By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Attempts to steal valuable equipment from their boats is a scenario that traveling anglers have dealt with since the inception of the sport. The incident that occurred Sunday night in Jackson, Miss., however, in which Bassmaster Opens competitor Jimmy Johnson was killed in a confrontation with an alleged 17-year-old perpetrator who police say has confessed to the crime, is unprecedented.
Johnson was in Jackson over the weekend as a prelude to the final Open of 2013, which begins today at Ross Barnett Reservoir. Across the nation, anglers at all levels who frequently hit the road to partake in cast-for-cash contests are reeling from his death.
"In all my years, this is the first time I've ever heard of anything like this," said FLW Tour pro Larry Nixon, who's spent the better part of four decades traversing the country as a tour-level competitor. "It's just a terrible tragedy and I can't imagine what that family's going through."
Now, the big question is what can be done to prevent another angler from suffering the same fate.
Part of the never-ending quest to "grow the sport" includes efforts to take it to places that have had little or no exposure to competitive bass fishing's top levels. That involves introducing anglers to environments – including some urban locations – with which they're unfamiliar. Throw in the average tournament competitor's desire to keep his expenditures to the bare minimum and it becomes extremely likely that some will end up in lodging situations that are dicey, at best.
Some tour pros avoid hotels and motels entirely, opting to rent vacation houses (usually in conjunction with one or more fellow anglers) or camp in secluded locales. Most who do go the hotel/motel route are picky about the location – if the facility or surrounding area looks like it might be a haven for the local criminal element, they'll keep searching until they find a place that appears more secure.
Many carry firearms for personal protection, and some who haven't done so previously are now considering the practice.
"As far as packing, hell yes!" said Bassmaster Elite Series pro Kevin Short. "As long as it's legal under the state laws, you're damn straight I do it. And I know how to use it."
Just Stay Away
Matt Herren, who's spent time on both tour-level circuits over the past decade-plus, said he's disdained all motels for the past 7 or 8 years in an effort to avoid encounters with criminals. His tow vehicle is equipped with a slide-in camper and he's traveled up to 75 miles from a tournament launch site to find a suitable camping area.
Kevin Short says that if it's legal under state law, you can count on him being armed when he travels.
"There's no place in the world that's 100 percent safe, but by doing that, I'm hoping to minimize my interactions with the people who'd try to steal from you or harm you," he said. "When I go to pre-fish somewhere I haven't been, one of my major goals for that trip is to find a place that's safe to stay."
He admitted that he's concerned about next year's Elite stop at the Delaware River, which will be based out of Philadelphia.
"I'll do whatever I have to do to avoid an inner-city situation and it makes my skin crawl when I start thinking about everything I'm going to have to take into consideration for that event," he said.
Nixon, who always opts for the convenience of motels or rental houses, related a big-city story from several years back involving his road roommate, Tommy Martin.
"We stayed at a place in Detroit that we thought was okay, but we weren't too happy with it," he said. "Tommy checked out early one morning at about 4 a.m., and luckily he's a hunter and he's very observant of what's going on around him because on his way out he noticed one guy in a car and two in the bushes who were ready to jump him.
"He came flying back into the room and we called the front desk, and then they called the cops. The cops came and chased those guys up over a bank and into a McDonald's parking lot, and they finally caught them. I've never had anything that scary happen to me, but by golly, Tommy was scared!"
Fighting Fire with Fire
Nixon, like his fellow Arkansas resident Short, freely admits that he's always armed when he leaves home for a tournament. They're among a substantial number of tour-level competitors who take guns on the road for protection at least occasionally.
Herren declined to reveal whether he's in that group. He said he fully comprehends both sides of the equation.
"As a Southern redneck, I'm inclined to say we should all get guns and shoot all of the would-be thugs," he said. "But when you look at the realities of a situation like that, it can put you in a tough spot. It could become something where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
"I had a conversation with a team partner probably 20 years ago who was a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, and we got into a deal one time buying fuel at 3 in the morning. I said something about needing to carry a gun and he told me I was better off not to have one.
"He said that if you don't have a firearm, you'll more than likely do everything in your power to get out of the situation you're in. The problem with having one is once you've brandished it, your option of not using it is gone. Once you pull that trigger, your life is changed forever.
Texas angler Jimmy Johnson was killed in an altercation with a would-be robber at a motel in Jackson, Miss., just days prior to the start of the Ross Barnett Reservoir Bassmaster Central Open.
"I just don't know if there's a right or wrong answer."
Veteran Zell Rowland has never felt the need to pack a firearm. The Johnson incident has changed his perception a bit, but he still has some of the same reservations that Herren harbors.
"My son wanted me to take the class with him to get (a concealed-carry permit), but like I told him, the bad part is if you pull that pistol out, you'd better be pulling the trigger," he said. "If you don't, you're probably going to get shot.
"This (indicent) makes me want to take that class now, though."
Sound the Alarm
Ish Monroe, who's lost valuable items due to break-ins on more than one occasion, said he's never without a .40 caliber handgun when towing his boat. Before next season, he'll visit fellow Elite angler Britt Myers' high-performance motorsports shop in North Carolina to have some additional security devices installed.
"I'm going to have alarms put on everything on my truck, and alarming my boat is a scenario I'm going to look into as well," he said. "It's probably going to cost me about $1,000, but if I have a $1,000 (insurance) deductible, that'll cover it right there. I have tackle and stuff that I cannot replace.
"If an alarm goes off as soon as anybody tries to get into anything, then (the would-be thief) is most likely to run away immediately. If that happens, I won't have to worry about all the other stuff."