Brandon Gray lost his best friend and fishing partner in 2007. Gray was "lost" too after his cousin, Doug Gray, fell asleep at the wheel and died in an auto accident while driving to fish a tournament at Lake Pickwick.
And he stayed lost for awhile.
"He was everything," Gray said. "He was the anchor in the boat for us. We'd fished together all our lives. If there was a creek, pond, mudhole, anything, we fished it together from the time we could walk until he passed away, when he was 34."
There were 310 anglers in the inaugural Toyota Bonus Bucks Bassmaster Team Championship last week at Arkansas's DeGray Lake. Winning the final berth in the 2015 GEICO Bassmaster Classic would have been incredibly special for any one of them.
It was more than that for the 42-year-old Gray, who lives in Bullock, N.C., on Kerr Reservoir/Buggs Island Lake.
"I almost quit fishing because of Dougie's passing," Gray said. "I lost him, and I lost my confidence. Financially, we were broke. My wife (Cotty) told me to sell the boat, and I did. I'd decided to take a break."
Gray realized he needed to work on his head, not a boat or fishing tackle or anything else, if he was ever going back to tournament bass fishing.
"I rebuilt myself," he said. "After some time passed, I decided not to get out of it. I still had a johnboat. But I had realized that in order to find fish again, I was going to have to find myself."
Gray said he'd never been much interested in other sports, televised or otherwise. But he began watching sports on TV, with no interest in any team, just individual performance under pressure. One of his primary interests isn't commonly considered a sport — poker.
"Poker and golf to me are the most challenging from the mental standpoint," Gray said. "For instance, in golf if that ball lands on the green 4 feet this way or 4 feet that way, there's 30 different decisions that guy has got to make.
"Fishing is the same way. I started looking at fishing as a mental game. Once I figured that part out, it all came together."
You didn't have to be on DeGray Lake very long last week to realize what a mental grind it was going to be. Gray and his Angler's Choice teammate, Todd Massey of Chapel Hill, N.C., both pulled their boats to the event, so they could cover more water during practice.
Initially, they didn't want to fish up the Caddo River, which forms DeGray, because they knew at least two-thirds of the 155-boat field would also be in the slightly stained water there.
But after Monday's first practice day, they didn't feel like they had a choice. The main lake clear waters, where they thought a jigging spoon would be effective, hadn't produced a thing.
It was on Tuesday afternoon when Gray found the area where he'd fish for the next four days. Gray and Massey finished second in the team tournament with a two-day total of 23 pounds.
Massey deferred to Gray for that spot on the final two days, when the top three teams were split into individuals competing for the Classic berth.
Both anglers are crankbait specialists, Gray slightly more so than Massey.
"We make a lot of money doing that at home," Massey said. "He's probably got 2,000 crankbaits, I'd guess. I've got a bunch too."
Gray said his crankbait collection has been built over many years and includes some old favorites unavailable today.
"I've got a lot of money invested in them," Gray said. "I've got a lot of good, old baits that they don't make like that anymore. Most of them are older, deep-running Poe's and older Bill Norman baits."
It was a Norman DD22 that produced almost all the fish they caught in the team event and Gray caught in the individual event. Deep-cranking was the most effective way to entice bites from at choke-point where the Cox Creek channel meets the Caddo River channel. Gray said there was a 300-yard stretch of ledge that dropped from 9 feet to 22 feet where the bass were holding.
For the final two days in particular, Gray ran his boat to that spot, turned off the big motor and didn't start it again until it was time to weigh-in. There were a lot of boats further back in Cox Creek, and Gray speculated that helped him and Massey the first two days. DeGray Lake's bass are notoriously fishing-pressure sensitive.
"Most people were doing just the opposite (fishing shallow) than what we were doing," Gray said. "I went in there looking for migration routes. I think the fishing pressure was sending some fish out to us, and at the same time, there were fish moving in there."
Gray had to make many casts to find a bite on that 300-yard stretch. He said the fish would move from one side to the middle to the other side during the week.
He was the only man who caught a limit on Friday when the individual event began. It weighed 10 pounds, 8 ounces and put him in first place, 2-3 ahead of Arizona angler Jon "Scooter" Griffith's 8-5 second-place, four-bass bag.
Gray had, by far, the most productive final day. He had to cull through 17 or 18 bass to get five keepers that weighed 9-11. Griffith finished a distant second to Gray's 20-3 two-day total with 12-12.
Gray's fish weren't fooled by the DD22 by Saturday afternoon.
"I had three of them on the deck," he said. "A chartreuse-and-white, a blue/pearl and a lavender shad color. The blue-and-white was what they were chewing on (Saturday).
"Finally, they had seen enough of that crankbait. They didn't want to be around one anymore. So I picked up a shaky head with a black (Zoom) Trick Worm and caught the last two keepers, a 16 1/2-inch largemouth and a 12-inch spot."
Every one of the six finalists would probably have become emotional with the trophy in hand on the weigh-in stage Saturday. But Gray's memory of his longtime fishing partner made him especially so.
"I changed when that happened," said Gray, about his cousin Doug's death. "We had fished together three or four days a week all our lives. I still think about him every day. He did light a fire under me."
It just took awhile before Gray could see through the smoky haze of an untimely death, rebuild himself and get back into the sport that he, now obviously, has the mental makeup to be successful in.
"He's a hammer," said Massey at Saturday's weigh-in. "I couldn't be happier for him."