While professional bass fishing is not a contact sport in the same sense as football or boxing, it does offer a set of physical challenges that can often prove dangerous. These risks have been apparent since the early days of the sport and in some ways have increased as time has gone on. As we detailed previously on the Bass Fishing Archives, two boats crashed during the 1986 Bassmaster New York Invitational on the Hudson River, and two competitors – James Atkinson, 37, of Texas, and Daniel Barragan, 36, of New York – were killed, while another angler was hospitalized for injuries sustained in the accident. As we noted in our summary of that tragedy, there have been many other near misses, including Shin Fukae’s 2011 collision with a bridge piling on Kentucky Lake.
While boats are safer and generally better-built today than they were 30 or even 15 years ago, increasing horsepower often results in reduced reaction times. Additionally, increased payouts have likely made some ultra-competitive anglers take some unnecessary chances. Tournament directors at the top levels of the sport generally allow discretion to be the better part of valor and have canceled days where appropriate (and sometimes, in the opinions of some anglers, too often), but on big water like Champlain, Rayburn and the Great Lakes, water can get unsafe in the middle of the day with little warning. One misstep or mechanical gremlin can create a perilous situation.
B.A.S.S. competition has had many near misses, but two of the most notable ones occurred in 1990 and 1998:
At the 1990 Texas Invitational on Sam Rayburn, an event won by Shaw Grigsby, the boat used by paired anglers Bo Turner and Parks Jones were swamped on the first day of competition by estimated 50 mile per hour winds. They made it to shore, where they spent the night.
According to the Oklahoman newspaper, “[T]he men said they had walked cold and wet inland until they came to an abandoned trailer where they spent a miserable night. They said if they hadn’t found the trailer they might have been in serious trouble.”
“Next morning, they were well rested and had dry clothes and ready to fish when the tournament resumed,” competitor David Yarbrough told the Gadsden Times.
Law enforcement unsuccessfully searched for them all night, and blast off on the second day of competition was delayed until they were located. Rich Tauber, who had offered help on the first day, but was refused (this was after their trouble started, but before they swamped), located them.
President George H.W. Bush had been on the phone with Ray Scott the day that it occurred, and sent a letter celebrating the anglers’ safe return. “I am delighted to hear that Bo Turner and Parks Jones miraculous survived yesterday’s storm on Sam Rayburn,” he wrote. “A special congratulations to Rich Tauber and Joe Yates, who found Bo and Parks, and all the rest of the tournament participants who wouldn’t quit until the rescue was successfully completed.
Turner finished 115th in the tournament. His best finish in 72 B.A.S.S. events fished through 2001 came the following year when he finished 8th in the Illinois Invitational, one of the toughest tournaments in B.A.S.S. history.
Jones finished 234th. It was his second event with B.A.S.S. and his last until 2009. His best finish came in the 2009 Southern Open on Santee Cooper when he finished 67th.
Tauber finished 56th, just a few spots out of the money.
Eight years later, at the 1998 New Mexico Invitational on Elephant Butte Reservoir, Byron Velvick ran into a little bit of trouble of his own. It’s a tournament that we’ve previously discussed for generally positive reasons both here and here, Velvick’s situation nearly cast a tragic cloud over the positive vibes.
Once again, exceptionally strong winds threatened but did not cause the cancellation of the tournament or any part thereof. On the last day of practice, Velvick suffered outboard problems while far away from the launch site and spend a chilly night in his boat, much of it sleeping in his rod locker. The rescue team that found him no doubt was a little shocked when he emerged, Dracula-like, from his protected quarters.
According to published reports, he was still anxious to fish, asking park rangers “Are they going to let us go out tomorrow.”
Dennis Hoy won the event. Velvick finished 53rd, just three spots away from a check. Rich Tauber, who did not play a role in Velvick’s problems or in his rescue, but nevertheless frequently seems to be around for these types of situations, finished 60th.