(Editor's note: BassFan will observe Monday's President's Day holiday, so a new top story will not appear until Tuesday.)
By Todd Ceisner
Type the name “Nate Wellman” into any Internet search engine and the suggested terms that appear are anything but flattering.
Cheater. Controversy. Fined. Banned.
That’s to say nothing of the countless remarks made about him across fishing’s little corner of cyberspace.
Wellman knows there’s a segment of BassFans that’ll never give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the incident that occurred at the Lake Erie Bassmaster Northern Open more than 16 months ago. He’s aware that people have long ago made their judgments about him and what went down between he and co-angler Joe Stois on the final day of the event that Wellman went on to win.
And he knows there’s nothing he can do that’ll likely change their view on the matter, so he’s stopped trying.
As he prepares for his first Bassmaster Classic, Wellman spoke with BassFan earlier this week about the challenges he’s faced over the past year and how much he’s been looking forward to living out his dream of competing at the Classic. Last weekend, he left the snowy environs of Newaygo, Mich., and headed to Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas (an hour east of Grand Lake) to break in his new Phoenix 921 boat and get back into the bass-fishing mindset.
“Deep down, I’m fairly excited, but I’ve spent a lot of time over the fall and winter telling myself to not be excited, just to calm my nerves and be level-headed,” he said. “I’ve been trying to leave the excitement out of it. It’s not an easy thing to do, but that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
“I’m just trying to keep a level head so I go out there and not let that excitement ruin a perfectly good tournament.”
‘Hard To Deal With’
By now, most BassFans probably know the basics of what transpired at the second event on the 2011 Northern Open schedule.
Wellman left the docks in Sandusky, Ohio, on the morning of day 3 with a little more than a 2 1/2-pound lead over John Devries and a berth in the 2012 Classic hanging in the balance. Over the course of the morning, Stois, Wellman’s co-angler for the day, caught a fish in the 4-pound range.
According to published reports in the days following the tournament, Stois was quoted as saying Wellman offered to buy the fish from him on multiple occasions, even proposing to find a deserted area in the middle of the lake to relocate the fish to Wellman’s side of the livewell. Wellman went on to weigh 18-04 that day en route to victory.
Stois sent a written statement about his experience with Wellman to B.A.S.S. officials the following day and soon after, the sanctions – and negativity – against Wellman started to pile up. B.A.S.S. allowed him to keep his title and winnings, but levied a $2,500 fine and placed him on probation for a year, which has since expired. He agreed to not fish the final Northern Open that year at Oneida Lake, essentially forfeiting the Classic berth that accompanied his win at Erie.
FLW barred him from fishing the Lake Champlain Tour Open in September 2011 and banned him from FLW events for a year. The PAA also suspended him from competition for 1 year.
While he’s never denied making comments to Stois about buying the fish, Wellman has maintained the remarks were made in jest and there was no malicious intent. Still, the backlash he experienced was overwhelming and to some extent he’s still feeling the effects today. Managing it all over the past year, he says, was draining.
“It wasn’t easy from the standpoint that there were a lot of negative statements and a lot of negative things going on out there,” he said. “That was hard to deal with. On the opposite end of that, it wasn’t overly hard to deal with it because in my heart and in my mind, I know everything that happened and what I meant. It’s easy for me to sleep at night. It was more of a curiosity as to how was last season going to go and I can’t even begin to describe to you how much better (than expected) it was.”
He said the hardest part of the fallout has been rebuilding his self-confidence.
“It really hurt emotionally – everything that was going on,” he said. “Rising above that and bringing myself back to my competitive level and back to being the person I am – it took a little bit of time, but I felt like I handled everything pretty good and I handled it really good with myself and I think it showed last season in my fishing.”
Wellman (left) will be up against Classic veterans like Kevin VanDam next week at Grand Lake.
He’s also keenly aware of the damage he did with regard to the respect of his peers. Several were outspoken against him immediately after the incident, as some believed B.A.S.S. should’ve levied a much harsher penalty.
“I’m sure I did (lose it) from some. It is very important to everybody and anybody,” he said. “It’s one of those things that I’m hoping over time will slowly recover. It has in certain aspects and in some, it hasn’t, but right now I’m not going to spend all of my time worrying about everybody else. I’m worried about what I can do and what I can control. That’s all I can do. I’m just going to put my head down and fish real hard and not let anything get to me.”
Finally Living His Classic Dream
After losing out on his chance to fish the Classic at the Red River last February, Wellman rebounded with a strong Elite Series campaign in 2012. He cashed six checks, never finished worse than 66th and wound up 17th in the Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (AOY) standings.
He solidified a spot in this year’s Classic with a 7th-place finish at the Oneida Lake season finale and ever since, his mind has been tightly focused on Grand Lake.
“It means everything in the world to me,” he said. “I have spent my whole entire life preparing and working and committing everything I’ve got to get to this one, single tournament. I’ve been dreaming about it since I was 9 years old and I’ve had 21 years worth of work just to get this far. I can’t even begin to describe to you what this means to me.”
He had three different weather apps on his cell phone and he’s been diligently checking them every day since mid-December, trying to get a feel for what’s been happening around Grand since he last saw the venue before it went off limits.
Like many in the field, he spent a good bit of time there (6 days) getting to know the lake, but didn’t do much fishing while there.
“I believe I learned a lot about it and it’s just a matter of what the weather’s going to do and where the water temperature’s going to be,” he said.
Today will mark the first of 3 unofficial practice days for the field and Wellman will be most interested to see where the water temperature is on certain portions of the lake.
“Water temperature will be my No. 1 focus,” he said. “One little warm front or cold front can drastically change the water temperature. Even a 3-degree change can make the difference between a cast with a jerkbait lasting 10 minutes or constantly moving the thing. Water temp will dictate everything in this event.”
Once all the practice and hoopla leading up to the event is over, he’s unsure what kind of reception he’ll get from fans or whether they’ll boo when his name is announced and his picture is shown on the big screen at the BOK Center at the day 1 weigh-in next Friday.
“I haven’t thought about it and don’t want to,” he said. “After the first event last season and after all of last season, I’m really not all that worried because I didn’t have any of that last season and I really expected to. If there is, there is. I’ve made a point to just block all of that out and just concentrate on the task at hand. Of course, that’s easier said than done.”
Even though his FLW and PAA suspensions have expired, Wellman said he’ll only be fishing the Elite Series this year. “After last year of just doing the Elites, it was absolutely wonderful to have a lot thinner schedule so I could spend more time with my son and daughter,” he said. “It was really good, too, to just be around home and fishing around there. It brought me back to being a kid again. I thoroughly enjoyed that. I think it helped me with my tournaments. I think it helped me, in general, with my life so I’m going to give it another shot this year and see how it goes.”