By Todd Ceisner
The tingling in his arms was something David Fritts had never felt before. When he first experienced it, he took a couple aspirin and it went away. Then it came back. Same thing the next day and so on.
The former Bassmaster Classic and Forrest Wood Cup winner knew something was up, but he felt he had it under control. Plus, he still had some tournaments to fish this summer, the Cup included, and he didn't want to take himself out of the game.
Little did he know that the sensation in his arms was the first sign that he had arterial blockages around his heart.
The resident crankbait specialist among pro anglers underwent triple bypass surgery in late August, and now a couple months into his recovery, the 56-year-old is itching to get back on the water. That'll have to wait a couple more months – doctor's orders – but in the meantime, he's concentrating his efforts on making some lifestyle changes that will go a long way toward preventing another such episode from occurring.
"I'm just not used to not doing anything," he said, referring to his needing to rest and steer clear of strenuous activity. "The hardest thing in the world for me to do has been to walk around with my hands in my pockets. That's been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
"I'm feeling really good. I've been walking and exercising and eating well. I used to be in really good shape and I actually did some articles about that 15 years ago or so. The problem is I should've been doing it instead of quitting. It's pretty important to get your exercise, but it's something we all like to renege on."
Fritts first noticed the symptoms during pre-practice for the Forrest Wood Cup. He was at the Red River in Louisiana in late July before heading up north to the Oneida Lake Bassmaster Northern Open.
"I was driving with my son to the ramp and my arms felt tingly and got weak," he said. "That's never happened. I always carry some baby aspirin with me and I took one and 5 minutes later it was gone and it was fine all day. That evening, it did it again. It did it every single day. It would do it twice a day, but it wasn't constant. Both of my arms would get weak."
He was afraid to go to his doctor because he was fearful that he would be advised to cut his season short and miss the Cup. He waited until after the Cup before going to see a cardiologist at home in North Carolina. His initial EKG came back normal.
Not long after, Fritts was back home working on his family's farm when he experienced another episode. This time, the symptoms were much worse.
"I was laying some pumpkin vines and within 45 minutes, I was just soaking wet from sweat," he said. "I just felt miserable. My arms started hurting the same way and I almost blacked out."
He went to his general care physician and another EKG revealed there was an issue. Fritts was sent for a cardiac catheterization, a procedure that is used to detect coronary blockages. Fritts was found to have three blockages, one of which was significantly greater than the others.
"There was an inch-and-a-half section that wasn't in too good of shape," he said.
Rather than insert stents, his doctors recommended bypass surgery and on Aug. 29, Fritts underwent triple-bypass surgery in Greensboro, N.C. The surgery was performed by Dr. Bryan K. Bartle.
"They said I was pretty lucky that I didn't have a heart attack," he said. "There wasn't any damage to my heart. They caught it in time. Having a friend who's a cardiologist helped me because I knew something wasn't right. Most people would've put it off."
Fritts said doctors want him to stay off the water until at least Jan. 1, 2014.
Three days after his surgery, he was back on his feet, burning up the hallways of the hospital. The previous 2 days, though, were quite a struggle.
"The nurses couldn't believe I was walking the way I was walking," he said. "Don't get me wrong, though. For a few days there, I was pretty sick. Morphine becomes your best friend. I don't believe that you could stand the operation if it weren't for morphine. For 2 days, it really doesn't matter whether you live or die. You're in that much pain. After that it starts to get a lot better."
When he was back on his feet, the nurses told him most people recovering from similar surgeries only walk one lap around the hospital floor. Fritts started at three, then worked his way up to 10. Once a competitor, always a competitor.
"They probably shouldn't have told me that," he said.
The health scare has triggered a major lifestyle change for Fritts, particularly his eating habits. Two-cheeseburger lunches and fried foods are mostly things of the past now.
"I've been known to love to eat and still love to eat, but I'm going to have to change the things I do eat," he said. "I haven't eaten anything fried – no French fries, nothing. I've been eating skinless barbeque chicken. You can actually find things that are good to eat, but they're not as good as some things you're used to eating."
He's also gotten back to a fitness regimen that he hopes will have him in better physical shape by the time next season rolls around. His doctor has advised him to stay off the water until Jan. 1. If he sticks to that schedule, he'll have gone a period of more than 4 months without making a cast – the longest hiatus of his career.
"The way I was hurting when he told, believe me, I didn't want to get in a boat," he said. "I didn't even want to laugh. A laugh, sneeze or cough was like being shot in the chest. It was just terrible. I'm still pretty sore, but it's getting better. They say it takes 3 months for the bone to heal back up good."
This wasn't the first major health issue for Fritts. In late 2004, he began experiencing double and triple vision, which doctors determined was related to a ligament on his left eye that was causing the distortion. Typically, such conditions can be caused by a significant blow to the head. The only such incident Fritts could recall was during the Paducah E50 tournament earlier that year when a nasty thunderstorm kicked up and sprayed lightning around the area.
"The next thing I knew, I felt something hot running up my back," Fritts told BassFan in this Jan. 5, 2005 article. "The next thing I knew after that, I was getting up off floor and my face was bleeding. I had hit the latch on the center console, which was turned up."
His vision is better these days and the hope is his heart is, too.
"They tell me I'm going to feel 20 years younger," he said. "I said, 'As long as my fishing is as good as it was 20 years ago, I'll be happy.'"
> Fritts plans to fish the FLW Tour in 2014 as well as one division of the Bassmaster Opens. "I don't think anything's going to change," he said. "The way I'm feeling right now, I'm ready to go. I haven't fished in so long that it may be good for me. It might be good to get that desire built up good again. I am ready to go."