The last thing Wendell Anderson remembers before hitting the cold water of Lake Malone was that his fishing partner, Matthew Robertson, had a bass on his line and that he needed help.
The long-time friends, who fish on the Kentucky B.A.S.S. Nation Team Trail, were competing in a tournament this spring on Lake Malone – an almost-800 acre impoundment near their hometown of Central City, Ky. The rain was torrential that afternoon, but they decided to stick it out in the foul weather because they were catching bass and in contention to win the tournament.
About 20 minutes before fishing time ended, Robertson hooked into a 3 1/2-pound bass. It looked heavy enough to cement their victory, and Robertson cried “Net!” so that Anderson could better ensure the bass wound up in their livewell and not back in the drink.
But in a matter of seconds, Anderson was the one in the water and needing help.
Anderson’s heart raced as he searched futilely for the boat’s dip net, which had inadvertently been left on shore. The blood rushed into his head, and he felt extremely dizzy. As he tried to gather himself, he slipped on the rainwater that covered the boat deck, and fell overboard.
That’s never a good situation for an angler, but in Anderson’s case, it was much more serious. Not only can he not swim, but he had taken off his life jacket only seconds earlier as he and Robertson began preparations to make the run back to shore for the tournament weigh-in.
It was a brief lapse of reason, but one that could have been grave.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but I had blood pressure problems,” Anderson said. “I reached to get the fish and I slipped in. I had Gore-tex on and everything. I was underwater about 20 or 30 seconds.
“Matt pulled me out from underneath the water,” Anderson said. “I swim like a rock.”
That dire moment eight months ago was one of many that came flooding back to Anderson as he watched Robertson win the Bassmaster Team Championship Classic Fish-Off on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes Dec. 7-8.
Earlier that week, Anderson had teamed with his old friend, the one he started fishing with when he was in the fourth grade back in Kentucky, to finish second in the team championship standings. The duo had been tied for 59th place after an average Day 1 on the Harris Chain, but roared into the top three on Day 2 to both earn themselves a spot in the fish-off.
Anderson, 28, beamed the final three days in central Florida, telling anyone who would listen how proud he was of Robertson – the “big brother” figure who located a honey hole on Lake Harris during practice that produced the three heaviest limits of the tournament and propelled Robertson into the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods which will be held March 15-17 in Knoxville, Tenn.
“I believe in that guy right there,” Anderson said, pointing to his 32-year-old friend who only seconds before weighed a 31 pound, 15-ounce sack of five bass to cap off a masterful performance in the Classic Fish-Off.
“I believe in his eyes, and I believe in his brain. He’s won me a ton of money in the past, and he’s picked me up so many times. He’s the electronics genius. He found those fish offshore. That’s his spot.”
Anderson was referring to the small spot about 150 yards off a point in Lake Harris that the Kentuckians pounded for a 29-1 limit to finish second in the Team Championship. Though both men could have laid rightful claim to the area during the Classic Fish-Off, Anderson gladly offered it to his partner during individual competition.
Anderson realized it was a kind gesture, but he said it was a no-brainer.
“I don’t want to fish professionally,” said Anderson, who manages his family’s concrete company. “He wants to go pro. This is his dream. It’s all he wants. That spot (on Lake Harris) gave him the best chance to catch fish (he needed) to get into the Classic.
“There’s no way I’m getting in the way of that.”
Turns out no one at all was getting in Robertson’s way on the Harris Chain. With the field of 394 anglers trimmed to six in the fish-off, Robertson made a beeline for the Lake Harris sweet spot. Within an hour, he had 25 pounds in the boat and he finished with a Day 1 total of 25-10, which at the time was the second heaviest limit of the week. The 31-15 he caught a day later blew the competition out of the water.
Robertson finished nearly 24 pounds ahead of the five other anglers in the two-day fish-off, and he culled as much weight as several competitors even brought to the scales.
That number included Anderson, who after catching a limit that weighed 10-4 on Day 1, decided to watch his friend wallop the bucket-mouthed Florida-strain bass rather than compete any longer.
“I never made a throw (today,)” Anderson said. “I followed him around all day. It turned out I was able to help the photographer who was following us around, too. Matt had 20 pounds plus early, and the camera boat had run out of oil. So I took the photographer with me over to (Lake) Eustis, and we took pictures of some other guys.
“When we were done, I ran back over to where (Robertson) was,” Anderson said. “I wanted to be there – just in case. A battery could go dead, he could run out of gas. Anything can happen. So I sat there with him ‘til he was done.”
That’s the sort of dedication and camaraderie people long to see not only in competitive sports, but in life. It comes from a relationship that put down roots in Kentucky soil and was watered in the dozens of lakes they began fishing together as grade schoolers.
By the time he was 11, Robertson had his grandmother supervising him as he tooled around Kentucky’s lakes in a 16-1/2 foot Bass Tracker with 45 horses on the back. A couple years later, he met Anderson, who was the only other kid in the area competing regularly. They gravitated to one another, and became a team when Robertson was 15 and Anderson 11.
“We were dominating local lakes when I was in high school,” Robertson said. “We really complement each other fishing. He calls us the ‘A Team.’ Something’s working.”
Like everyone else who works together, the fishing partners do have differences in opinion from time to time. At the Harris Chain, though, they agreed they would fish offshore, even though that’s not common practice on the fishery.
The honey hole didn’t produce on Day 1, however, and the duo caught only 11 pounds. That’s when Anderson told Robertson it was time to do what they do best.
They headed to a “hard spot” they found in practice and worked big spinner baits, swimbaits and crankbaits in approximately 10 feet of water. They sacked 29-1 to make the cut, and then Robertson did the heavy lifting to claim the 52nd and final spot in the Classic.
“(Wendell) has confidence in me,” Robertson said. “We do believe in each other. We help each other.”
They sacrifice for one another, too. Robertson obviously didn’t think twice about fishing his friend out of the water on Lake Malone earlier this year. And though not nearly as drastic a situation, Anderson didn’t hesitate when it came time to decide who should have the best shot at winning the fish-off and going to the Bassmaster Classic.
“Dude, I cannot ever repay him,” Robertson said. “There’s no way I could. He knew what was there in that spot. We dropped 29 pounds there between us on the second day (of the Team Championship). He’s a really good fisherman. Those fish could have been his.”
That’s not the way Anderson sees it, though.
"It’s a 50-50 thing with us,” he said. “We don’t care whose rods, what baits, whatever. We just want to win. Everything we do, we do it as a team.”
Even at the Classic, where Robertson won’t have the benefit of his partner in the boat, but he’ll have him in the crowd cheering his every move.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Anderson said.