Somewhere inside Mark Menendez’s Kentucky home, in a dark space, tucked safely away from the rest of the world, is a yearbook from Paducah Tilghman High School that belonged to his late wife, Donna.
On one of its pages, you’ll find the following inscription:
It was great being in Mrs. Jones’ math class with you. You’re the prettiest cheerleader of all of them. Hope to hear from you soon.
future bass pro
Those words were scribbled in 1982, and they were prophetic in every way Menendez had hoped.
He did eventually hear from Donna again. They married in 2003, had two children and remained at each other’s side until she lost a battle with pancreatic cancer in 2014.
He also kept his promise to become a bass pro, fishing 231 tournaments with B.A.S.S. since then, winning three times and qualifying five times for the Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.
He’s been through plenty — and after 54 years and hundreds of thousands of miles on the road, you’d think some of the details from his life and career would have grown a bit fuzzy.
But you’d be wrong.
“That first season for me, the 1991-92 season, was a really tough one,” said Menendez, who will began his 29th year with B.A.S.S. when the Elite Series competition resumed in February. “After three tournaments on the Illinois River, Grand Lake and Harris Chain, I had caught a grand total of 18 pounds. Then we went to Sam Rayburn, Guntersville and Buggs Island, and I did a little better.
“My last fish at Buggs Island was a 2 3/4-pounder that allowed me to make the Top 100 circuit — and I can still take you back to the buck brush where I caught it.”
So many memories
The steel-trap memory Menendez possesses helps him recall in vivid detail the events that have made him into the person he is today.
Some are comical, others are an inspiring and some, he admits, are downright painful.
But he makes them all available in living color.
He remembers knowing — not thinking or believing, but knowing — he was going to get his first career win on Pickwick and Wilson Lakes before the event ever started in 1998.
“I’ve had a phenomenon in my life dating back to when I was 15 years old when I knew if the planets lined up, I was gonna win the tournament I was fishing,” Menendez said. “It’s that feeling you get at a bowling alley when you know all you have to do is keep the ball out of the gutter and everything will work for you.
“I woke up the first morning of the tournament on Pickwick and just knew I was going to win.”
He had that feeling in 2005 when he won on West Point Lake, not long after he’d been hospitalized for 17 days with meningitis.
“I told Donna two weeks before I went back not to worry because I would have that championship trophy in my hands,” he said. “I just felt it.”
He says his 2009 Elite Series win on Dardanelle wasn’t as much a matter of the planets lining up as it was the result of good research and a good plan that he executed to a tee. The plan called for using an aluminum John boat to access areas that other anglers couldn’t reach in fiberglass boats.
He remembers every cast he made during that event — and he believes many others remember it as the reason for a major rule change on the Elite Series.
“You couldn’t switch to a John boat for just one tournament now,” Menendez said, laughing. “You have to fish all season in the same boat — and I’m the reason for that.”
His point-by-point recollection of the 1997 Bassmaster Megabucks event makes sense, considering he caught a 13-pound, 9-ounce largemouth that broke the 24-year-old record for the largest fish caught in a B.A.S.S. tournament.
Anyone would remember that. But listening to Menendez talk about it, you’d think it happened just last week.
“The first day of the tournament, I caught 16 pounds and I had found the perfect prespawn pattern,” he said. “I was slow-rolling a cantaloupe-colored spinnerbait, and I spiced it up with a few red strands because I was in Texas and everything eats red in Texas.
“Any bushy tree that I could find on a creek channel, there would be a giant in it.”
Menendez couldn’t immediately reach his best spot on Day 2 because of fog. But after sharing a small cove near the launch site with nine other boats for an hour — and being the only one of the 18 anglers who didn’t boat a fish — he decided to take his chances.
Without the benefit of GPS, he ran through the fog and timber to the spot where he would make history.
“I fired a cast over to a tree where I had caught a good one the day before,” he said. “The technique with that spinnerbait was to throw it past the tree and just fish the back half of it. If you hooked a good one in the front of the tree, you couldn’t get it out.”
Believing he had a 6- to 8-pounder when he set the hook, he used his thumb to stop his drag from turning and finally forced the giant bass to slow down.
Then his partner reached over the side and pulled an absolute freak of nature into the boat.
“It looked like it was elastic because fish just kept coming over the side,” Menendez said. “I knew the stats. I had studied them since I was 10 years old. I knew I had just broken Bob Tyndall’s record from 1973.”
If not for good handy work from his co-angler, it might never have happened.
“He grabbed that fish — and when the slack hit that spinnerbait, the bait fell out of her mouth,” Menendez said. “He lifted her right on into the boat without a hook in her.”
Of course, Menendez still remembers the name of his sure-handed partner: Noble Handy.
You’d think Menendez might try to blur his photographic memory when it comes to the painful period from late 2012 until early 2015.
“I think sometimes people don’t want to talk to me about Donna’s illness and her death because they think they’re taking me to a bad place,” he said. “But I don’t see it like that.”
Instead, he uses memories from that period for strength — and to remind himself of all the people who stayed at his side through a dark time.
It was fall of 2012 and Menendez was headed to the Toyota Texas Bass Classic when he received a call from Donna. She was headed for a doctor’s visit that would eventually lead to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
They knew right away it was likely terminal.
“The first call I made was to (B.A.S.S. Tournament Director) Trip Weldon to tell him I was out,” Menendez said. “I told him I was going to take care of my lovely wife as best I can for as long as I can, so don’t expect me to have my angler agreement in by October.”
Menendez asked for and received a medical exemption to hold his spot on the Bassmaster Elite Series. Donna fought hard through 2013 and her cancer went into remission. But when it returned in 2014, she could fight no more.
He asked for — and once again received — a medical waiver for the 2014 season.
“For a while there, obviously, I was comforting my wife every way I could,” Menendez said. “Then I was grieving, and there came a point in that grief when I realized my two children, Max and Caroline, were carrying me — and I knew it was time for me to buck up.”
For Menendez, that meant learning to do laundry, learning how to turn on a vacuum cleaner and how serve as both mother and father to Caroline and Max who were 10 and 9. Sometimes it meant answering questions he wasn’t prepared for.
Through it all, his spot on the Elite Series remained open.
“B.A.S.S. stayed with me, and I’ve always been grateful for that,” Menendez said. “As a matter of fact, every sponsor I had in the fall of 2012 stayed with me all the way through it, honored every contract. Some gave me additional contracts.”
Menendez went back to work in June 2014 doing promotional events on behalf of sponsors like Skeeter, Yamaha, Strike King and Lew’s. Then it was time for his comeback tournament — and he’s still overwhelmed three years later by the support he received during the 2015 Bassmaster Elite Series event at the Sabine River.
“The fans at the Sabine were so incredibly wonderful,” he said. “In practice, it would take me 45 minutes to park my truck and walk back to my boat because there were so many well-wishers with kind words. It was incredible.”
Things were tougher than Menendez expected once the tournament began — from a fishing standpoint and an emotional one. But while talking out loud to Donna on the water, he caught 10 pounds, 3 ounces that first day and placed 20th.
He finished the event in 25th place — and in some ways, he values that performance even more than his three tour-level victories.
“After that tournament, that’s when my shoulders kind of dropped and the stress started to leave,” he said. “After that, I knew I was still a pro bass fisherman. I had made it back.”
Some people refer to Menendez as an inspiration, but it’s a distinction he doesn’t care for.
He sees himself as a man who did what he had to do to make his professional fishing dreams come true.
He sees himself as a man who did right by his family when they needed him away from the water.
Most of all, he sees himself as a man with many good years ahead — and many more chances to make memories.
“People ask me all the time how many years I plan to fish, and I don’t really know how to answer,” Menendez said. “I think for everybody, there comes a time when you’re ready to go and enjoy the free things in life — cut your grass, ride your tractor, sit on the porch.
“When I’m ready to enjoy the free things in life, I’ll let everybody know. But I’m definitely not there yet.”