Featuring Catch and Release Fishing for Trophy Smallmouth Bass
Winning!--But at What Cost?
(an open letter to the fishing industry and professional fishermen)
Over the years I have written, co-written, or been consulted for information for many articles in fishing and outdoors magazines and publications. I have been asked to write this article. Many times. By many people. This will sound harsh. It's meant to. It may cost me some business. I don't really care. Some people may get mad. That's okay. This needs to be exposed, begs to be remedied. Please make no mistake of my purpose. I have no intention of either appearing or being sanctimonious or "preachy." I'm not perfect, and I have in the past done many things, including some of these listed below, for which I'm ashamed and have had to apologize and ask forgiveness. That's part of being human. I've placed my trust at times in people who weren't trustworthy, naively promoted programs unworthy of promotion, repeated things said to me that turned out not to be true. I still blunder. Our responsibility and task is seeing that the avoidable blunders get farther and farther apart. Businesses fold. Jobs are lost. Health fails. Circumstances sometimes arise beyond our control that cause us to be unable to meet obligations we've agreed to. But what this letter/article addresses is not the things we can't help; it's about those deliberate choices to do wrong to get ahead, to win. And I'm specifically addressing a mindset that is increasingly rearing its ugly head among some (not all, or even the majority of) tournament anglers, some of them high profile, and the trickle down effect it's having on the average fisherman and casual weekend tournament angler, and will have on an up and coming generation of youngsters--to our shame and the degradation of our society. No, that's not hyperbole. Yes, it's that serious.
This article is long. It has to be. There's no other way to adequately present what has to be said. So please indulge me for just a moment to engage in diatribe, anticipating your objection(s). I am not being judgmental, nor fabricating or exaggerating for the sake of effect. Every example mentioned I either have personal knowledge of, or it's corroborated by multiple eyewitnesses. No hearsay. No gossip. Just the indisputable facts. I'm holding no one to a standard higher than that to which I hold myself in how others are to be treated, nor to a standard higher than that to which a society at large (or society of fishermen) should expect its citizens to behave. And at least in this discussion, it matters not to which political party you profess allegiance, nor of which religion you are a practitioner, all parties and faiths recognize the importance of the basic virtues of honesty, personal integrity, truthfulness, and treating others the way you would like to be treated. But those are precisely the traits being assailed.
There's a word that almost perfectly identifies what's behind this behavior: "pragmatism." Pragmatism, pragmatic, and other derivatives of the root word are often thought of as meaning "practical" or "effective." That is only a part of it; the strict definition of "pragmatism" is more sinister, for limitations that make something "effective" are irrelevant under the strict definition of pragmatism.. It is living by the motto, "the end justifies the means." We've heard it used so much that it sounds innocuous. But it's a dangerous way to live, the devil's lie. Taken to its logical end, and in combination with that other great fallacy: that there is no such thing as absolute right or wrong, it provides justification for any behavior or action. I see what I want, and it matters not what I have to do to get it, "the end justifies the means." Think I'm kidding or exaggerating? Ever read one of the many news stories about a husband getting caught while trying to hire a hit man to kill his wife (or a wife her husband)?
What's going through that person's mind? Invariably it's something like this: "I'm not happy with this spouse. And I have a right to be happy. This other person would make me happy. So I'll eliminate this one in favor of that one so I can have what I want." In that person's warped mind it boils down to this: the end (my happiness) justifies the means (murder). Extreme? Yes. But you know it happens. You KNOW it does. It hasn't been that long ago (October 25, 1994) that Susan Smith left her two her kids in a car in Union, SC, and rolled it off the end of a boat ramp. Remember her motive as determined in court? The boyfriend that she preferred over her husband didn't want the burden of rearing kids. The end ("I want his man, but can't have him if I have kids") justified in her mind the means ("I'll get rid of them by burying them in the lake"). In tournament fishing the reasoning of the offender goes something like this: the end (winning) justifies the means (doing whatever it takes). I don't know of anyone being killed over a tournament winning fishing spot (yet). But I do know of some terrible wrongs done in the pursuit of victory in tournaments, done in the name of "the end justifies the means." And it's got to stop. Now.
Incident #1: Date: October 25, 2002. Location: Pickwick Lake, Florence, AL. Friends Mike and Sherry Whitten and I are fishing a spot I have fished for going on 20 years. I caught my first 5 pound (5-9, actually) smallmouth bass off of it many years ago on a 4 inch smoke Harville grub given to me by friend and mentor, Larry Young. It is a fairly obvious place (to me), shown to me by no one. Day two of a very big B.A.S.S. tournament (over 400 anglers) is being held on Pickwick/Wilson Reservoirs, so Mike, Sherry, and I agree to meet at 5:45 a.m. to launch before the 200+ tournament boats and not have to make a run in the rough water caused by the flights blasting off. Fishing was very tough on the tournament anglers on day 1, with only 4 limits weighed in. Fishing for the tournament anglers is so tough, in fact, it will turn out that a combined weight of only 6 lbs. 14 oz. for two days will make the top 50 cut to qualify for Saturday's final round. Though I use artificial baits for 10 months of the year, this day we are anchored and using live shad, one of my primary October presentations.
The current is running hard on this morning, and the smallmouths biting. First hookup is by Sherry, a giant of a smallmouth, maybe 7 pound class. It jumps and comes off. She wilts. We're all "affected" by seeing such a magnificent fish. Can't stop talking about it. Tournament boats begin making their runs by us to their honey holes. After we've been fishing for 30 minutes or a little longer, we hear a boat coming toward us at reduced throttle. It slows to idle about 50 yards upstream from us and begins zig-zagging back and forth, finally dropping a marker buoy, still a courteous distance away. But instead of fishing, after a few more minutes of checking the spot, the buoy is picked up. The boat moves slightly to the north, begins zig-zagging again, and drops the buoy a second time, still an "acceptable" distance away. Maybe 10 minutes have passed since the boat first showed up. The buoy is again picked up, the current drifts the boat a little closer to us, and an anchor is put out. I'm beginning to get a little uncomfortable.
Either the anchor is too small or the rope too short, as the anchor isn't holding, and the boat begins to slowly drift toward and finally past our port side, no more than 40 or 50 feet away. It is a green Ranger with Mercury outboard and Michigan registration. I don't know the angler's name, and prefer not to. Outside of the scope of competition and off the water he may be the nicest guy in the world. But this day his behavior is something less than commendable. Much less.
Mike hooks and lands a smallmouth, maybe 14 inches. They are so close that we can hear the amateur angler in the back seat of the tournament boat whisper, "It's just a small one." We are told by the "pro" angler in the front that we are sitting on his GPS coordinates. He lets it be known that another local angler, whom I know well, showed him this spot before "cutoff." I explain myself, telling them that I fish the lake about 225 days a year and have been fishing that spot for going on 20 years, that I was just trying to make a living, too. I am challenged, "I didn't see you here yesterday." I explain that the previous day the client and I fished Wilson Lake instead of Pickwick and had a pretty good day up there. The "pro" then realizes that we are using live bait, and mixes in some choice four letter words to emphasize his displeasure with us. I'm getting very uncomfortable. His boat, with inadequate anchoring, continues to slip past us. We are asked to leave. We joke quietly among ourselves that he didn't get his money's worth if he was shown only one fishing spot on a 43,000 acre lake. But it's not a laughing matter.
With his lures falling into the current swirls trailing behind my anchored boat, we are informed that they are going to fish the hole with us. After all, he's "fishing for $50,000!" (we distinctly recall his telling us three different times how much money he was fishing for). Sherry hooks up with a big smallmouth, turns out to be over 5 pounds. As she's fighting it, "The Green Ranger", as we began calling him, weighs anchor and goes by us at about half throttle, apparently with the trim fairly high, as a giant wave washes over the port side back corner of the boat where Sherry is standing and fighting the fish, almost knocking her down and launching water over the bench seats into the floor of the boat. He goes around to our starboard side bow, cuts the throttle, and drops his anchor again. That's when I told him as nicely as I knew how under the circumstances that he should calm down and at least try to be courteous, that he had almost thrown the lady down with his wake, and I couldn't have that. He said he had tried to go by at a distance, which I took as meaning he was sorry about it and that the wave was unintentional. A lot of inexperienced folks don't realize that a boat at half throttle makes a much bigger wake than one going by at WOT (wide open throttle). Again, his anchoring is inadequate, and he begins to slip past us at no more than 40 to 50 feet, a mirror image of the first drift. We were again reminded of how much money he was fishing for ("I'm fishing for $50,000!"), and asked to leave--no, that's inaccurate; this time we were told we "needed" to leave. I was getting even more uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, Mike and Sherry are catching fish. Big fish. Lots of fish. Enough in just a few minutes to win the 3 day tournament. Sixteen smallmouths boated, but 4 big ones lost, 3 of them over 5 pounds for sure, and that first one of Sherry's maybe 7 or better. Though we release all fish, we do weigh them and keep records when we fish together (both Mike and Sherry are accountants, and admirably fastidious with numbers and details), and their 9 best of the 16 weigh 33#-8oz. "The Green Ranger" sees it all. Mike hooks another big one that jumps near "The Green Ranger"--much closer to him, in fact, than to my boat! Up the anchor comes again, and about the time that Mike boats the fish, "The Green Ranger" is idling just off our starboard side. He finally gets bold enough to come up and tell us that we "have caught enough big fish," that we "need to leave and go somewhere else"! I'm mad, but bite my tongue; Mike has had more than he can take and says, "No sir! This lake is 50 miles long and there are lots of holes for you to fish. We aren't leaving 5 pound smallmouths for anybody! YOU go somewhere else!" I know it had to be killing that guy to see them catching well over 30 pounds right in front of him, and losing several more big fish. To be honest, I could sympathize with him and did feel badly for him, but my higher obligation was taking care of the people in my boat, paying my salary, and they, when I asked, specifically said that they did not want to leave. I remember discussions in an "Ethics" class in college and in graduate school classes on "The Principle of Double Effect": the dilemma that occurs when, in trying to do good for one person or group, it is found that the same action necessarily but adversely affects a second person or group. No hypotheticals here; I was living it! We had done nothing at all that could be construed by anybody as "wrong." "The Green Ranger's" behavior, however, was completely inexcusable, regardless of how much money he's fishing for. The desired end (winning the tournament) did not justify the means (crowding a local boat already anchored and fishing, using swear words when talking about fishing live bait, throwing a huge wave over the back deck, telling people that they need to leave a place that they were fishing first). It's got to stop. Now.
A second incident that occurred in this same tournament illustrates much more, as a bad decision made in the rabid "competition mode" of behavior was recognized and acknowledged by the offender to be wrong, and a satisfactory resolution reached with the angler who had been victimized. This episode shows both what should not have happened in the first place, and how it should be handled if it does.
Incident #2: Date: October 24, 2002. Location: Pickwick Lake, Florence, AL. Same tournament, but Day 1. A pro angler familiar with Pickwick Lake makes a run to his chosen hole, marks the spot with his buoys, and pulls out from his buoy with his trolling motor to begin fishing the short section (no more than 40 yards) of underwater river ledge, planning to anchor at the upcurrent end on a rockpile. A well known young pro, admitting later that his "competitive juices were flowing", motors in between the first angler and his spot, no more than a boat length in front of him, drops his anchor, and says, "Sorry (angler's name); this is all I have and I am going to anchor and sit here all day." He literally cut off the first boat from his already buoyed productive spot on the ledge. How close was he? On his third cast with his topwater bait the intruding pro inadvertently snagged the first angler's marker buoy. The boat who was there first, cut off from his chosen spot, then watched the amateur partner of the intruder catch 2 big fish of an eventual 4 fish 15+ pound string from his buoyed off hole--the biggest stringer of the day by either pro or amateur among the over 400 fishermen! The pro zeroed that day.
On Friday, though, getting permission to anchor off the stern of a boat already there, the first day intruding pro caught 3 at 15+ lbs., making the cut. Word of what had happened spread quickly both days at the weigh-in. Many folks, both tournament fishermen and locals, were coming up to the fisherman who was wronged on Day 1 to express their sympathies and dismay. Congratulations away from the podium for the intruding pro, on the other hand, were few and far between--and rightly so. There is no honor in a string of fish, no matter how large, that is caught by knowingly doing someone else wrong. Let me repeat that, because it is so very important: There is no honor in a string of fish, no matter how large, that is caught by knowingly doing someone else wrong.
On Saturday at the weigh-in, a local person confronted one of the other boats with the same sponsor's paint job as the first day intruder's boat, saying something like, "We heard what you did to that fella on Thursday, and around here we don't like stuff like that.", leaving the innocent and bewildered fisherman to explain that there were three boats in the tournament identically painted, and that he wasn't the guilty party. Assuming that the first boat that dropped the buoys could/would have caught at least some of the fish that the first day amateur in the "intruder boat" caught, and some of what the intruding pro caught the second day, the incident likely cost that angler who was there first both money in winnings and tournament points. I don't know of anyone being killed over a tournament winning fishing spot. But I do know of some terrible wrongs done in the pursuit of victory in tournaments, done in the name of "the end justifies the means." And it's got to stop. Now.
Though having fished Wilson Lake on Thursday, I knew what had happened that morning on Pickwick by early Thursday night. Word of "stuff" like that spreads quickly among fishermen. Mike, Sherry, and I could have easily beaten that well known pro down to that fishing hole Friday morning and seen to it that he never made a cast there all day. It's another place that I've fished for years and years, and it's well known that I fish there, and I usually fish it that time of year when the Whittens are with me. I don't go looking for trouble, but try as best I can to avoid it. We (the Whittens were in agreement) decided against going there and likely provoking an incident, believing it would have been wrong to knowingly cause trouble. Turns out that we couldn't avoid it-- trouble came looking for us in the form of a green Ranger!
There was quite a bit concerning this incident between the two tournament anglers on internet discussion boards, but nothing initially was posted by the pro who was there first and was cut off from his fishing spot. He instead contacted the other angler personally by e-mail and, after a return phone call, the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of both. Displaying both character and humility, the pro who had intruded on the other angler's water posted a public apology, acknowledging that in the heat of the moment he had made a very bad decision, doing something that may have been technically within the rules, but was still wrong to do and, given the same circumstances, he would not do again. I had always liked the guy prior to this tournament, but was very upset over what had happened. I ended up having a lot more respect for him after it was all over for the way he handled it. It takes a lot of guts to say publicly--and mean it, "I was wrong; I'm sorry." The pro who had been cut off then posted a message, explaining that the apology had been accepted and the matter wholly resolved, and good had resulted from something bad; two guys with a lot of class who handled a bad situation well.
Others should take notice, as what I've recounted are not isolated incidents. Dr. Scott Yarbro of Jackson, TN, told me of an eerily similar experience that happened to him during a B.A.S.S. tournament on Pickwick in 1998. He had an underwater offshore mound buoyed off, was fishing it, and had a tournament boat come in and say that because of the amount of money he was competing for, he would have to come on in and fish that spot--and did, right then. And an article in a recent issue of Bassmaster magazine tells of tournament winner Homer Humphrey's experiences with other anglers attempting to commandeer some of his fishing spots in tournaments. Or just ask Mark Rizsk about some of his encounters in the California Delta.
No one "owns" the lake; I know that. It's public water and everyone has the right to fish anywhere they want. But there's a phrase among tournament fishermen called "honoring the other person's water." It's a good idea. I have been both the offended and, to my shame, the offender with regard to this--though not in a tournament situation.
Several years ago I heard about a place in the river that had a fascinating history about it, and was reputed to be loaded with big smallmouths, found by commercial catfishermen who couldn't keep them off of their catfish trotlines and out of their gill nets (a practice I hope is soon outlawed). I knew the general area where it was located, within maybe a quarter mile. Though knowing another local fisherman fished it, I had never seen him fishing it, and so, after getting as much information as I could, went hunting for it on my own. After much work I found it (or a place very close to it), and it was a very good spot at certain times of the year. I tried to be a good steward of the spot, releasing fish back on it, but the other fisherman let me know at a boat ramp one afternoon that he was unhappy that I was fishing there. I tried to put myself in his shoes, and realized that I was not "doing to others the way I would want done to me." I wrote him a letter of apology, and haven't fished that hole for seven years--and won't. It's just not worth making someone mad over a fishing hole when it's within your control to prevent it. I regularly run into this fisherman on the river and talk to him, and earlier this week we had a most pleasant conversation. That wouldn't happen if I had popped off about "nobody owns the river," something that he admitted himself the day he let me know he didn't appreciate my fishing that hole. I wouldn't like it either. I know from experience. . .
A few years ago I was fishing with Charles Waller, founder of Bumble Bee boats, and his friend Chuck Lynch, when we had an encounter with another angler that continued into the following day. I had a hole that I had found on my own several years earlier and had been saving for that particular time of day, as that's when the fish bit best on it. No one else fishes it. No one. We were headed down the river when I spotted a familiar, though out of town, boat on the far bank that had the reputation among locals for watching where other boats fished, and then going back to those spots and fishing them hard with live bait. The problem: he kept every smallmouth he caught and everyone knew it.By himself that day and seeing us go by, he jumped down from the bow platform and fired up his boat to follow. I stopped in the middle of the river. He stopped in the middle of the river. I waited. He waited. After a few minutes of stalemate, I told Charles and Chuck, "We can't sit here all day, let's go fishing." I went to my hole and anchored, a place that I had found on my own and from which I had twice previously caught over 50 smallmouths without moving. Sure enough, the other boat shadowed us to the hole, then idled by us about 75 yards upstream and started "fishing", but it was really more just watching what we were doing. The current was drifting him toward us, and he fished his way down to us. And there was no way to hide the monster smallmouths that we were catching off the hole. He got even with us, about 50 feet away on the opposite side of the hole, and started throwing right in on top of our lines. Chuck was livid. He whispered, "You ease me over there and I'll get in that boat and put an end to this nonsense." And I believe he would have. Charles was almost in mourning, saying more than once, "I can't believe he's in a Bumble Bee." I suggested doing nothing at that point, as he wasn't catching anything, not being set up just right on the hole. He finally drifted on down, never catching a fish.
The next day I had two clients from the Birmingham area, extra nice guys and a lot of fun to spend the day with. We had fished together before, and I had been waiting for that particular time of day to head to that same hole. You already know what I'm about to say. There was that same boat anchored dead on the hole, exactly as he had seen us do it the day before. This time I was angry, and even though I don't "own" the river or spot, indignant at what was being done. And I was not going to let it go without expressing my displeasure. I never cursed. I never threatened. But I did say, and with a tone that let him know I was upset and serious, that I didn't appreciate what he was doing and that I didn't want to see that boat on that hole again. He feigned ignorance, saying he didn't know what I was talking about, that he "fished that hole all the time." I replied, "I'm out here 225 days a year for the past several years and have never seen your boat anywhere near here before. The guys in my boat may not know it, and the guy in your boat may not know it, but you and I know that you're a liar." Those that know me well know that I rarely speak that bluntly, even when it is the truth. I also told him that I wouldn't be so upset if it weren't for the fact that everyone knew he kept all the smallmouths he caught, and I didn't need someone ruining another hole that my clients were used to catching lots of big fish from. He didn't care. As far as I know, he never fished the spot again.
No one "owns" the lake; I know that. It's public water and everyone has the right to fish anywhere they want. And there are such things as "community holes", so well known that no one thinks anything of someone else fishing them. But some things go beyond decency. Some things just aren't right. And it's got to stop. Now.
I have a small circle of close friends with whom I share fishing information. I'll tell them where I'm catching fish and on what, and they'll tell me the same. Sometimes we even call each other on our cells phones during the day to help each other out. The expectation and understanding within this circle of friends is that we will help each other catch fish and find new spots, but that there are even then some spots that are more or less kept for oneself. And it's impossible to know whether or not someone else has found and fished the hole before, or if someone shared it with someone who shared it with someone who shares it with you. There is also a certain inevitability that when people are searching for the best places for the same species of fish that some of them will find the same spots. In innocence, you can still appear to be "the bad guy" to someone. I have been shown fishing spots by friends, not knowing or asking how they found them, then been "ripped" afterward by someone else for fishing "their" hole.
I try to find 2 or 3 new spots on my own each year; in fact, I've just found a great one. I've even gotten to the point that I rarely respond to tips offered by charitable people other than those in that "circle of friends." Tim Arnold of Arnold's Custom Lures was very generous in e-mailing me recently to tell me that he had found a good place while practicing for a tournament, offering to share it with me. I told him that I appreciated the offer (which I did), but I'd let him keep it to himself for the tournament. Turns out he caught two big smallmouths off of it and, combined with his other fish, won the tournament. I have no idea where the place is, or if I might already be fishing it. But consciously choosing to stay out of someone else's way makes the pillow a lot softer and more comfortable to lay one's head upon at night.
Incidents #3 and #4: Date: All the time. Location: Almost every tournament weigh-in stand. Offenses: Lying and hypocrisy. It's become almost an aphorism, a cliche, especially here in the "Bible Belt" of the Southeast where so much of competitive tournament fishing takes place, to make mention of "God", "the Lord", or "Jesus" when referring to the success one has had during the day or during a tournament. To that I do not necessarily object (remember, I'm a preacher!), indeed, it seems to me that if a person's faith is as controlling a factor in life as it's supposed to be and claimed to be, mention of it is a natural thing. The complaint I'm increasingly hearing is when "the walk obviously doesn't match the talk" (and remember, 225 days per year an average of two people per day interested in fishing get to bend my ear about what interests/concerns them). That is a very serious matter. It's called "hypocrisy." As I said at the very beginning: no one is perfect. We all blunder and need forgiveness, including me. Any thinking person understands that, just as any thinking person also understands that there really are some hypocrites in the world, that not everyone is who or what he/she claims to be. Open and continuing hypocrisy with no attempt at behavior alteration is revolting. It's abhorrent. Repulsive. Odious. Disgusting. Loathsome. Despicable. You can't go out and consciously mistreat and take advantage of people, and then get on the podium and talk about how "the Lord has blessed" you. What kind of theology and "witness" is that?
Playing loose with the truth is a well known, acknowledged, and widespread problem among fishermen, especially tournament fishermen. As a matter of fact, we even tell jokes on ourselves about our untruthfulness: "Not all liars fish, but all fishermen are liars." Usually that has reference to the size of the fish that are caught, but a look at a recent discussion page on the internet on this topic shows that many have just resigned themselves to the fact that, because of sponsors' dollars, tournament anglers lie about what they are catching their fish on(can be seen at:
check thread numbers 26850 and 26868)
Since everybody knows that most everybody else is lying about what baits they're using, it's no big deal. Right? Nobody gets hurt. Right? Wrong! There may be a weaker and more pitiful justification for doing something than "everybody else is doing it," but I'm not yet aware of it. We don't let our kids get by with using that as a reason for behavior; why should we think it's then all right for us to appeal to it? Telling a lie, then telling your kids not to lie just doesn't cut it. The "don't do what I do, do what I say" methodology of parenting is doomed to break your heart. They'll grow up cynical and not trusting what you tell them. And why should they? That's just one good reason among many why it's so very important for professional fishermen to be truthful: the kids are watching. And learning. And imitating. If they see you lie, they'll lie.
Why do you think that the polls show that people are so cynical of politics and politicians, that they don't fundamentally trust them, that "none of the above" is often the best looking choice on the ballot? Remember these famous lines?:
"We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." (President Lyndon Johnson, May 1964),
"in all of my years in public life I have never obstructed justice. People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook," (President Richard Nixon, November 17, 1973),
"Read my lips: No new taxes!" (President George H.W. Bush, August 18, 1988, New Orleans),
"I did not have sex with that woman." (President Bill Clinton).
I told you at the beginning it wouldn't matter what political party you favored. And we all know that there are good, honest, politicians out there, and that there is even much to commend about some of the men quoted above. But when someone or some office or some "body" of people get the reputation of being loose with the truth, people lose respect for them, and it drags the good people of that contingent down with the guilty. That is axiomatic, self-evident, no need for proof. And so it is equally true for politicians, parents . . . and for professional fishermen. We don't want fishermen as a clan to become the object of old jokes like, "How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving."
There is no reason or excuse for lying about what bait you're catching fish on. If you don't want to tell, then don't! But don't intentionally deceive someone. Leon Tidwell once told me when we were swapping fishing information, "I really don't want to lie to a preacher, so I guess I'd better not say anything." That's a great answer! And it'll work on the tournament podium, too, as will any number of other similar, truthful answers, like, "I can't really tell you now, but I'll tell you when it's over." Then when it is over, tell, and be truthful.
Whether professional or recreational fishermen, as a fraternity of people with the same interest, we must make sure we don't end up with the same sullied reputations that politicians and corporate officers now carry as baggage. We can't be satisfied to blindly hang our fingers in the belt loops of, and be carried along by, those in society who have an appearance of success, but motivated solely by their quests for power and greed, compromise everything that's right and end up morally impoverished. It just isn't worth it. It just isn't "right." And it's got to stop. Now.
I've discussed so much of the negatives, let me give you two examples of absolute integrity worthy of imitation:
March '02 it was my pleasure and privilege to spend two days on Pickwick Lake with Steve Quinn from In-Fisherman, chasing smallmouth bass in an attempt to film a television segment. To say that the conditions were extreme would be one of the understatements of all time. The water had risen 12 feet (elevation from 409 to 421) in the previous 18 hours from flooding rains that made national headlines. The parking lot at the main ramp in Florence had trees washing across it. Flow through Wilson Dam with the spillways open was over 200,000 cubic feet per second--Niagara Falls "only" has an average flow of 125,000 cfs.
But we located some decent fish. And I was catching them. But I was catching them on a bait that was not made by one of the sponsors of the show. After catching several to Steve's none, I offered to give him that bait and get another like it out of my tackle bag. Steve said, "I don't know." I offered a second time. He then turned to Dave, the cameraman, and said, "What do you think, Dave?" They discussed obligations to sponsors, and if it were a magazine article vs. a TV segment, and quickly decided that they would not have Steve fish the bait. Why? Because he wasn't supposed to. The company that they work for had signed a contract to only fish a certain brand of that type of bait on the show. I didn't know that earlier when I had asked if Steve wanted my bait. And in my mind I'm now thinking, "Are you kidding me? I can think of a bunch of TV show hosts that would say, 'Give me that bait!', then catch the fish on it, put the fish in the livewell, take off the 'verboten' bait and retie the sponsor's bait, then show off the fish being 'caught' on a bait that they weren't in fact caught on, just for the sake of the sponsor money." I, in fact, know of multiple instances of that happening. The fish are caught on one bait, livewelled, then shown being caught on a bait to satisfy the sponsors and sell product. And I know that doesn't surprise you (see, you've become calloused and cynical already!). But not with these guys, not with Steve and Dave. Why? Simply because they weren't supposed to. They could have done it and no one would ever have known about it but we three. And remember this: we were shooting a TV segment, and could have caught several more fish for the show had Steve and Dave been willing to compromise principle for the sake of catching fish. I can't tell you how much my already high opinion of these guys and their organization went up because of that one simple decision. Integrity. Honesty. Doing what's right just because it's right, not for personal aggrandizement, or even if the masses never know. I trust these guys. They don't lie. This is the way it should be done.
Kathi and Mike Hurst from Ripley, MS, have fished with me for many years. One of our most memorable trips was around Memorial Day of 1997 when the giant smallmouths were busting topwaters. Our five best that day weighed over 27 pounds, and Kathi and I each got smallmouths over 6 pounds on Zara Spooks. That's as good as it gets.
Kathi is also a touring pro. Back in the mid 90's Kathi fished a B.A.S.S. event at Sam Rayburn, setting a record (since broken by Lucy Mize) for the highest finish ever by a woman in an open B.A.S.S. event. She caught her fish on a lipless rattling crankbait. But not on one made by one of her two crankbait sponsors. Though she did catch lots of fish on her sponsors' baits, she tried them, but the fish just wouldn't hit them, at least not for that tournament. What to do? When weigh-master Mr. Ray Scott asks in front of the TV cameras and that big crowd, "What did you catch your fish on, Kathi?", what do you say? It would be very easy to name your sponsor's bait, making them happy, cementing future support. But it would be a lie. So Kathi, without even considering there being a choice or option, told the truth. And because she mentioned a competitor's lure, one of her sponsors began stonewalling, not returning calls, not sending ordered baits.
So some in the tackle industry itself, by sometimes employing tactics that discourage honesty, bear a significant part of the responsibility for the downward spiral of professional angler credibility among increasingly cynical fans of the sport, many of whom believe that the majority lie about what bait they use. It's to be mourned that companies facilitate lying by putting pressure on their representatives to promote their product regardless. The pressure became so great that, for some products, Kathi decided it was easier just to buy the baits than to seek sponsorship and have to compromise personal integrity. I agree, and make that statement from personal experience.
I am personally sponsored by several fishing and boating related companies, most of whose products I used long before I secured any promotional consideration, and all of whom allow me the freedom to be completely honest in how I use them. I use their product only because I believe in it, not because they compensate me to say so. I have also said "no thank you" to some companies who offered me product that I wasn't interested in, and some who have offered sponsorships and make great products that I use, but placed what were to me unacceptable restrictions on having a business relationship with them. I understand and enthusiastically comply with taking advantage of legitimate opportunities to promote the product, such as wearing caps or clothing for photo ops, providing clients with the opportunity to see and/or use them during a day of guiding, or honestly mentioning the company and/or baits at the weigh-in stand if it really played a part in that day's events, or used truthfully in articles pertaining to that specific subject. But signing contracts that forbid me from using baits of the same category made by another company when I'm guiding (I'm going to use whatever it takes to catch the fish), or requiring me to mention the product in any and every article I'm quoted in, and other such restrictions that virtually require dishonesty at some point, those are things that my conscience cannot abide. Like Kathi, if companies don't value honesty, I'd rather just buy what product I need and not have to worry about doing wrong or compromising my integrity while promoting it.
And despite the few high profile "bad apples" in the barrel of professional fishermen, there are many like Steve Quinn and Kathi Hurst, possessing character and integrity, all the time, without question. When Al Lindner, one of the finest gentlemen I've met in or out of the fishing business, tells you where, how, and on what bait he caught his fish, I think you can take it to the bank. If he doesn't want to tell you yet, he won't. No lies. Ever. Same with Tim Horton, and many more. They would never consider--not in a million years--harassing a local boat, or commandeering another angler's fishing hole. Winning is important to them, but not that important. Not as important as doing what's right.
In the earlier incident, maybe the angler whose already buoyed fishing spot was encroached upon should have been a little more defensive of his spot, but why should he have to stoop to the level of a wrongdoer? Or maybe the amateur partner of the intruding pro should have spoken up and suggested leaving and coming back later. And if that suggestion wasn't heeded by the pro, maybe the amateur should have made a point by refusing to fish in water that he obviously knew that someone else was already fishing. From the commendable character displayed by the pro after the fact, it seems that maybe even a little jab of conscience pricking might have avoided the whole incident. We all need it occasionally to keep us straight, don't we?
What's the siren call that leads us away from decency? It all comes back to the venal nature of pragmatism: the end (money, points, and 15 minutes of fame) justifying the means (doing whatever it takes: commandeering water, rudeness to locals, lying, etc.). Winning!--but at what cost?
If it's within your power to decide, and if it doesn't pass the test of doing to someone else what you would want done to you, then leave it alone. Be truthful. It'll be lot better world for us all to live in, and for our kids who are coming along and seeing what we're doing. And it's guaranteed that your pillow will be a lot softer and you'll sleep a lot better every night.
COPYRIGHT 2002 by Steven Hacker, All Rights Reserved
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