A delayed homecoming for Buddy Gross

The eventual tale of our collective COVID-19 lockdown may result in a form of Greek tragedy, but Georgia pro Buddy Gross is already living the mythological story of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, you may recall, was forced by Zeus to eternally try to roll a massive boulder up to the top of a large hill. He’d struggle to make progress, and each time he’d near the top the boulder would escape his grasp and roll back to the bottom. He’d start again, confident that this next time he’d corral the boulder and reach the top, ending his continuing torture. Each time he would fail once again. And so on, and so on, and so on.

For those of you not enamored of ancient mythology, think of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown, and then pulling it away at the last second, forcing him to flop helplessly in the dirt. She promises that the next time that she won’t pull it away, but he never learns. 

That’s where we find Gross, a 47-year-old Bassmaster Elite Series rookie, but hardly a newcomer to pro fishing, having earned nearly half a million bucks with FLW, including six-figure FLW Tour wins on Pickwick and Toho. Last year he finished fifth in the Bassmaster Eastern Opens AOY race to qualify for the senior circuit, and he shot out of the gate with a vengeance, finishing 25th in the first Eastern Open of 2020 and 11th at the Elite Series opener on the St. Johns. 

He was firmly seated on the momentum train, and they were chugging in the direction of Chattanooga, to his home waters of Chickamauga. He’s been fishing there more than 40 years, and he’s even sponsored by Fish Dayton Tennessee, Fish Lake Chickamauga and several other local businesses. He’d get a primo chance to live out the “Big Bass. Big Stage. Big Dreams.” slogan live in front of his family, friends and supporters.

And then the rains came.

Throughout the South, biblical flooding persisted all spring. (OK, I’ve now mixed Greek mythology, the Peanuts and the Bible here, but stick with me, I’m on a roll.) By the time the St. Johns event was over, it became clear that fishing a big tournament on Chickamauga would likely be unsafe, so B.A.S.S. postponed it until March 19.

No problem. Gross had tons of history catching big limits on the TVA impoundment in March. It might require an adjustment in tactics, but he’d be prepared. 

Unfortunately, none of us really could have been prepared for what came next. On March 13, as the COVID-19 virus spread, B.A.S.S. made the painful but proper decision to postpone the tournament again, this time indefinitely. 

“Any time we are forced to postpone a tournament it is disappointing to our anglers, fans, sponsors and staff,” B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin said in a press release. “The anglers want to fish this incredible lake, where we have enjoyed amazing fan support over the years. After careful discussions though, it was apparent that the best decision was to postpone the tournament and festivities.”

The boulder escaped again. Lucy was up to her old tricks.

For Gross, it was heartbreaking but understandable. “I know that they postponed it for the right reasons,” he said. “but it was difficult to take. I got pumped up two times, prepared for two different kinds of tournaments. This pretty much let the wind out of my sail.”

He noted that he’s fishing very well, and with confidence, right now, and that adds to the slate of “what if” questions. Right after the Bassmaster Classic he fished a big tournament on Guntersville, with a field loaded with top locals and Elite pros, and won. This past weekend he fished another big tournament on Chickamauga, and he and his partner caught 23 pounds to finish fifth, a mere 18 ounces out of the lead. He’s fishing well, the lake is on fire and what may be the best opportunity of his career feels like it’s slipping away. At least B.A.S.S. has removed Chickamauga from the off-limits category for the time being, which means he’s keeping his skills sharp. He visited the big impoundment three times last week, and he’s also spending time on a small no-wake city lake just 10 minutes from his house.

In the grand scheme of things, Gross knows that others’ suffering is greater than his own, and he’s chosen to look for a silver lining in the COVID cloud. He’s spending more time with his family, camping and helping his daughter, who is an aspiring barrel racer.

“I’m spending lots of time brushing and grooming,” he said. “Cleaning hoofs out every day and still trying to keep my line wet. I’m also trying to get out of my box by building my social media presence. Gerald (Swindle) makes it look so easy. I held an online Q&A the other night, and it went really well. We chewed through an hour really fast.”

A single hour may go fast, but when you’re waiting for your life and your career to resume, the hours stack up quickly. Buddy Gross continues to lean against the downhill pull of his rock pushing days, ready for the next tournament.