Hudnall, Schmitt recount epic practice quest

The saying usually goes, “No guts, no glory.” For Elite pros Derek Hudnall and Bryan Schmitt, we’ll modify it to “Guts, no glory, lots of gators.”

Spoiler alert, theirs is a tale of disappointment; but not one of failure. Practice is about eliminating water — even if doing so requires a white knuckle risk.

That’s really what this story’s all about — pulling back the curtain that often hides the incredibly dramatic moments of heroics and heartbreak all requisites of the grand production we call a Bassmaster Elite tournament.

News reports appropriately describe the numerical outcomes, but countless moments of Herculean efforts that simply fell short — often due to factors beyond a competitor’s control — never see the light of day.

Taking nothing away from those who end up atop leaderboards, some of competitive fishing’s most compelling stories are the ones you never hear.

Not today.

Target spotted

Teaming up for a practice recon effort, Hudnall and Schmitt’s Google Earth studies revealed a sweet little section of old pipeline canal below Taylor Slough. Isolated, distant, probably unexploited; this one had the makings of a tournament-winning spot.

Only problem was the logical approach was no longer viable. A section of the canal that once linked to the Intracoastal Waterway was silted and no longer navigable, so the self-proclaimed “marsh rats” from Louisiana and Maryland, respectively, hatched a plan that straddled the line between righteous and reckless.

“We’re pretty familiar with running through stuff that you probably should not to reach the glory hole,” Hudnall said. “We don’t like fishing on the beaten path.

“We said ‘If there’s a population of fish here, we think this is where it is. But getting from Point A to Point B is no easy task.’”

A perilous path

As Hudnall explained, the anglers decided they’d brave the skinny marsh waters to the entrance of what they hoped would be the tournament promised land. Sounds like a simple alternative, but reality was something very different.

“We found an area as close to that location as we could with two feet of water, because if you have two feet of water, you can get a boat up on plane,” Hudnall said. “Most of the 5-mile track we ran had less than a foot of water."

So, to clarify, Hudnall and Schmitt got a running start and blasted their way through an inhospitable course that presented this harsh reality: If you slow down, you won’t get back on plane for a long, long way.

Volunteering for the test run, Hudnall would traverse a segment of the course until he found deeper water, then return to Schmitt for discussion and more satellite imagery study before they proceeded together. Incremental advancement mitigated the risk — somewhat.

“There was no sense in two boats making that (initial) run because there was no sense in both of us getting stuck,” Hudnall said.

Hudnall said the last leg was the real gem. Basically, after crossing a shallow lake averaging a foot of depth, he found the cut to their final destination held about 8 inches of water.

“I came all the way back to Bryan and we’re both sitting there nervous and shaking,” Hudnall recalled. “I said ‘I saw the cut. I think we can make it, but it ain’t going to be easy.’

“When I made it that far and I could see the cut, there was no turning around at that point; you have to commit. So we got in line and blew in there. We were dragging bottom on I don’t know how many places, jack plates way up, motors trimmed up, pedal to the metal and blowing mud 30 feet in the air.”

Other words: Pucker factor of 10. (I’m not explaining that one. Google it.)

In fairness, this was no boyish thrill ride; rather, Hudnall and Schmitt leveraged their affinity for shallow, weedy fisheries to make a serious run at what could have been a serious prize.

At the moment of truth, there was no hesitation. Two anglers with a lot to gain and a lot to lose were ready to put it all on the line and literally risk their week.

“We both realized that there was a legitimate chance that we might get stuck to the point that we might not get back in time to fish the tournament,” Schmitt said. “It was severely risky, but we thought ‘This tournament is going to be so tough and surely nobody else has gotten in there.’

“We knew if we could get in there it could be a goldmine. We couldn’t turn it down, but (the course) was some of the sketchiest stuff I’ve ever run.”

Nobody home

Upon reaching their objective, Hudnall and Schmitt found the untouched wonderland they’d envisioned. But like an abandoned movie set, the habitat lacked inhabitants; at least, the ones for which anglers would hope.

“We finally made it in there and we’re jumping up and down, screaming, fist-bumping one another — it was beautiful,” Hudnall said. “We didn’t get a bite, but it was loaded with alligators.

“This is a place where those fish used to live years ago, but (I believe) those hurricanes last year killed those fish. We had three major storms hit this area last year. In a place like that, the fish don’t just move; they don’t have anywhere to go.”

The takeaway

Despite the exhaustively thorough coverage that the Bassmaster media team delivers, so much of the Elite anglers’ heart-and-soul investment flies under the radar.

Obscurity, however, does not diminish one’s effort; nor does it dim the light of inspiration.

“In events like this, you have to try something off-the-wall because you can win a tournament on something like (the spot we found),” Hudnall said. “Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out.”

So why do they do it? Tournament success? Of course, that’s the objective and suggestions otherwise would be naive.

But guys like Derek Hudnall and Bryan Schmitt — indeed, every Elite angler at some point — push the envelope and reach far beyond what most consider safe, sane or sensible to honor the families and sponsors that make their whirlwind careers possible and to entertain their treasured fans with the greatest show in sport fishing.

Sometimes, would-be heroes goes unsung. Stories go untold.

This one was deserved telling.