Elwood Lumpkins was given less than a 50 percent chance to survive an operation that was the result of a botched weight-loss surgery from 2003 — one of 24 surgeries Lumpkins has undergone in the past four years. In that time, he's been in the hospital 436 days, or a little more than one out of every three. It's put a feeding tube in his stomach and immeasurable strain on his family, finances and fishing.
Lumpkins discovered bass fishing just six years ago, but the 42-year-old has made it a priority to get on either Dale Hollow Lake or Kentucky Lake when he's not in the hospital. A Frankfurt, Ky., resident, Lumpkins is eligible to fish the Billy Westmorland Classic out of Horse Creek Resort, or "Billy" as it's known locally.
The Billy is an annual tournament that is open to anyone who lives 100 miles or more from the host fishery, Dale Hollow. The Billy highlights Dale Hollow's fantastic smallmouth (colloquially, "smalljaws") bass, of which the late Westmorland was so fond.
Lumpkins found out about the event in 2004, but he was in the hospital during the tournament in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. The 2009 event was the first Billy that Lumpkins has been able to fish, so he jumped at the chance. For Lumpkins, fishing is no easy task. He's got to cover his feeding tube by inverting a bowl and securing it to his abdomen with tape. It becomes uncomfortable as he goes about a day on the water.
"You don't realize it, but you're always bending over, getting the trolling motor up and down, sitting down and getting up, and that's difficult for me," he said. "My wife's worried sick every minute I'm down here fishing, but I've got a few guys who really take care of me.
Lumpkins was determined to fish the Billy Westmorland Classic, so he covered his feeding tube and entered a field of 70 boats.Lumpkins and his partner used the float-and-fly technique, a favorite of Dale Hollow anglers in the winter months.
"We caught a bunch of fish on Day 1 that wouldn't keep, so we only weighed in 1.7 pounds," he said. "But the Billy is a tournament you can't lose the first day but you can sure win the second. We came from about 35th after Day 1 to win it."
The overcast conditions on Day 2 favored the float-and-fly anglers, but most of the field were throwing jigs. Lumpkins and his partner were among the 10 boats out of 70 that weighed in fish.
"Nobody can appreciate this win more than I do," he said. "Having only fished for six years, this is really special."
Lumpkins' first Billy may be his last days on the water for quite some time.
"I've got another major surgery coming up in February, but the doctors are giving me better and better chances all the time," he said. "If I make it to then, he's saying 70/30 then 80/20. It's getting better all the time.
"Things like this change your outlook on life; I don't let things bother me like I used to. My motto is, 'That's life. Roll with the punches.' I just deal with things now," he said. "Not knowing if you'll see March really puts things in perspective."
Amid all the surgery, stress and mounting bills, Lumpkins has managed to keep a positive outlook on life, thanks largely to fishing. He hopes to be able to fish on Kentucky Lake by spring.
"You do what you've got to do to do a little fishing," he said. "I've got the best wife in the world and a loving family. It's amazing what a human can get used to when you've got to."