Nation: Sumrall's whirlwind year

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Stephen Findley

FLORENCE, Ala. — Wedding anniversaries and birthdates of children are dates never forgotten by adults. Add Oct. 21, 2017, to the list for Caleb Sumrall. That date on Lake Harwell in South Carolina forever changed his life. To say it has been a whirlwind year since then is an understatement. Call it living in a vacuum.

On that fateful day the Louisianan hoisted the Bryan V. Kerchal Memorial Trophy as winner of the Academy Sports + Outdoors B.A.S.S. Nation Championship presented by Magellan Outdoors. The timing of the win was a godsend.

Sumrall was blindsided financially and emotionally after recently losing his longtime job as an oil field worker. A pregnant wife and young daughter added to the stress of finding work. The more he looked the more he came up short. He turned to bass fishing. There was nothing else. 

Sumrall put tremendous pressure on himself at the championship. Everyone dreamed of winning. Sumrall had to win. The winner gained a berth in the Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods and an invitation to the Bassmaster Elite Series. 

“It would be a great job opportunity to jumpstart my goal of making it a career,” he recalled. “Winning was the only way to get into the Classic and the Elites.

"It was a blessing in disguise to come out with the win when me and my family needed it most,” he added.

Mission accomplished and more so thanks to what else came with the win. The winner also received the B.A.S.S. Nation’s Best Package. That meant use for one year of a fully rigged Phoenix Boat and Toyota Tundra. Paid entry fees in the Bass Pro Shops Central Opens, an Elite Series invitation, and $16,000 for the entry fees came with the win. Sumrall bundled it together and went for broke.  

The first epic moment of 2018 happened back at Hartwell in March. Sumrall competed in the Bassmaster Classic. He went on to finish the Elite season just outside the Classic cut at the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship. He fared better on the Opens, nearly winning the championship.

The season concluded after Sumrall competed in 15 events. Add another this week, as he’s back to defend his B.A.S.S. Nation title on Pickwick Lake.

There were many lessons learned along the way. Sumrall fished nonstop from February through October. There was little time to assess failures, revel in successes and evaluate areas needed for improvement. But he managed to channel it all into a lessons learned compartment in his brain. 

“I’m passionate about learning and made time for it even if that meant dedicating myself to a new tactic, lure or technique at a given tournament,” he said. “It just meant I stayed out longer, practiced harder and learned what I needed to do before leaving for the next event.” 

As a result, Sumrall began to hone and develop his skills on strange lakes to boost his confidence as the season progressed. 

“You take a little from every lake and what you learned stays with you can be carried over to the next,” he said. “You are more inclined to try new techniques more out of necessity than desire.”

Preparation was another lesson learned. Prepping tackle and having the right lures for a fishery are givens. Sumrall discovered there is much more to preparation at the Elite Series level.

“It’s everything. Your boat, boat and truck maintenance, clothes, even the travel and expense side of it,” he said. “It’s the little things that add up and take up a lot of time.”

Time management was another hard lesson. To make ends meet Sumrall guided on Toledo Bend between the Opens and Elite Series events. He estimates having booked 70 guide trips, most of those consecutive morning and afternoon sessions. He gives credit to Darold Gleason, who operates South Toledo Bend Guide Service.

“I couldn’t have made it without him,” said Sumrall. “For a guy to give you business and trust you with his clients says a lot about who Darold is as a person.

"I mean he was there in times of need, and I owe him a lot for that,” he added.

About midway through the season Sumrall realized he was nearing burnout. A poor finish at Lake Travis was the epiphany.

“I had booked too many trips in between the tournaments,” he admitted. “My boat was unorganized, I was exhausted, running on adrenaline and hit the wall.”

At that moment he made a decision for the 2019 season not to fish the Opens. 

“I really like the Opens because they keep me on the water, but I need to focus more on one thing at the time, and that will be the Elite Series.” 

What else Sumrall plans to focus more on is his family. Jacie, his wife, and children Axel, 11 months old, and Clelie, 7, are the priority.

“It’s been tough being without them,” he admitted. “We FaceTime several times a day just to stay connected.”

Above all else Sumrall is fundamentally grounded in what got him this far, so soon.

“The B.A.S.S. Nation program is where my heart is,” he said. “For the weekend, working angler, like me, you can do this and I encourage people all the time to join a club, compete and learn like me.” 

That is where the story ends as the season winds down. By all accounts, the past year of life for Caleb Sumrall would make an emotion-packed script for a screenplay. The sequel comes next and looks to be a hit in the making.