RIDGEDALE, Mo. — Through no fault of his own, Mandel Pettus arrived without any fishing rods for the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Championship. An airline the 45-year-old Miller Place, N.Y., resident doesn’t typically fly wouldn’t allow him to check them as baggage.
But that was an easy hurdle for a man who grew up on Long Island without a fishing mentor. After having no practice time at Table Rock Lake and using borrowed rods, Pettus won the Co-Angler Championship with a two-day total of 13 pounds, 7 ounces. He edged Day 1 leader Alex Heintze of Denham Springs, La., who finished with 12-7.
The first-place prize included a Nitro Z18 with a Mercury 150 Pro XS outboard and accessories and paid entry fees in the 2019 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens division of his choice. Pettus left no doubt about which division that would be next year.
“I just fished my last event as a co-angler,” said Pettus, a fitness business owner. “I’m going to live my dream and hone my trade as a boater and pro angler."
Pettus was paired with pro Luke Palmer on Day 1, and was in second place with a 3-bass co-angler limit of 7-7. He fished with pro Mike Huff on Day 2 when he weighed a 6-pound limit.
“Both guys were awesome,” Pettus said. “(Thursday) was the first day I made a cast on this lake. I had no practice. I just went in with an open mind. Today was a tough day. The cold definitely got the best of me and hindered my ability to function. I had to push on through. This is going to be my job, so I had to stick it out.”
Most of his fish were caught deep, he said, on drop shot and ned rigs. Pettus caught his last fish at 3:06 p.m., with a 3:35 check-in time looming. Now he gets to live his dream.
“It’s all about going on the pro side so I can really show my craft and be in command of my own destiny,” Pettus said.
He did build some impressive credentials as a co-angler, winning the Eastern Division Co-Angler of the Year title in 2014, before taking a year and a half off to start the fitness business with his wife, Carmen. Pettus finished fourth in the final Eastern Opens co-angler points standings this year.
But it’s the unlikely circumstances that Pettus emerged from where you get the full picture of Pettus’ fishing passion. After his grandmother took him fishing once when he was six years old, Pettus caught the fishing bug.
“I was intrigued,” he said. “I’d go to the library and read books about bass fishing.”
Neither his father nor anyone else in his family fished when he was growing up in Riverhead, Long Island. Pettus’s mentors were TV fishing show personalities on the Bassmaster TV show and other fishing programs — people like Bill Dance, Guido Hibdon and Denny Brauer.
Riverhead is located at the mouth of the Peconic River. That was his first training ground as a youngster.
“It was, how can I say this, hoodish,” Pettus recalled. “The water is where I went to get away from the hustle and bustle. But to get to that river, you have to go through some dysfunction on the way. There were things I shouldn’t have seen as a young man. You had to go through a park that was full of bums and drug addicts. Sometimes I would see a dead body. That happened more than once.”
From walking through dysfunction as a youngster, to arriving as a rod-less co-angler at Table Rock Lake, Mandel Pettus has now arrived as a pro angler, fully in control of his destiny.
“This is the highlight of my fishing career,” Pettus said, before adding, “So far.”