A long road back for Gutierrez

RICHMOND, Va. – It took Greg Gutierrez and a friend 50 hours, driving straight through, to get from California to Virginia for this year’s first Bass Pro Shops Northern Open on Virginia’s James River. That’s over 3,000 miles of time in the seat of his truck, pulling his Nitro, yet it seems as if his journey has just begun.

Gutierrez fished the Elite Series from 2006 through May 2008, before leaving to deal with a family health crisis. His career with B.A.S.S. had been short – just 59 events – but he packed it with enough accomplishments to know that he belonged: a gritty win at the 2004 Western Open on California’s Lake Shasta; two Bassmaster Classic appearances; and 3rd place finishes in Elite Series competition at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake in 2006 and at California’s Clear Lake in 2007.

Despite that track record of success, midway through 2008 he did not hesitate to abandon his Elite Series dreams when two cancerous masses were found in his wife Bobbie’s lungs.

“Everything was a rush,” he recalled. “Cancer had been in our family for so long that we knew we had to be very aggressive in treating it. Shortly after I got home, she went under the knife and lost half of one lung and a chunk of the other. It affected her heart, too, so we’ve been trying to get all of that squared away.”

The other complicating part of Gutierrez’s previous stint as an Elite Series pro was that unlike most of his colleagues he held a full-time job as a firefighter. He said that he doesn’t mean to downplay any other competitor’s obligations – family, promotional or otherwise – but even with an understanding supervisor, trying to balance the two careers proved tricky and costly.

“I had a great boss who would let me work extra days so I could build up enough time to fish,” he said. “But once I brought my boat back east I’d have to fly back and forth to make it work. It gave me a great platform to spread my fire safety program – fire safety is not a California thing. It’s possible [to fish the Elite Series and have a full-time job] if you have the support mechanisms in place. The biggest hindrance for me was financial. Fishing’s hard enough without any of those other pressures in place.”

Once he left the Elites, his sponsorship dollars largely dried up. He doesn’t blame the companies: “Sponsors are paying for a product,” he explained. “When I wasn’t at that level anymore, I was no longer valuable to them. The one company that did stand by me the whole time was Reaction Innovations.”

Now he’ll have to start building those sponsor relationships anew. At nearly 52 years old, he admitted that he’s “not a spring chicken” and that a lot of the younger up-and-coming pros “fit the mold a lot better,” but he believes he still has a lot to offer and is committed to building “a whole new stable.”

“Right now, the best I can do is to put my face out there,” he added. “I’m looking for someone who’s looking for someone like me.”

Most importantly, the impediments that previously hindered his time on the water have been reduced or eliminated. He’s retired from his “other” job and Bobbie’s doctors have given her primary caretaker a green light to get back on the road. While he’s continued to fish tournaments close to home since leaving the Elite Series, this week’s event marks his first long distance event since he left Lake Murray in May 2008.

The last time he fished in Virginia, at the 2007 Elite Series Blue Ridge Brawl on Smith Mountain Lake, he was disqualified for an inadvertent rules violation. He prefished with a non-competitor acquaintance from California (allowed under the then-current rules), but later found out that the other man had been staying on a houseboat over the lake. “There was no thought process involved in doing that,” he said. “No one would have done anything remotely different.” However, under the terms of the Elite Series rules, it was not permissible to fish with someone who’d “been on the tournament waters during the off-limits period.” Accordingly, he received a zero for the event. Entering that tournament, he’d been in 34th place in the Toyota Angler of the Year standings, but the DQ probably doomed his chances, even if he’d fished exceptionally the rest of the season.

Between the DQ, his wife’s battle with cancer and his struggle to balance multiple careers, did he ever feel cursed?

“You can’t sit around and say ‘Why me?’” he said. “I lived in a world of fighting fires. I’ve seen horrible car wrecks. I’ve seen people losing their families. I can’t be a victim. I just need to keep trudging forward.”

Today that path forward will begin with a long run to the Chickahominy River tributary of the James. He sits in a tie for 90th place after Day One, but the optics of those standings may be deceptive, as he’s just one good bite out of the 30th place money spot. Yesterday he was in a late flight, but today he was among the first boats to blast off from Osborne Landing so he expects to have a good crack at his choice of areas.

“I need to get onto my fish,” he said. “I thought I could do it yesterday but when I got there, there were five boats on it. I just need a chance to fish some of my stuff.”

He won’t know whether anyone else is on his best spots until he makes the hour-long run down the river today. After 50 hours and 3,000 miles to get here, that race across the water might seem like a drop in the ocean.

“It seems like it takes forever getting there, but no time at all getting back,” he said of the run to his best area.

He hopes that in the near future the same can be said of his Elite Series career.