STURGEON BAY, Wis. — Few things were more important to Mark Menendez this fall than putting together a successful homecoming season on the Bassmaster Elite Series. And what better measure of success could there be than a return trip to the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro?
On the verge of attaining that goal, Menendez removed himself from contention Monday by reporting his own rules violation. Like others in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) Championship last week, he was snagged by Wisconsin’s controversial foul-hook regulation.
See the updated AOY standings here.
Unlike others who released bass hooked outside the mouth, Menendez kept his fish, a 2 1/2-pounder that moved him up to 11th in the AOY Championship.
In the final minutes of competition on Sturgeon Bay, Menendez needed one more good bass to cull a 1-pounder and move him higher in the standings. One bite stood between him and a trip to the Classic, he believed. Miracle of miracles, that fish smashed his jerkbait and vaulted into the air. He could see that it was solidly hooked inside the mouth. But by the time he boated the fish, it had spit the front hook. The rear trebles were caught in the bass’ head and side.
“I knew that was the fish that might get me to the Classic,” Menendez said. “In my excitement, I forgot about the no-snagging rule and kept it.”
Sure enough, he ended the event in 41st place — next in line should one of three remaining Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens presented by Allstate yield an opening. He had arrived at Sturgeon Bay ranked 49th in AOY, and suddenly he had a very real shot at reaching his goal. It was cause for celebration.
“Later that night, it got to me,” Menendez said. “I’m thinking — this is not right. I thought about my kids . . . if I don’t act accordingly and do the right thing, how are they ever going to learn what the right thing is.”
As soon as he could get to a phone, the pro from Paducah, Ky., called B.A.S.S. Tournament Director Trip Weldon and told him, “I cannot in good conscience possibly go to the Classic because I weighed a fish that was not legal.”
Weldon disqualified Menendez’ Day 3 weight for violating Rule C6 (iii), which states, “All competitors are bound by the prevailing statutes and regulations of the various states within which they fish.” Wisconsin considers it illegal to keep a fish that is not hooked in the mouth.
With his third-round catch of five bass weighing 14 pounds, 3 ounces disqualified, Menendez dropped from 11th to 39th in the championship standings and from 41st to 50th in AOY points. Jonathon VanDam, who had lost a tie-breaker to Menendez for 41st in AOY, moves up to next in line for a Classic bid. Payouts did not change because of the shuffle, but anglers ranked from 42nd through 50th climbed a notch in the standings.
This isn’t the first time Menendez has placed himself in the penalty box. In a 2004 Bassmaster Elite 50 tournament on his home waters out of Paducah, he was distracted by another angler fishing his hotspot and made a cast in an area just inside the tailrace zone where state law requires the wearing of a life jacket. At that moment, he realized what he had done and contacted tournament officials. That day’s catch was DQ’d as well.
“That crushed me, to do something like that in front of my hometown crowd,” he said. “But I’ve found that deeds like that don’t go unrewarded in life.”
He used the latest misstep as a teaching opportunity for his kids.
His daughter, Caroline, 11 years old, said, “Okay, Daddy, cool.” But Max, 10, took it harder. “Why did you do this?” he asked. “We wanted to go to the Classic.”
“I told him that it was against the law, and against the rules, and you have to do the right things in life,” Mendendez explained. Max said he understood.
Menendez said he has complete peace about his decision.
“And here’s the other thing,” he explained. “This is not the worst thing. I’ve been through the worst already. Losing Donna absolutely demolished me.” Menendez took two years off from fishing to be at his wife’s side during her battle with pancreatic cancer. She died in March 2014.
To have earned a trip to the Classic his first season back on the circuit would have been so sweet. But the cost would have been too great.
“All we’ve got in this world is our name,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how big your bank account is or how many tournaments you’ve won. What matters is your name, your integrity, whether you do right.”
Menendez and I spoke by phone as he was driving to practice on a fishery that will be on the 2016 Elite Series. He suddenly stopped talking, almost overcome with emotion as he drove past a sign printing store and read the company’s thought of the day: “Great journeys all start with little steps.”
After a long pause, he said, “The new season starts today. I’m not a quitter. I’ll step across this and keep moving forward.”
He laughed as he thought of comedian Bill Engvall’s trademark line, “Here’s your sign.”
“I guess that’s my sign,” Menendez said. “Great journeys start with little steps.”