James River Open provides Brooks with a new lease on life

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Photo courtesy of Brian Brooks

Richmond, Va. – Like many 20-something anglers, New Jersey’s Brian Brooks had his eyes set on the big prizes – a Classic berth, an Elite Series slot, a career on tour. In 2006, just seven events into his quest at B.A.S.S., the pursuit of those dreams came to a screeching halt, and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever get another chance to make them happen. This week at the Basspro.com Bassmaster Open at the James River, the 42-year-old will press the reset button after overcoming multiple setbacks just to get here.

“I was all-in at 21 years old,” he recalled this week. “I traveled with Ike and (John) Crews and Ish.” By 2005 and 2006 he was just starting to get into a groove fishing the Northern Opens, but at Champlain in August of 2006 he got a figurative gut punch.

“After the first day a bunch of us went out to eat at the Naked Turtle in Plattsburgh. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I started to feel sick like I had food poisoning. All night I was throwing up everywhere. I finally had to call Trip (Weldon) and tell him I couldn’t go on. It just continued to get worse and worse and worse. I ended up passing out on the bathroom floor.”

His brother and a friend drove him nine hours back to New Jersey, but rather than going home they went straight to the hospital, where his parents met them.

“They had the paddles out,” Brooks recalled. “When you’re in a hospital bed and they ask your parents to sign papers, you know something’s bad.”

He pulled through, but unfortunately, there was neither a diagnosis nor an immediate cure. For over a decade, Brooks made repeated visits to the hospital on a quarterly basis to “flush out my system.” The doctors put him on medications, and then cocktails of medications, and then different cocktails of medications, but nothing seemed to help. He’d go somewhere or try to fish a single day “and I’d get cellulitis and blood poisoning instantly. It would look like I had elephantitis from my toe all the way up to my thigh.”

Through it all, he never lost the urge to fish. He couldn’t compete at his previous level, nor did he have the stamina to try, but he endeavored to stay connected to the sport. He occasionally competed as a co-angler in local events, and he worked with high school teams close to home. Finally, the doctors seized upon a suspected cause of his troubles – during surgery on his ankle years earlier the surgeon had destroyed a lymph node, which had ripple effects across his body. They also suggested a solution that seemed to rapidly improve his health, an oil derived from medical marijuana.

When COVID hit and the world turned upside down, it didn’t faze Brooks. “I’m used to this,” he explained. He’d spent a decade avoiding crowds and missing family gatherings because a simple cold could’ve upended his world. “Everyone was in a place that I was used to. This is my life.”

Then came an unexpected hit. He lost the job he’d held as an Operations Manager for over a decade. He still hasn’t gone back. Brooks weathered that with grace, just as he’d weathered the worldwide storm. Rather than sulking, he further improved his life in July by getting married. Things seemed to be on the permanent upswing. Nothing could get him down.

Then everything unraveled again.

As he headed down to the Susquehanna Flats for a day of fishing, he got a call from his wife. Smoke was coming out of their attic. The house was on fire.

“I did a U-Turn across the median like you see in the movies, with the boat on the back,” he said. “I got home just in time to see it burn down. We lost everything. Thirty years of family stuff I’d saved through all of my apartments and houses. It was like losing those family members all over again. We had the clothes on our backs and that was it.”

Just when he thought he’d been pulled out of the dumps, the fire dragged him back in. He moved in with his parents, and four days after the move the whole family contracted COVID, compounding the pain. “For a week I felt like I was dying again,” he said. “It attacked my nervous system.” But what didn’t kill him just strengthened his resolve to fish. It still took a push from his wife Lea to overcome that mental chasm that stopped him.

“I felt like every time I get to do this something bad happens,” he said. “I know it’s not that, it’s just a coincidence, but that’s how it felt.” But with her support and encouragement bordering on insistence, he’s back at it this week in Virginia.

Fifteen years after his Bassmaster dreams were deferred, he’s piloting a borrowed boat, with replacement tackle, on the pro side of the Open.

“It’s different this time around,” he said. “I did it on my own as a kid. Now I feel like I need to do this for my family. My grandson is 4. I want him to see that his Pop did something cool. It feels like I’m starting over again, but I have to go for it. I have nothing to lose. There are people walking around every day who look normal but who are hurting. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to help them through fishing.”

Despite the fact that he lives across the lake from Ike, and lives and breathes the same life-affirming sport, Brooks said he’s quiet, bordering on reserved. Still, when he flips that first fish into the boat on tournament morning, he might channel the antics of his neighbor.

“It’s going to feel like an out-of-body experience,” he said. “You might hear me all the way from the boat ramp.”