The fish I want back is one from a March 2004 tournament on Santee Cooper in South Carolina. Early in the morning of the last day, on my first cast, I hooked a good one on a jig. I did the tug of war thing with it for a moment or two before it jumped.
It looked to be between 3 1/2 and 4 3/4 pounds. (I know that's a big difference but it's my honest opinion of what it would have weighed. I don't want to be accused of telling fish stories.) The hook was solidly in its jaw as it fell, face down into the water.
I breathed a sigh of relief and started cranking. But as I pulled it to the boat my braid pulled out of the eye of the jig. There was nothing spectacular about it; the knot came untied and the line pulled loose. The fish flopped once and swam away. It was all very ordinary and mundane — happens all the time.
The consequences were not so ordinary, however. That bass cost me the 2004 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title in my rookie season. And that doesn't count not getting my picture on the cover of Bassmaster Magazine or the money or the sponsors.
As things turned out, I needed an 8th place finish on Santee Cooper to win Angler of the Year. I finished 9th with 53 pounds. Dean Rojas weighed in 56-3 pounds to claim the spot I needed. As a result, Gerald Swindle won Angler of the Year honors that year.
I've thought about that bass in the years since with mixed emotions. At the time, I was heartbroken. If I'd put it in my livewell I'd have been the Angler of the Year in 2004. Then again, I've also thought that maybe losing that bass was a good thing. Maybe it was too early in my career for me to accomplish something as prestigious as that.
You know, success can do funny things to you when you're young and inexperienced. You can start to think that you're the one, that you're someone special. It can ruin you. Maybe my attitude and ego — maybe my personal and professional life itself — are better for the loss.
And never think that I begrudge Rojas his weight or Swindle his title. I do not. This is a competitive business. We fish to win, not to help the other guy. They each earned their slots honestly. They got their bass to the scales, I didn't. That's what made the difference, and that's what should make the difference. It was all fair and above board.
Besides, I've had a great career. I've been able to support my family doing something I love, something I've wanted to do since I was a kid. I wouldn't trade places with anybody for any amount of money or for all the accolades in the world. I'll have more chances. In fact, I have had them. My day will come, of that I'm sure.
Still, I'd like to have carried that fish to the scales. I'd like to know what an AOY title would have done to me if I'd won it in my rookie year, even if the lessons I learned from it turned out to be hard ones.