Quick-thinking marshal captures timeless moment

Bassmaster Marshal Les Cook with Elite rookie Kyle Welcher

From angling to acting, you don’t always need top billing to merit high esteem. Consider these big names honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

Frank Sinatra, Louis Gosset Jr., Denzel Washington, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones — each won Best Supporting Actor awards, perhaps more importantly, they directed the spotlight on leading roles such as:

• Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity (1953)
• Richard Gere, An Officer and A Gentleman (1982)
• Matthew Broderick, Glory (1989)
• Robert DiNiro, GoodFellas (1990)
• Harrison Ford, The Fugitive (1993)

Without question, Les Cook earned tournament fishing’s version of the BSA award on Feb. 9, when he saw rookie Kyle Welcher come tight on a big fish during Day 2 of the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at Florida’s St. Johns River. In his first Bassmaster Marshal assignment, Cook steadied his iPhone 11 Pro Max and recorded — start-to-finish — one of the most amazing catches in Bassmaster history.

How it happened

About 30 minutes before he needed to leave for check-in, Welcher had relocated from south of Lake George to his final spot above the lake, near the Rodman Reservoir discharge. Flipping shoreline cover, he immediately caught a 3-pounder and about five flips later connected with his personal best — a 10-pound, 1-ounce St. Johns giant.

“Kyle had a few bites throughout the day, and I tried to make it a point to capture all of his catches on video, but when he said, ‘Big one dude,’ I knew something was different,” Cook recalled.

Recording what would be the largest bass catch he’s ever witnessed took not only sure hands, but nimble feet.

“For most of the day, I was on the back of the boat, but that was the first time he moved from the front of the boat to the back of the boat,” Cook said. “All I remember thinking as he was heading my way was, ‘Get out of the way.’

“I moved to the side and when I saw he was coming to the back I moved to the front to be as much out of the way as I could. Something in my head told me, ‘The shot is going to be off the driver’s side of the boat, so get that camera off the side of the boat so you can capture everything.’ It all just came together through instinct; there was not a lot of thought put into it.”

Pretty impressive work, by any measure, but Cook’s keeping it all in perspective.

“Honestly, I’m not the guy who caught the fish — Kyle gets all the credit. I just happened to be recording when he hooked that fish, and I happened to be recording with an iPhone 11, which has a fantastic camera with stabilization and everything else that created a great video.

“Initially, I was just happy to have caught the entire sequence on film. As soon as I stopped filming, I told him, ‘I got it!’ He asked me, ‘Did you get the flip?’ It wasn’t until (several days later) after I watched the video over and over that I did catch the flip.

His background

Originally from Lodi, Calif., Cook makes his home in St. Augustine, Fla., where he works remotely for a Houston-based hospital company. Before his wife retired from the Air Force two years ago, prior stationing allowed Cook to fish South Dakota and various Western gems like the California Delta, Clear Lake and Lake Oroville.

“Now, my favorite bass fishery is the St. Johns River,” Cook chuckled.

With a 6-pounder as his personal best, Cook favors unweighted Senkos. In northern waters, he likes green pumpkin purple flake, while purple-black flake stands as his Florida go-to.

Notwithstanding his Senko savvy, Cook said the Sunshine State has expanded his repertoire: “My preference is slowly becoming topwater frogs here in Florida.”

Motivation and meaning

The St. Johns Marshal gig fulfilled what Cook said had been a longstanding bucket list activity. Having spent earlier years fishing South Dakota club tournaments, he was intrigued by the opportunity of taking a front-row seat to live-action learning.

“I’ve always wanted to be in a position to sit with a pro, learn their techniques and thought processes and become a better fisherman myself,” Cook said. “I wanted to go to new waters and figure out how to fish those new waters.”

For example, when his southern area proved unfruitful, Welcher’s verbal strategizing offered an impromptu seminar.

“He sat down and said, ‘I gotta make a change,’” Cook said. “I heard him kind of talk through all of the different details. He wanted as many different ingredients for catching a fish as possible. He wanted a little bit of current and shallow cover near deep water. Once he dialed in the place that had the most ingredients, that’s what we ran to.

“Kyle’s a poker player, so he kind of put that (mindset) to work to figure out where his best odds were.”

The after-party

Now that the moment is forever cemented in B.A.S.S. history, Cook’s had time to reflect on how a tournament that was delayed two days by severe weather became the perfect storm in which opportunity met preparation.

“The only word that I can use is ‘surreal’,” Cook said. “I’m humbled by the fact that I didn’t do anything but catch it on video; Kyle had to catch that fish. I was just in the right place at the right time. I’m probably the luckiest of Bassmaster members.”

Notably, Sinatra’s role as Private Angelo Maggio helped From Here to Eternity win the 1953 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. A fitting metaphor, as Cook’s work on Feb. 9 secured a piece of angling drama that we’ll be watching for a long, long time.

And the Oscar goes to …

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