By Todd Ceisner
The world's top-ranked bass angler is currently recovering from elbow surgery and hopes to be cleared to resume fishing next week. At the same time, Jason Christie is transitioning away from his title sponsor of the last 2 years, a stunning development that now leaves FLW with two gaping holes in its team angler lineup.
Christie, who won three tour-level events in 2013 and finished the year atop the BassFan World Rankings presented by Livingston Lures, had surgery last month to repair a nerve issue in his left elbow. He's scheduled to finish physical therapy treatments this week and be re-evaluated by his doctor next week, at which point he hopes to receive clearance to resume fishing activities.
If all goes as planned, he'll be back to 100 percent well in advance of the Bassmaster Classic in February. The procedure, the first surgery of any kind he's ever had, was done after he endured bouts of intense pain during the second half of the season, his busiest yet as a pro.
"I feel like it's getting better every day," he told BassFan earlier this week. "I know right now I'm better than I was before the surgery. Hopefully, in another couple weeks I'll be back at 100 percent."
Christie, who's posted five wins over the last two calendar years, also recently hit the free-agent market as far as title sponsors go after he opted to walk away from his team deal with FLW through Rayovac Batteries. He joins reigning Forrest Wood Cup champion Randall Tharp as prominent FLW Tour anglers who've decided to remove themselves from team deal consideration for the upcoming season. Tharp recently opted out of his team deal with EverStart Batteries to pursue another title sponsor.
The Park Hill, Okla., native felt the move was necessary in order for him to be able to consistently promote his full lineup of sponsors across both tours.
"I decided after this year that I felt like I needed to remove myself from the team deal," Christie said. "With me fishing both tours, it's hard to be under FLW's umbrella and fish B.A.S.S. That was the main reason. I feel like I have a really strong sponsor portfolio and my job for them is to promote them as much as I possibly can. That's one of the reasons I fished both tours. I felt like for me to move on to 2014 that I needed to not accept the team deal."
His goal remains to fish both FLW Tour and Bassmaster Elite Series schedules in 2014.
'I Remember the Fish'
An athlete all through his youth and in college where he played basketball, Christie was fortunate to avoid any serious injury along the way. His luck ran out on the water while fishing at the Lake Chickamauga FLW Tour last June.
While burning a deep-diving crankbait back to the boat, he felt a bite and set the hook as he normally would. The accompanying pain in his left elbow was anything but normal, however.
"I actually remember the fish. I got the bite and when I swung, it hurt," he said. "At the time, I didn't think much about it. It's crazy with as much as I flip and as much as I do the things I do that I would actually hurt myself cranking. I think it was maybe the perfect angle and everything happened perfect to hurt it."
He wasn't sure what he'd done, but never one to cave to a little discomfort, he figured whatever it was would heal on its own. After Chickamauga, there was a 5-week break in the schedule leading into a 3-week grind in August that included two Elite Series event sandwiched around the Forrest Wood Cup. He didn't fish at all during the 5 weeks, figuring some rest would do him some good, but his elbow didn't improve.
He fished exclusively with spinning tackle at both of the final Elite Series events, which gave his left arm a break. The Cup, however, was a shallow-water flipping and frogging event and that's where he knew something more serious was afoot.
"I was really expecting that whenever I started fishing again, it would be healed up," he said. "I thought, with being stubborn like I am, that it was one of those things that would just go away. It never got any worse, but it never got better."
After the Elite Series season, he finally saw a doctor and began a physical therapy regimen with the thought that he could test it out at the Bassmaster Central Open at the Arkansas River.
"Once I fished the Open where I was catching them flipping and frogging, I went right back to the doctor and told him the physical therapy wasn't working," he said.
Christie said the only reason he added the Bassmaster Elite Series to his schedule was the allure of the Bassmaster Classic.
The tipping point for Christie came at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, the last of 18 tournaments he fished in 2013. On the morning of day 1, he approached a set of docks and began flipping. Three straight bites led to three straight fish coming loose, a maddening sequence that had even his marshal scratching his head.
"I had a big one on right away and I got it out and it came off," he said. "That happened three times in a row. I just had no power to get these fish out. Literally, after the third one, I just went to my knees. I didn't even tell my marshal what was going on. My marshal asked if I was okay and I told him about it. He told me, 'I'm just sitting here as an unbiased observer and I've watched you lose three big ones in a row. You're going to have to do something if you're going to continue fishing.' That's when I decided that when I got home, I'd have to see somebody."
Doctors initially concluded the issue was in the muscle tissue, but an MRI and X-rays were negative. He also did 6 weeks of physical therapy, but when nothing had changed or improved, his doctors did an exploratory procedure last month.
"They think it was a nerve that was being pinched," he said.
The pain wasn't present every time he set the hook, though, which is why his doctors seem to think hooksets at a certain angle were causing the issue.
"Those first three fish at the TTBC that I hooked and lost, I just went to my knees," he said. "I picked up the trolling motor and went around to the next pocket and caught a 3-pounder and a 9 1/2 and there was no pain at all.
"I told him it seemed like half of the time I would jerk, it would really, really hurt and the rest of the time it wouldn't. That's what led him to believe it was in the nerve and it was probably caused by the angle. Sometimes I would swing to the side and sometimes I'd swing straight up. I'm not sure which one it was that caused that pain. When it did hurt, it was pretty severe."
Those familiar with Christie's skillsket know he's at his best around shallow-water targets, either with a flipping stick or frog rod in his hands. Once he started to experience the pain in his elbow, he said it started to creep into his decision-making on the water.
"From Chickamauga on, it was getting to the point that I didn't want to flip," he said. "Everybody that knows me knows I want to flip and I found myself looking for bites that were the opposite of flipping. It wasn't just flipping that hurt. It was frogging or anything that took an aggressive hook set. I did it, but I really didn't want to do it. I'm just hoping that I'm good. My gut feeling is that I probably am, but that's the first surgery I've ever had."
He admits to being a bit skeptical that the surgery fixed the problem, but he's hopeful.
"It's been 4 weeks since the surgery," he said. "That's just how I am as a person. I'm just not a fan of surgery. Here we are less than 3 months away from the Classic and I'm not healthy and have just had surgery. If surgery doesn't work, then what's the next step?"
On the Market
As he recovered from surgery, Christie was trying to decide the best route to take business-wise in 2014 and beyond. For the last three seasons, he'd fished out of an FLW team-wrapped boat and truck (in 2011, he flew the Mountain Dew colors before moving to Rayovac for 2012-13).
He said he approached FLW to discuss the possibility of augmenting his team deal through Rayovac for next season, but FLW declined. His contract as an FLW team angler expired Dec. 1. He said he will reach out to his other sponsors to gauge their interest in stepping up to the title sponsor role.
"If that doesn't happen, I'll go looking for a new one," he said. "I really expected to work something out with the team-deal situation.
"The decision wasn't based on the year I had. It's based on my goals for the future. My plan for the future is to fish both tours next year so I need to find a sponsor that wants to be represented across both tours as a title sponsor. It's hard to do that with an FLW sponsor."
He said he's grateful for the opportunity to have had in-house deals the last three years, but he felt he'll be best served via the independent route going forward.
"I started my career (with FLW) and it's possible that I'll fish FLW for the next how many ever years," he said. "I really enjoy their tournaments. It pays really good. The only reason that I switched and fished the Elite Series was because the Classic was on Grand Lake.
"I got in the Central Opens (in 2012) and got in the Classic and once I got in the Classic I fell head over heels in love with that event. I had the opportunity to fish the Elites and promote my sponsors and get in the Classic again and that's what I did.
"It's not what I went looking to do, but the problem is as a professional angler, I don't have another job to go to so I need as many events in a year's time as I can get," he continued. "I can't make a living on six tournaments and I can't make a living on eight tournaments. I need 12 to 18 tournaments to make a good living. That's why this has all kind of snowballed. If FLW offered a lot of tournaments next year, there's no telling what I'd do, but they're only offering six so I'm going to fish both."