Turf wars

The phrase “All is Fair in Love and War” definitely applies to tournament fishing. Like other sports, ours has its share of battles — some bloodier than others.

While most of the guys on tour are friendly with each other, in competition things sometimes turn ugly. It happens at nearly every event — someone feels like they’re being encroached on, or dealt with in an unsportsmanlike fashion and tempers flare as a result.

I’m guilty on both counts. There have been times when I felt encroached on, and others when I did the encroaching. In most cases, things worked out amicably. In others, it became a knockdown, drag out fight … usually with no winner.

During the recent Bassmaster Elite Series event on Lay Lake, I was confronted with a situation that I didn’t handle very well. One that involved fellow pro, Caleb Kuphall. And before I explain the events that led up to that incident, I would like to publicly apologize for my actions toward Caleb. What occurred could have been avoided. But when you mix adrenalin with poor judgement, things can go south in a hurry.

That said, here’s my story.

In the weeds on Lay

On the first morning of the competition, I was mired in the last flight — boat number 90 out of 104 in the takeoff order.

Having found a really good spot during  practice — one where the bass were feeding aggressively on an early morning shad spawn — I assumed there would be no way to get there first. The spot was just upriver from takeoff and way too obvious.

Nonetheless, when my number was called, I exited takeoff at Beeswax Creek Park and headed straight there. As I got within visual range, I could see the spot was void of any other boats. I couldn’t believe it. How could so many of my fellow competitors miss such an obvious spot … especially that close to takeoff? It was right next to the channel and the shad were so thick there in practice, you could practically walk on them.

Puzzled but pleased, I dropped the trolling motor and started casting a buzzbait along the grassline while listening to the few remaining boats in my flight race by.

Minutes after, I started putting quality fish in the livewell. And by the time my Marshal recorded the third fish on BassTrakk, the first camera boat showed up. Soon after, several more media and spectator boats pulled in. I knew then I was among the leaders. But I also knew that that many observers would draw attention to where I was fishing, alerting other competitors to its potential. So, rather than leave when the bite ended, I decided to stay and defend it.

During that time, I recognized a number of my competitors passing by … including Caleb Kuphall.

Sometime around midday, I finally pulled the trolling motor and headed upriver — to check some other areas for an afternoon bite. When time was up, I returned to check-in and recorded a weight of 16 pounds, 4 ounces — which put me solidly in fifth place.

When things got sticky

The next morning, the flights flipped and I was boat 15. I thought there was no way anyone could beat me to my starting spot. When my number was called, I exited Beeswax Creek and, once again, raced straight there. Just as I was about to pull in, however, I noticed the boat in front of me turn and drop off pad, directly where I wanted to be. In a panic, I came off plane next to them and realized it was Caleb.

I immediately yelled to him, informing him that it was where I caught all of my fish on Day 1 … hoping he would yield the spot to me. As soon as I got the words out, Caleb raised his arms and yelled back, “I guess I’ll go the other way then.” Which he did, and I thanked him for it. Although I’m not sure he heard me due to steady stream of passing competitor boats.

When the day was done, I added another 15 pounds of bass to my overall weight and moved into third place. When I exited the weigh-in area, I noticed Caleb across the parking lot. I immediately went to him, to thank him again. That’s when I learned how upset he was. He told me he had also found the spot in practice and felt it was his turn to take advantage of it.

Although that sounds fair and he had that right, I feel there’s one simple component missing: He should have stopped there the first morning of competition and let me know his intentions. If he had, everything would have been different. I would have invited him in … so that I could return and fish there the next morning.

I’m not saying what I did was right. It wasn’t. But at the time, I had no way of knowing if Caleb knew about those fish or not. And a simple discussion that first morning of competition could have prevented the conflict.

That may seem unrealistic to some of you, but it’s a common practice — a courtesy, really — that’s exercised at nearly every tour stop.

By simply communicating your intent, it gives your opponent the option to either share a spot with you then, or yield it to you later. Unfortunately, Caleb chose not to engage in any discussions.

Which brings up another unwritten rule, and that is yielding to the leaders. When an angler establishes an area and is clearly in contention, most competitors will honor it. Not all, but most … even as early as the second day of competition.

Social media backup

A few days after our exchange, Caleb felt compelled to post a video of the incident on his Facebook page, which was recorded on a GoPro. As a result, I was slammed up and down the internet. And that’s fine. Caleb has a slew of loyal supporters and they were simply jumping to his defense.

However, I thought our discussion and my subsequent apology at the event settled it. But apparently not.

After seeing the video and receiving all the hate mail, I asked him to take it down. And to his credit, he did. But then a couple of days later, he posted another … apparently to justify taking down the first one.

For the record, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Caleb. I’ve observed him since he joined the Elite Series, and can’t help but appreciate his consistency. He has an uncanny ability to find and catch bass others somehow miss, and he does it with regularity.

After our talk in the parking lot that day, I realized Caleb wasn’t trying to encroach. I’m now certain he found the same fish and simply wanted a shot at them, which he was entitled to. I just wish he had stopped that first morning of competition and let me know. Had he done so, I would have worked with him and the outcome would have been entirely different.

For those of you still unsettled on the issue, I invite you to watch my interview with Mike Iaconelli on IKE LIVE 2.0. It should air soon, and maybe then you will gain another perspective on the topic. In the meantime, I’ll be working on ways to make things right with Caleb Kuphall.