Three days of suffering

ESCANABA, Mich. -- This was like some evil psychological experiment: Take the man who is leading the Bassmaster Elite Series Toyota Angler of the Year race and, after one day on Lake Michigan, put him in a hotel room for three days before he can fish again.

Greg Hackney was the lab rat for this test. He barely survived.

"The break was killing me," said Hackney, after he – finally – won the AOY title Monday in Escanaba, Mich. "I thought I was getting sick one day. I don't know what day it was; we were off so many."

For three days, Hackney was as nervous as a fish out of water. It was Friday when his mental health got its first big test. Hackney didn't start the scheduled three-day tournament like he'd hoped. He caught 18 pounds, which put him in 21st place, on Thursday.

Entering the event, Aaron Martens and Todd Faircloth had the best chances of overtaking Hackney for the AOY title. Martens was 15 points behind and Faircloth was 17 points back.

And on Day 1, Faircloth made a move. His five-bass limit of 20 pounds, 2 ounces put him in 7th place and gave him a real chance to overtake Hackney.

That’s what Hackney had to sleep on Thursday night. He was already uptight. All the Top 50 anglers had their boats in the water Friday when high southerly winds – the worst possible on Lake Michigan's Bays de Noc – caused cancellation of the day.

"I went and ate breakfast," Hackney said. "About 1 o'clock I felt like I could take a nap. I don't nap because I typically don't get a chance to nap. I go sound to sleep and wake up about 3 o'clock."

Hackney had a dream during his nap. Everyone has had a dream like this, where you wake up in a cold sweat. It might be the one where snakes are slithering toward you, and you can't move. Or it might be the one where you're being chased by evil men with guns, and you're running in slow motion.  Whatever. None are fun.

But Hackney's dream was more nightmarish in this respect: It occurred during the biggest week of his professional bass fishing career. He dreamt he'd slept through Day 2 of the tournament.

"I about completely jumped out of the bed," he said. "I could see the light out the (hotel room) window, and I'm like, 'I'm late. My God, it's 3 o'clock, and I've been here all day.'

"It was horrible when I woke up. I didn't have a clue where I was."

Hackney's wife, Julie, had their boys – the two oldest of the Hackneys' four children – in another hotel room.

"I was not there when he woke up, but he called me," Julie said. "I don't know how to describe his mood. He was just all over the place. Then he told me that he'd dreamt that he'd overslept, and he was just a wreck. I think it stayed with him until he went to bed that night."

Remember, that incident occurred on Friday. Hackney would have the rest of the weekend to get wound even tighter before he'd get to fish again, on Monday.

Hackney noted before the tournament began that he was handling the pressure just fine as long as he was fishing. It was the time when he was off the water that was so draining. So three days off mid-tournament, when it went from a three-day event to two-day tournament, was pure torture.

"I've never felt pressure like this before," Hackney said. "I'd been like a caged tiger the last three days. It was like I couldn't be still."

By Monday, even when he was fishing, Hackney was feeling the pressure of closing out the Toyota Angler of the Year title, which all these Elite Series anglers will tell you is equal to or above a Bassmaster Classic title in their minds. And when Hackney walked to the back of the Bassmaster stage to check in his fish, he thought he might have blown his big moment. He had a limit, but it wasn't a big limit.

"Probably the worst I felt all week was when I checked in," Hackney said. "I could feel my heart beating. It felt like it was going to come out of my chest."

As it turned out, Hackney did leave the door open in the AOY points race. His Day 2 limit weighing 17-2 gave him a total of 35-2, which put him in 24th place in the standings. But with Faircloth finishing 21st, after a tough Day 2, and Martens finishing 29th, neither angler mounted a charge. Faircloth finished second in AOY points, 14 in back of Hackney.

"Here's the other thing I thought about this morning," Hackney recalled. "I looked at Aaron and Todd. I couldn't wish bad on them. I think as much of them as I do anybody out here."

It's no wonder the 41-year-old Hackney, who was born in Arkansas and now lives in Gonzales, La., had a difficult time composing himself on stage when the results became final. Hackney shed tears, managed to utter a few words, then shed tears again.

"It seems like I've been hunting this my whole life," Hackney said. "I didn't know how it would make me feel. I just wanted to see how it would make me feel."

Julie and Greg Hackney have been married for 15 years. They met through a mutual friend when Julie was in veterinary school at LSU. She had never seen him this emotional before.

"It was surreal, beautiful, wonderful," she said. "To watch a person's dream come true, especially someone you love, it's a beautiful thing."

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