Several years ago Ike Live had two special forces guys, Mike and Rudy, on the show. These men had seen it all and they shared with him how fishing helped them cope with life during and after missions. Sadly, Mike as many of our heroes do, later took his own life. Rudy had a great idea of getting Pro Anglers to share their stories about how life experiences not only helped their fishing but strengthened their anglings skills. I was honored to be one of many anglers asked to write a chapter. Rudy planned to put it all the stories together in a book and get the book published. The proceeds were to go the families of Special Forces personnel killed in action. Unfortunately, the book was never published and Rudy has vanished. The attached is the chapter I wrote for the book. It is here for you to read in the hope that it helps someone. Perhaps someday we can gather the stories and raise those funds.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve enjoyed some amazing stories from some truly heroic people about stress, stress mitigation and how they relate to fishing. In so many ways, police work and fishing are very similar. One moment your heart rate is at 60 beats per minute, in the next it’s over 100! A police officer may be parked along side a road enjoying the day, and then suddenly involved in a high speed chase. A fisherman may be experiencing a day, in which no bites are to be had, and then suddenly he or she is hooked up with the fish of a lifetime. Stress is stress. Police work is police work and just like in fishing where patterns can fail, things can turn to shit quickly, anywhere!
West Windsor, NJ encompasses approximately 28 square miles in the central part of the state, just outside Princeton. A farm community when I was a kid, the complexion changed drastically once New Yorkers discovered the train station. Amtrak and New Jersey Transit provided an easy one-hour commute to NYC. The farmland of my childhood quickly became housing developments, schools and shopping malls.
Like any cop in a small town, I started as a patrolman. My first eight years were spent on the road in a patrol car. I later logged several more years in a marked unit as a road sergeant. Because it was a small department (I was the 22nd member when I came on) I quickly learned to handle everything that came my way. The bulk of my career was spent in investigations, first as a detective, then a detective sergeant, and later a lieutenant in charge of investigations. For me, there was nothing more exciting than putting the pieces of a crime together and eventually getting the actor (perp) to tell you he/she did it. The mental judo with some of these people was awesome!
Conducting drug investigations, not only in my own community but throughout the county as well, was something I would have done my entire career if I could have. Putting a case together, the surveillance, undercover officer buys and getting a search warrant issued, then planning the raid and finally kicking the door in! Buy-Busts, which involved an undercover officer buying drugs from a street vendor and back up officers flooding in to arrest the seller, often lead to foot chases and more. The rush from both was unbelievable!
Fortunately for my brother officers and me, our department was very proactive in continuing training and education. Some of the most interesting and intriguing training involved survival training and active shooter training. The high stress situations we were presented with are as real as it gets, in a controlled environment. These types of training help you learn a lot about yourself and your body. It teaches how to calm your mind and think rationally while your heart is racing nearly beyond control. Officers are shown countless examples of what we refer to as, “the will to survive”. In the cases shown, officers and soldiers basically refused to die! They wouldn’t give in to the assault. Against all odds, they persevered. It was always amazing to see what determination and the will to survive in a man or woman could do.
Later in my career I acted as the Police Information Officer. Training for this position involved learning how to be the voice of reason amidst chaos, how to deal with an emotional family or an outraged public and of course an ever-prying press. Media can bring the best or the worst out of people. Reporters and attorneys would put my mental judo skills to the test many times.
Like so many others, I began fishing as a young boy. My Dad was not an outdoorsman, but my dear Uncle Mike was. He always made time to take me. Grover’s Mill Pond, famous in the original 1930’s War of Worlds radio broadcast for being the Martian’s landing site, lay just beyond my parent’s doorstep. I spent countless hours with my Mom fishing off the bank or gliding across the pond in a canoe with my Uncle Mike.
During my police career fishing was my favorite release from the pressures and stress of the job. I mean let’s face it, no one comes to the police and tells them they had a good day! Police officers are constantly dealing with everyone else’s problems or with people no one else wants to or has the balls to deal with!
Early in my career an event took place that forever changed my life. It taught me a great deal about pressure and anxiety and how to deal with your emotions in a highly stressful situation. If you’ve ever wondered why cops don’t trust anyone, perhaps this story will offer some insight into that as well.
On October 18, 1986 I was working the midnight shift. In West Windsor we rode in one man cars. It was my turn to pick up coffee for the squad but as I traveled to the coffee shop I passed a car parked off the road near an irrigation pond. After approaching the vehicle, identifying the occupants, a female driver and a male passenger, I recognized paraphernalia used to ingest cocaine lying on the floor under the passenger’s legs. I called for backup. Two officers from my squad showed up almost immediately. The male occupant was placed under arrest for both the drug paraphernalia and a large quantity of cocaine found in a box under his seat.
Within minutes of his arrest, the perp was complaining of chest pains. This individual was wearing two sweaters and a heavy leather jacket. Each time we attempted to search any area near his chest, he would emit sounds of agonizing pain. We found a bottle of Nitro Glycerin pills commonly taken by heart patients, in his pocket. Believing he was ill and in pain, an ambulance was called to the scene to transport him to the hospital. Upon arrival of the ambulance, the Paramedics evaluated the male and immediately administered an IV. He was placed on a gurney, lifted into the ambulance and readied for transport.
Police Department SOP (standard operating procedure) at the time, called for the arresting officer to follow the ambulance to the hospital (Princeton), which was 15 minutes away. So I followed the ambulance that day. The ride was uneventful, until we were about to enter the hospital grounds. The ambulance suddenly stopped in the middle of the road. I could see some sort of commotion going on inside through the rear doors.
Exiting my patrol vehicle, I was met by one of four first aid personnel at the rear door of the ambulance. He opened the door and told me the male patient had a gun and was going to kill everyone if I did not back off. The first aider then stepped back inside, and closed the door.
My first reaction was to think this was all a joke. No way does this guy have a gun. Yeah, he was under arrest for some coke and paraphernalia, but everyone was concerned about his health. How could he take advantage of all these well-intended people, pull a gun on them, and threaten to shoot them? I went to the side door to look through the window.
I quickly recognized this asshole really did have gun! We later learned he was wearing a shoulder holster, complete with a -.32 caliber automatic under all of his clothing. The agonizing pain and heart issue was all a ruse. As I peered through the window, I could see this guy was very agitated and threatening everyone with the weapon.
I knew I couldn’t let the ambulance move from its present position. Using my WT (walkie talkie) I alerted my dispatcher to the situation and threat. I knew I had to get to the ambulance driver in order to keep the vehicle from moving, as things would only get worse if the situation became mobile. From my position on the passenger’s side, I moved to window and tapped on it to get the female driver’s attention. She was riveted to the actions and demands of the gunmen in the rear and had no awareness of my presence. Suddenly, the ambulance started to move.
As a kid I did some crazy things. One of which was riding through fields in old pickup trucks hanging off the doors and large side mirrors as the driver chased after pheasants and mowed down tall weeds. It was totally fun, and completely outrageous, but on this night it came back into play.
In 1986 our ambulances had no running boards, so as the vehicle began to move I instinctively grabbed on to the large side mirror, and pinned my knees against the door. I continued to bang on the window trying to gain the driver’s attention.
As we travelled past the hospital’s emergency room entrance, awaiting personnel noticed me hanging off the side, and concerned there was a problem, contacted my department. Still, the ambulance did not stop. I continued to bang on the window and yell to the driver as we exited the hospital grounds and traveled toward the center of Princeton. More than a half mile from my patrol car now, which I had left running in the street, and unable to gain the attention of the driver, I assessed my situation. It wasn’t good. I was holding on with my right hand, the same side as my weapon, so if the gunmen came to the front of the ambulance I was dead meat. How long could I hold on anyway? No matter how hard I tried to gain her attention, the driver was completely focused on the gunmen!
Soon, another first aider moved from the rear of the ambulance and into the passenger seat. I noticed the passenger window was ever so slightly open. Good, I thought. This guy will open the window and I’ll be able to get the driver to either drive to the Princeton Police Station, or stop and throw the keys out.
Despite me calling his name, he never realized I was hanging off his door. To make matters worse, he closed the window. I was screwed! Fortunately, the ambulance slowed just enough for me to safely jump off.
After commandeering a taxi and retrieving my patrol car, I gave chase to the ambulance. A short distance later, I caught up with it near the grounds of Princeton University. I was directly behind the ambulance as it was traveling approximately 35mph when suddenly the rear doors flew open and a body came flying out! I cut the wheel hard to the right and by some miracle, narrowly missed running the person over.
I slamming on the brakes, threw the car into park, and I ran to the discarded body. It was a male first aider, blood pouring from his head.
My first reaction was the asshole gunmen had shot this man and thrown him from the ambulance as a sign to me that he wasn’t fucking around. Suddenly my concern for the first aiders, who had entrusted me with their safety and well-being, had turned to pure, unadulterated rage. Thankfully, the man on the ground was still alive.
While assessing him, I asked if he was ok. He responded that he was, and that he had jumped from the ambulance in order to escape the gunmen (and while I commend him for taking action to extract himself from the situation, and thus giving us one less person to worry about, sadly this man later had very serious mental issues dealing with leaving his comrades behind). Unfortunately, this act hiked the agitation level for the gunman even higher and increased my stress, and anxiety over the safety of the remaining ambulance crew exponentially.
By now, officers from my department and others had joined the chase. Help arrived quickly on scene and I was able to hand the fallen first aider off to another officer and resume pursuit of the hijacked ambulance.
Approximately one hour into the event, the ambulance, which had traveled many miles from Princeton, through West Windsor and now into East Windsor stopped at Dunkin Donuts. It seems the gunmen needed sugar to counter-balance the cocaine rush he had been on.
He directed a remaining male first aider to get donuts and orange juice, then allowed this individual to exit the ambulance and enter Dunkin Donuts.
In 1986, police departments were limited to communication via their own frequency. We had no ability to speak directly with other area departments except by relaying messages through multiple dispatchers. So while I had no way of knowing what other departments were doing but realizing an opportunity had been presented to gain control of one more first aider, I requested and was granted permission from my Sergeant to approach the Dunkin Donuts. An Officer on scene from Princeton Borough PD joined me.
The ambulance was parked in front of the building on the north end, allowing us to move along the west side.
We made our way to the side of the front entrance and could clearly see the actions inside the building but not the ambulance. As the first aider exited the shop with donuts in hand, I grabbed him (donuts went flying everywhere) and pushed him to the safety of a nearby parked car. He was frantic and at first tried to get away, stating if he didn’t get back in the ambulance the gunmen would kill everyone. I pressed him to the ground and against the car while trying to gain important information about what was going on in the ambulance and with the gunmen.
As this was going on, the gunmen realized something was amiss. Suddenly, the ambulance appeared on the west side of the building. The gunman was now in the front seat area. He held the female driver, his left hand and arm around her neck, while pressing his gun to her head with his right hand. The ambulance stopped next to the vehicle we were using as cover. As I held the male first aider against the parked car with my knees, myself and the other officer drew our weapons.
The gunmen yelled that he was “gonna kill” the woman if I didn’t give the first aider back to him. And while he seemed on the verge of losing control, the gunmen was smart enough to keep his head very close to the driver’s. This kept us from getting a clear shot.
We were a trunk lid’s width apart as I tried to reason with him. At times he would point his gun at me. Although there were moments when I thought about taking the shot, I knew it would be close and I couldn’t take the chance of hitting the woman. Worse yet, my partner, due to his position, had no shot at all. (Years later in a reenactment for the TV show Rescue 911, this moment became very real all over again for me. I could see this asshole’s face and the sights on my handgun very clearly. I know I could have made that shot!)
The yelling back and forth continued. I knew I had but a brief moment to convince the gunmen to release the hostages. I stressed that he was only making things worse by continuing to hold the first aiders. The gunmen ignored my warnings, ordered the driver to backup the ambulance, and moved to the rear area. The driver backed up a few feet and stopped. That’s when I realized I had her attention and seized the moment.
The driver’s door was locked and she had her seat belt on (Safety first!). Using hand motions, I directed her to unlock the door and unfasten her seat belt. After a quick glance in the rear view mirror, she did as instructed. I quickly opened the door, grabbed her and threw her to the safety of my partner. I remained at the door of the ambulance, my weapon trained on it’s interior, hoping the gunmen would come forward again.
My heart raced. After all he had done, I wanted revenge! But it wasn’t to be. The gunmen put his gun to head of the final first aider in the ambulance, pushed him to the drivers seat and off they went.
For a cop there is little that gets your adrenaline flowing more, or raises the stress level higher, than a high speed chase, especially one with 15 police cars chasing a gunmen in an ambulance.
Much later, there would be a successful extraction of the final first aider during an exchange of food the gunmen demanded. This was followed by a high-speed chase and subsequent crash.
At the crash site, the ambulance took down a utility pole. Wires were down, smoke filled the air, and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Another opportunity to end this presented itself.
I ran to the driver’s door, figuring this asshole had to be stunned from the impact. From the window I saw the gunmen had been thrown to the floor nearly under the steering wheel and appeared unconscious. Unfortunately the impact of the crash had jammed the door shut.
Remember, though, this was 1986. The ambulance had vent windows and I was able to get my hand inside to the door handle but I still could not get the door to open. I called for a heavy bar (standard equipment in all patrol cars used to gain access to windows, doors etc.) to smash the window. When the gunmen sat up, he placed the gun at his mouth stating he would shoot himself if I continued to try to gain entry.
As you can imagine, my response was not politically correct! In fact, if I recall correctly my exact response was “Fuck you, you piece of shit, go ahead and kill yourself!”. My Lieutenant, who had arrived on scene, dragged me away from the ambulance.
A lengthy, made for TV (bringing his family members to the scene, an ex-wife he hadn’t spoken to in a long time, etc.) negotiation process started. Fortunately, for all involved, some eight hours after it began, the incident ended without further injury when the gunmen surrendered his weapon and himself. Thankfully throughout the entire ordeal no one was seriously injured!
It may sound crazy to you, but this was one of the most exciting nights of my life. I traveled through a myriad of emotions; from being compassionate for what we all believed was an ill person, to disbelief that we had been duped. I crucified myself for failure to provide proper safety to those who had entrusted me to do so. I became angry toward this man and what he had so carelessly done by putting everyone in danger. Finally, it was the need and desire to do whatever it took to make things right. It is this determination, coupled with the process of thinking things through, and then seizing opportunities at the right moment, that would later be translated into my fishing.
Further into my career as a detective, I assisted on the case of Betty Fran Smith, who was reported missing by her husband, John. As a detective sergeant I helped direct a nationwide effort, which included simultaneous interviews of associates in NJ, CT, IN, OH and CA. The coordinated effort eventually led to John’s arrest. When referencing hard work and perseverance, fishermen use the phrase “start early, stay late”. This case, parts of which continue today, exemplifies the true meaning of this phrase.
In 1991, Betty Fran Smith disappeared. During our initial investigation we learned that John Smith was previously married in Ohio and his first wife had been missing since 1974. The investigation led us to John’s brother who I sensed held back more information.
In 1998, with the assistance of the FBI, and during our simultaneous nationwide effort, an agent and I interviewed John’s brother again. That interview lasted hours. It was obvious to both of us that John’s brother was withholding information crucial to the case. He seemed to want to tell us more but just wouldn’t.
We tried pushing every button we could think of but could not find the right combination to unlock his secret. We even played good cop, bad cop to perfection, I was the bad cop (the FBI would never do such a thing) and was as hard on this man as I’ve ever been on anyone. Still, he would not give it up (I learned later the brother suffered from daily nightmares of John’s first wife chasing him with her own legs in hand. He held me responsible because I failed to get him to share the story in 1991).
A few days later, he had a change of heart, and provided the incredible account of how his brother, had built a wooden box in their grandfather’s garage in 1974, right around the time John’s first wife disappeared. In 1979, while cleaning out his garage, their grandfather found the box, and called the brother to open it. They immediately recognized the remains and clothing of the first missing wife. She had been dismembered to fit in the box, and the lower parts of her legs were missing. The brother wanted to call the police but his grandfather insisted that what happens in the family, stays in the family (That bastard and his wife went to their graves knowing their grandson was a murderer).
So instead of calling the police, the brother and grandfather called John to the scene; he took control of the box and drove toward Indiana where he was living at the time.
Using this information, we were able to locate the box and the wife’s remains 25 years after her disappearance.
In 2000 John Smith was convicted in Ohio for the death of his first wife. He went to prison for his crimes. He remains there to this day still refusing to provide any information on Betty Fran, who has since been declared dead.
The nine-year investigation taught me lessons in perseverance and determination. The “never give up” attitude by all the investigators, including Betty Fran’s daughter and sister provided positive results! This, too, would later be transferred and used on the water.
Later in my career, I started to compete in bass tournaments. My plan was to learn as much as I could in order to be competitive by the time I was ready to retire. I looked at fishing as a release, an activity that could truly get me away from the pressure and stress of my job. I had not yet tied the two vocations together.
In fishing, conditions change constantly. Those who do well not only understand how to adapt to those changes, but also have the courage to do so. Narcotic investigations are very much like fishing. Because you are dealing with people who are completely irrational and undependable, much like the elusive and uncooperative bass, investigators, like fishermen must adapt to the changing conditions.
I worked several tours with a special investigations unit dedicated to narcotic investigations. On one particular tour I was part of a team assigned to investigate a cocaine ring. This ring was attempting to extort money from a fellow police officer.
The officer’s son was addicted to cocaine and owed the dealer a large sum of money. The dealer thought it was a good idea to play upon the officer’s fear of public humiliation in an attempt to get him to pay his son’s debt. Numerous threats were also made to the officer. We learned the dealer never went anywhere without bringing along his muscle men, one of whom was always heavily armed. With the officer’s assistance, a meeting was set up with the dealer where the debt would be paid. The meeting was to take place in a bar along a rural highway. Marked bills, recording devices and hidden microphones, and numerous undercover officers were all part of the operation.
Prior to the appointed time, five undercover officers were positioned in the bar, more were in the parking lot. Myself and another officer were in an undercover car across the street, where we controlled the listening devices and recording equipment to be used in the operation. The officer’s baseball hat hid a microphone. We could clearly hear every word spoken between him and the dealer.
The officer arrived at the bar on time. A few minutes later the dealer arrived. The dealer and another male exited their car and entered the bar. An undercover officer positioned in the parking lot alerted us that a third male remained in the car. We believed this was our heavily armed muscle man.
The dealer met the officer inside the bar. Small talk ensued in which the dealer actually apologized to the officer, claiming it was just business. After a brief discussion, the money exchange took place. As with any narcotics operation, there is a code word used for the takedown of the bad guy once a deal is complete. Unfortunately on this night, the code word was missed and the undercover officers in the bar allowed the dealer and his companion to leave the bar. The officer in the parking lot announced the two suspects were getting into their car and about to leave. I was certain the dealer and his associates had no idea about the operation or the presence of so many undercover officers.
So, just like in fishing, something in the operation had changed and I had to react to it. The arrest was supposed to take place as soon as the dealer walked outside, but it didn’t. I knew too many things could go wrong if we let these bad guys get on the highway, so I told my partner to hang on and drove our vehicle into the bar’s parking lot. The bad guys were driving toward us preparing to leave the lot. As we approached each other I swerved my vehicle and struck them head on. Nothing like the element of surprise! The impact shocked all three passengers and sent the weapon muscle man had been holding, flying. The dealer and his friends were quickly secured and the money recovered.
In fishing you have to react quickly, without reservations, to changing conditions. Has the wind changed? Is it getting cloudy? Is it getting sunny? Has the water color changed? We all know we have to do something; it is those who actually make the adjustments who are ultimately most successful.
A few years later, while standing in the weigh in line on day 2 of an Everstart event on Kerr Reservoir, NC, I received a call from my department alerting me of a homicide involving a young man who had been beaten to death. I weighed my fish and drove seven hours directly to my station, parked my truck and boat, and jumped into the investigation. If you’ve ever watched the TV show about the first 48 hours of a homicide investigation, you have undoubtedly heard how important those hours are. It’s crucial to secure as much evidence as possible and speak to as many people as you can (before they get their stories together or begin to forget) during that time. No one from our team of investigators, which included detectives from the County Prosecutors Office and the State Police, slept for two days. We worked through every possible lead before I finally sent everyone home for some well-deserved rest and a good meal. The hard work later paid off as three young men (“Friends” of the deceased) were apprehended for the crime.
Start early, stay late! Once again, hard work, determination and to borrow a phrase from good friend, Mike Iaconelli “the never give up” attitude prevailed. That attitude was something else that I would later incorporate into my fishing.
So, how does this all tie in to fishing and the stress of tournament competition?
Let me tell you about Lake Amistad, 2014. The lake once known as the best bass fishery in the US had suffered from a severe drought. Some 60 feet below normal pool, the fishing was the worst in Amistad’s proud history.
There are several types of cover in Amistad, which is the boundary line between the United States and Mexico. Grass, rock and trees are strewn amongst the many ledges and creek channels. Much of the cover I had caught fish on in previous trips was now far above the water line, high and dry.
Besides the low water conditions, it was cold. Extremely cold! I planned to practice for five days prior to the event, which is my normal program. However, I prefer to take the Wednesday prior to the tournament off in order to get my equipment ready and prepare mentally, leaving me four days of actual on the water practice.
Day one was cold and void of any bites. I was staying with good friend, Kurt Dove and his lovely wife, Rhonda for the event. Bites were scarce for Kurt, too. I wasn’t alarmed about not getting any bites. Day two, and again the air temps were only in the high 20’s. Many people don’t realize that Amistad, at an elevation of over 1100 feet, is really a highland reservoir in the middle of the desert. It can get damn cold there in the winter. In fact, it actually snowed on us at this event. Despite trying many different techniques than those I used on day one, at the end of day two again I had no bites. Day three and I had no bites for the third day in a row.
Now, I’m one of a few fishermen that have been fortunate enough to have actually won a BASS Open event. In 2009, on the Upper Chesapeake Bay I bested a field of 196 anglers, which included numerous Bassmaster Classic Champions, Elite Anglers and local sticks in a very tough tournament. In that event, I was the only angler to bring a limit in during the first two days of the tournament. That’s a tough event! Amistad was shaping up to be equally as tough.
But now on day three at Amistad, all I wanted to do was break every rod I owned. I had tried everything in my arsenal and still had not been able to generate one bite. Kurt, who guides on the lake, was getting a few bites but not many. Clearly, conditions were tough for everyone. Using some of the information Kurt provided, on day four, I went out and tried my damnedest to get a bite. Nothing! That’s four days without a bite.
At this point I just had to laugh at myself. How could anyone go this long without a bite? Well, I was doing it. Despite wanting to take the day before the tournament off, there was no way I could. Day five dawned cold again but my attitude was hot. I dared the fish to bite. To be honest, I didn’t fish much, as I was afraid I might actually catch one. I looked, and I graphed, and did everything I could to locate a bass and give myself hope for the next day, the first day of the tournament.
And how many did I catch? You guessed it: day five went by without a single bite! You’ve got it sports fans, five full days of hard practice resulted in exactly ZERO bites! That’s a great big goose egg in the bite column. No one could be that bad. Talk about stress. I’m about to start a tournament against some of the best anglers in the country, and I’ve yet to have a friggin’ bite!
That night, I not only reflected on my practice, but started to think about some of the lessons I’d learned during my police career. I thought about my police training on remaining positive in a negative situation, being the voice of reason, thinking my way through high stress situations and finally, the will to survive attitude when faced with an impossible situation and insurmountable odds. Could these lessons help me on the lake?
The first day of the tournament, my co-angler was a young man from Kentucky who was still active in the military, and had never fished a large tournament in his life. He was so excited. So there I was, hadn’t had a bite in five days and this guy is so excited to be fishing in this event and with me. He wants to catch a fish in the worst way so he can walk across the weigh-in stage. Having fished as a co-angler many years prior, I was familiar with the feeling, and the desire burning within him. It drove me to work harder and remain positive. I told him the odds were against us because of my poor practice but that I was positive we would figure it out at just the right time and catch fish. Nothing like putting more pressure on myself.
By 10:30am that morning we still have not had a bite. But I’m not going to let them (the fish) win. I’m determined to remain positive. I have the will to survive and I’m going to figure this out. We moved to Mexican waters where I had, the day before, graphed a ridge with short grass on top in about 30-34ft of water. I had seen some fish here and thought perhaps these fish were using the deep water nearby to suspend in, but were moving to the grass to feed.
At 11:00am I experienced my first bite in five days. Soon we had the first fish in the boat. My co-angler hooked up as well. Finally my perseverance, determination, ability to remain calm and will to survive is starting to pay off. I was getting feedback from the fish and the livewells were filling up. I knew of another similar ridge close by, and after a lull, we made a move. We completed our limit there.
At the weigh-in I was as surprised as anyone to be one of a few to bring in a limit. In fact, over the course of the tournament, out of 180 anglers, I was one of only four anglers to bring in a limit each day of the three-day event. I ended up finishing ninth overall. I firmly believe without utilizing the “will to survive” attitude I could not have competed so well.
Another example of applying my training and stress mitigation to fishing happened as recently as the Rayovac Championship on the Ohio River in October 2015. If you’ve ever fished the Ohio River out of Paducah, KY, you know it can be a difficult place to catch a bass. The few places on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers that hold bass get covered up quickly and receive enormous pressure. If you decide to run up river, you must deal with locks and the ever-present LOCKMASTER!
On waterways such as the Ohio, commercial traffic and barges take precedence over recreational traffic. Few, if any, lockmasters will stray from this precedence. And many often ignore pre-arranged times for tournament boats in order to accommodate barge traffic. For day one of the event, I decided to gamble with the lock leading into the Smithland Pool. I fished a creek 15 miles north of the lock and I caught my five fish limit. I sat in 33rd place entering day two.
This is where all the fun began. On day two, being boat number thirteen got me running early to the lock, which was scheduled to open at 7:30am for those of us who were locking up into the Smithland Pool. But a few miles from the lock we experienced heavy fog. For me, there is nothing more unnerving than running through the fog. You can’t see and you can’t hear. You don’t know if you’re going to hit something ahead of you or get run over from behind. It’s extremely nerve wracking, and has in the past caused me to sit on the bank in safety until the senseless boaters have stopped running or the fog has lifted. Upon my arrival at the lock, I discovered the lockmaster had not adhered to the schedule and allowed a barge in. This would delay our lock time to 8:15am. To spend the time, I began fishing near the lock.
Normally, when the lock opens the lockmaster blows a whistle. However, on this occasion he did not. Unable to see due to the heavy fog, I did not realize he had already opened and closed the doors until I arrived back at the lock at 8:12am. I immediately contacted the lockmaster and after some discussion was told he would get me through when he could.
Now it was decision time: do I wait for the lock to open, or do I try to find a place in the Tennessee or Cumberland River that’s not covered up in boats and where I’m not interfering with someone who may have done better than me on day one? My weigh-in time on that day was 3:00pm. I calculated that if the lockmaster opened the door by 9:00am, and taking into account locking times, I would only have three hours to fish! But if I could catch another limit, I would be in position to get a check (paid) for my finish in the tournament and possibly qualify for the finals.
Just as I was about to give up on the lock, the doors swung open. Hallelujah! I was going to get the chance to fish where I had the most confidence in catching a limit. As I passed through the lock, I asked the lockmaster what time in the afternoon he planned to lock all of the tournament boats back down river. He told me the lock down would take place at 2:00pm.
I knew it would take about 30 minutes of run time and idle time to get to the back of the creek where I wanted to begin fishing. I used this time to concentrate on relaxing and mitigating the stress built up inside me over the lock situation. I took deep breaths and thought of calmer places in my life, much like I did when faced with a confronting media or belligerent lawyer, and thought about what I was going to do when I got that first bite. I also spoke with every tournament angler I idled past in the creek to confirm the lock time. Every one of them told me it was 2:00pm.
At my first spot, I stopped a good distance away in order to give myself more time to calm down and think about the task at hand. My experience has taught me that the natural tendency in situations where your tournament day is shortened is to fish way too fast. I didn’t want to do that. I knew how to fish this area and generate bites. I just had to stick to the plan.
Easing up to the bend in the creek, I fired a cast to a submerged stump. I felt a fish bump my crankbait. I stopped reeling momentarily and the fish came back and ate it this time! My first keeper was in the boat. After about 15 minutes and no other bites, I moved to another location in the creek. I again stopped a good distance away and eased up to make the proper cast. I caught my second keeper on the first cast at this location. From that point it was on! I caught keeper after keeper. Unfortunately they weren’t big keepers but keepers nonetheless. In fact, by remaining calm and thinking my way through what I knew needed to be done, I caught more than a dozen keepers in the three hours I had to fish. Due to the lock time issues from the morning, I decided to return to the lock at 1:30pm, giving myself plenty of time in case the lock opened early.
Much to my chagrin, as I arrived at the lock, the doors were closing on a barge. I knew we were in big trouble time wise. By 2:00pm many tournament boats had arrived at the lock for the scheduled lock through. As time went by these boats began to spread out along the bank fishing in hopes of catching more fish. By now the stress and frustration was building inside me once again. The lockmaster himself had given us a 2:00pm lock time, yet ignored his words to us. I have my limit of fish in the boat, which I knew was worthy of a check, thousands of dollars. But I also knew it was out of my control. My fate in the tournament and the money were in the hands of the lockmaster.
At 2:20pm I contacted the lockmaster’s office. I informed the lady who answered that I was one of the tournament boats waiting to lock down and that my check in time was 3:00. I asked her if there was a chance in hell that I would make it. She was very nice, and informed me the lock was being filled as we spoke and the doors would open momentarily. She also alerted me that the time to lock us through would largely depend on how long it took everyone to get tied up (all boats inside the lock must be secured prior to the water being lowered or raised).
So I announced what I had learned to everyone around me. I also recognized that boats were now stretched for ¾ of mile up the river fishing while waiting for the lock to open. I knew if these boats took unnecessary time to get into the lock and secure themselves, those of us due in at 3:00pm would be late.
Unlike the lockmaster, this was something I could control. I fired up and ran to each and every boat along that bank announcing that the lock was about to open and for the sake of those due in at 3:00, they needed to get into the lock as quickly as possible. Upon returning to the lock I took a position at the very front along with another angler who was due in at the same time. Waiting for the lock doors to close, and all the boats to be secured, was agonizing to say the least. If we had a full 15 minutes to run to the check-in boat, and we didn’t hit any rough water or obstacles along the way, we should make it.
With each passing moment in the lock, I re-calculated how fast my boat would have to run in order to make the check in time (in bass tournaments you are penalized one pound per minute for being late, up to 15 minutes at which time your days catch is disqualified). Although the Ohio River is wide in the Paducah area, the channel in some locations is not. I asked the other angler if he had ever run the west bank toward the check-in site, doing so would allow us to severely cut off some of the river and shorten our distance traveled. He informed me he had but it was shallow and treacherous. We determined it was our only hope to make it in time.
The stress of waiting for the lock to open and the anticipation of a dangerous run were building to new heights. The emotions were similar to those you experience just prior to kicking a door in on a drug raid. I knew I had to remain in control of my breathing and my thoughts of running the boat to its limits. These were the only things I could control and the only things that would allow me to succeed.
The lock door finally opened at 2:47pm. We had 13 minutes to both idle to the end of the lock (required for safety reasons), and then make the 15 mile run to the check in boat. The calculations in my head told me that if I could run at 69mph or better, I could make it. With a full tournament load my 21’ Skeeter FX and SHO 250 had never run over 70mph. I was hopeful that the down river current would help my speed and I would not hit any wakes or waves along the way, which might slow me down. As we raced down the river memories of many great high speed chases I was involved in during my police career returned. The boat hit 69.9mph at top speed and I thought I would be safely back in time. But disturbances in the water would slow us to just below 68mph, and then we would climb back up to 69.9mph. My stress would increase yet again. Breathe dammit, breathe!
We whisked past a laydown log that clearly indicated we were in a mere inches of water. At times I could see the bottom of the river as I ran over it. I prayed we would not hit anything, which could cause me to lose control of the boat and perhaps hurt my co-angler or myself. With each passing mile the clock on my GPS kept ticking and with each tick we were getting closer to 3:00pm! With half mile to go and the check-in boat in sight, the time turned to 3:00pm. I screamed an expletive but kept my foot on the throttle. My speed read 69.9mph as I approached the check in boat and the two men inside waving frantically at me to come off the throttle. As I skidded to them they said I had 20 seconds to spare. (I later learned that a boat is not considered late until the clock strikes 3:01pm. Good to know.)
Using all of my experience, training and the good sense to alert the other anglers had worked to perfection, or at least to within 20seconds of disaster. As a result, I moved up in the tournament standings and finished 24th overall, with a sizeable check for my efforts
Moral of the story – In all facets of life, including fishing, always remain calm, think the situation through, control what you can control, maintain the will to survive, and never give up!
Lt. Dave Mansue
West Windsor Township PD