There it was, piled up like dirty laundry in the corner of a bachelor’s room – a man really does need a good woman to keep him straight.

I felt the hot engine block sizzle my arm as I fought the tensioner with a short-handled ratchet, the best I had on me at the time. I could not let go or I’d have to do it all over again. Got the belt back on. Felt that cool 87-degree air on my arm, cranked the engine and peeked beneath the hood. Belt came right back off. Now we’ve got a problem.

As I stepped back to assess the situation, I noticed a puddle of water spreading on the ground beneath the engine. Yep, now we’ve got a problem.

I don’t remember the last time I cried but this is as close as I’ve come. After 50 years of making chicken salad out of chicken crap I was feeling good about my last couple of days. I had found fish. Lots of them and a few big ones. I had them dialed in. This was my turn to fish, not just interview other people and hear their stories of success as I’ve done for years in my career as an outdoors writer. This was my time. And now I had gone from being a potentially successful fisherman to a failed mechanic.

Worse yet, one of my biggest fears and most painful recurring living nightmares had reared its head yet again as has happened before when travelling to tournaments. I was broken down far from home. Not knowing a trustworthy mechanic. And now, at six o’clock on a Friday evening, most of them were closed for the weekend anyway and I had a busted water pump.

How was I going to make it to the water in the morning?

Was I even going to get to fish?

I had to fish. Too many people had invested in me on some level. The staff at Bassmaster, James Hall, Jim Sexton, even Chris Bowes, the head of all things tournament related at B.A.S.S. had spoken words encouragement to me at the recent Bassmaster Classic.

When I needed an official measuring board on short notice, Tournament Manager Randy Newton tracked down fellow competitor Russ Kennedy who didn’t bat an eye as he gave me one.

Needing a moment to assess the situation and catch my breath, I stepped into a nearby alley to duck the constant din of other motors whizzing past as they’re supposed to, and I called my wife, Christy.

“Baby, with you, it’s always an adventure,” she said without a hint of malice in her voice.

“Oh god, yes,” I agreed. “That’s the one honest thing they can say about me at my funeral. Just say that and then close the casket. Everybody, go home now. Nothing else to say about him. His adventures, misadventures, finally caught up with him.”

The damn broke.

“Why can’t I do this one thing? I just wanted to fish this tournament. Is that too much? Why can’t I catch a break!? Why am I such a screw up? I just can’t get out of my own way.”

“Baby,” she said, “Everything happens for a reason.”

“That’s what hurts the most,” I replied, “apparently, somebody up there doesn’t like me.”

We’re irrational. A man will cling to a belief, a doubt, fear in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Count your blessings. Weigh them against your disappointments. I have her. I’ve already won. Everything.

She talked me down off the cliff and coached me up.

“I’ll come down there. We’ll put everything in the Toyota, and I’ll take you to the lake in the morning. I’ll bring my sleeping bag. It’ll be nice to camp in the forest with you. I’m already heading that way.”

Talk about the dam breaking.

I don’t deserve her. I really don’t.

If I’ve ever done one thing right, it was marrying the girl of my dreams and the woman she has become. That’s a support crew of one right there. As I watched other teams at the tournament, the Old Town crew travelling together and helping each other, I realized, I have a team too. It’s us against the world. Nothing strengthens human bonds more than shared adversity.

We’re down, but we’re coming back!

I’ll admit it was hard to focus on fishing the next morning as I worried about my truck and how much money I was going to get stuck for, being an out-of-towner. Christy handled the business with the repair shop while I fished. I’d like to say I rose above it all and performed like a pro. But I don’t want to lie you nice people. Truth is, I was spun out all morning. Before we launched a chilly wind was up out of the east, the one direction on the compass it wasn’t supposed to come from all week. The one direction I hadn’t practiced for. Another surprise. Great.

It’s amazing how big a 12-inch fish is when you don’t have anything else.

I took a minute to text her. “I’m on the scoreboard.”  She was proud of me. Life was starting to right itself.

I stopped and drank some water. Amazing how often, in a situation, that’s the right answer. Stop and think. And just have a drink of water.

I mulled over my options. I decided to stay the course, to sight fish for bedded bass though that would mean finding all new fish now, given the relentless winds. Each fish I caught raised my spirits. Eventually I even found a big one that cooperated.

I fished until time ran out, catching a nice upgrade with 5 minutes left to fish. That one put me over the 80-inch mark on a day when only the winner, Justin Largen, posted more than 90 inches.

I was pleased. With my day. With my decisions on the water.

And most of all, my choice in teammates.