By Todd Ceisner
Imagine yourself on the front deck on your boat on the first morning of the final tournament of the season, knowing you need a decent finish over the next 4 days to lock up a trip to the Bassmaster Classic. You’ve been in this position before and delivered, having qualified for 15 previous Classics. It's never easy.
Now, imagine yourself casting a football jig out to a spot where you’ve located a school of smallmouths and getting a bite right off the bat, 5 minutes into the day. You load up and set the hook with your casting rod, but when you bring your right hand to the reel handle and attempt to crank it, nothing happens.
Your arm and hand won’t – can’t – turn the handle. You keep the fish on and try again. Still, nothing. You literally cannot reel the fish in. Eventually the fish shakes free and swims off.
“What in the heck,” you mutter to yourself.
Twenty minutes later, same deal – fish on, hook set, but you’re again unable to bring the fish to the boat and it, too, swims off. You start looking around and continue mumbling.
You just walked a mile in Mark Davis’ shoes.
That’s how things went for the veteran pro at the Oneida Lake Bassmaster Elite Series in late August. He’d somehow lost the ability to crank the handle on his baitcasting reels with his right hand.
“It was the strangest deal I’ve ever had. I could not grip the handle of the reel,” Davis said. “If you can’t turn the reel handle, you can’t keep slack out of your line. The fish jumped and came right off.”
Unsure what was affecting his right arm and hand, he stowed his baitcasters and went with spinning tackle the rest of the way. It brought some relief since he could reel with his left hand. Despite his handicap, he managed a 26th-place finish in the season finale and secured a spot in next year’s Classic. Still, he knew something was wrong.
History Of Neck Pain
Even on the way to Oneida, Davis sensed something was up with his right side. He felt fine throughout practice, but was completely dumbfounded on day 1 of competition when the simple motion of reeling escaped him.
After Oneida, he competed in the Major League Fishing event at Chautauqua Lake, where he again had to use all spinning tackle. On his way home to Arkansas, he started making calls to doctors and set up an MRI right away.
Tests revealed the cause of the nerve problems on his right side – he had two ruptured discs in his neck. He immediately called fellow pro Denny Brauer, who’d undergone surgery for a similar ailment years ago. Brauer recommended the surgeon who operated on him – Paul Detwiler, who’s based at the Texas Spine and Joint Hospital in Tyler, Texas. Detwiler had also operated on Zell Rowland.
After consulting with Detwiler, Davis was brought in on Oct. 15 for multi-level cervical fusion surgery, a procedure that fused the C-5, C-6 and C-7 vertebrae in his neck. His right arm is feeling much better now, but immediately after the surgery he had a burning sensation running down his left arm. Doctors told him that will subside over time, which it has.
“It just came out of the blue,” Davis said. “I’ve had neck pain for years, but you live with it and wind up developing a lot of bone spurs, which I guess are the body’s way of combating that. A big part of my problem was the bone spurs. They had to cut away a lot of spurs to get those vertebrae separated so he could fuse them. All the cutting and grinding he had to do in there, that’s probably what aggravated my left arm, but that’s just part of the deal.
Davis is looking forward to the Grand Lake Classic, but he says it all hinges on how severe the winter is in Oklahoma.
“It just snuck up on me. I didn’t see it coming. I’d felt fine. Something like this is so gradual over the years with all of the wear and tear that we go through fishing. It’s not something that comes on suddenly. The other part is it’s so gradual that you really don’t know how bad you feel because slowly but surely, you just feel a little worse and worse and you just learn to live with it. Now that I’ve had it done, I feel so much better.”
Is It 2013 Yet?
Just a couple weeks removed from surgery, Davis says he has better range of motion in his neck now that he did before and he’s hoping this will bode well for his fishing next year and down the road.
“Normally, you lose four or eight degrees per vertebrae or disc that they fuse, but I actually gained a little range because I had so much going on in there,” he said. “Hopefully, this’ll have me fishing good again.”
He opened the season with four checks in the first five events, including back-to-back 12-cuts at Douglas Lake (11th) and Toledo Bend (7th). A 68th-place finish at the Mississippi River put him on the Classic bubble, but he took care of that with a 28th at Lake Michigan and the 26th at Oneida.
“It wasn’t a great season,” he said. “I made a couple of Top-12s and made the Classic. Any time you make the Classic, you can’t be dissatisfied with it. It certainly could’ve been better. I’m really looking forward to the Classic.”
He hasn’t handled a rod and reel since the surgery, but plans to make a trip to Grand before it goes off limits next month.
“I’ll probably do more looking than fishing,” he said. “I haven’t fished Grand in a long time. I know the type of lake it is and the tendencies it has. It’s a lake that’s full of 3- to 5-pound fish. If the fish are biting at all, it could be a really high-weight tournament. That’s if it’s not a bad winter.
"If the water temperature gets down into the mid-40s, it could be a really hard Classic. It could be a Classic where it doesn’t take a limit of fish to win. It could take a few big fish and not even weigh in a limit every day. It could actually be that way. We’ve never had one that way before. If it toughens up the way it can, it can be a matter of getting those three or four key bites a day.”
Per doctor’s orders, he’s not doing a whole lot right now. He helped out coaching his sons’ football team this fall and still has plans to take a hunting trip to south Texas where he might do a little fishing at Falcon Lake.
“That’ll be my rehab,” he said.