By Todd Ceisner
As tumultuous as the 2018 bass fishing tournament scene has been, it seems fitting that the last few weeks have been relatively quiet. There sure has been a lot to process over the past 12 months, though, with much more to come in 2019. For now, it’s time to review and reflect on some of the biggest stories that shaped the sport over the past year.
There were extreme highs and tragic lows, along with major (historic, even) shakeups, all of which served to make 2018 a marker post of sorts on the sport’s historic timeline.
The BassFan staff has pored over the archives of the last 12 months and come up with the 10 biggest storylines of the year. As part of a two-part series that begins today, we will break each one down in terms of their significance and how they made 2018 a year to remember and reflect.
Lake Okeechobee is supposed to be a place where people go to possibly catch the fish of a lifetime. It’s a popular tournament destination, especially early in the year, when the big females are at their biggest. It’s supposed to be a bass fishing paradise.
In the first week of January, the lake became the scene of every angler’s worst nightmare.
On the morning of day 1 of the Southeastern FLW Series event at Okeechobee, co-angler Nik Kayler, a 38-year-old Army veteran from Apopka, Fla., was ejected from the boat in which he was a passenger during a run across the lake in rough-water conditions. Boater William Kisiah was unable to retrieve Kayler due to engine failure and wound up drifting across the lake before being recovered in the southeast part of the lake that night.
FLW cancelled the remaining two days of the tournament while search and rescue crews from local, state and federal agencies combed the lake from the water and air for nearly a week, braving frigid conditions for January in central Florida. Water temperatures on the day of the accident were in the low 50s.
Kayler’s body was ultimately recovered on Jan. 10 by a commercial fisherman not far from Clewiston on the south end of the lake.
Kayler’s disappearance and death prompted a massive outpouring of support for his family (Kayler is survived by a wife and young daughter) from across the sport. Online fund-raisers quickly surpassed their goals, a fundraising tournament was held in the spring at Okeechobee and the #KaylerStrong hashtag was a fixture in anglers’ posts across all social media platforms.
According to the medical examiner's report, Kayler was unconscious when he entered the water and the cause of death was ruled drowning. The accident investigation report issued months later by the Florida Wildlife Commission cleared Kisiah of any wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, the accident that claimed Kayler’s life was not the only on-the-water incident in FLW competition this year. On day 1 of the FLW Tour event at Okeechobee three weeks later, two boats collided at the intersection of boat lanes on the lake’s west side. Pro Andy Young and his co-angler were ejected from their boat and Young suffered a back injury. William Campbell, the pro in the other boat, along with his co-angler, was not injured.
In March, two boats were involved in a low-speed collision at the Lake Seminole Southeastern FLW Series. One angler was taken to the hospital with non life-threatening injuries.
Comeback Kid 2.0
The deficit wasn’t 13 1/2 ounds like it was after day 2 at Lake Conroe in 2017. He wasn’t mired in 15th place entering the final day either.
Still, rallying from 6 1/2 ounds back and coming from 6th place when the likes of Jason Christie, Edwin Evers, Casey Ashley and Brent Ehrler are in the mix at Lake Hartwell in March was just as impressive as Jordan Lee captured his second straight Bassmaster Classic title.
Jordan Lee was all smiles again this year at the Bassmaster Classic.
At just 26, he became the youngest angler to hit the $1 million mark in earnings with B.A.S.S. He’s also the third angler to win consecutive Classics, joining legends Rick Clunn and Kevin VanDam. In four career Classics, Lee has been a top-10 finisher three times.
"I'm in shock right now, honestly," he said after relying on spotted bass to take the win. "It's crazy to say that (he's a back-to-back winner) because it shouldn't be like that. It just worked out."
The scene for Lee’s quest for a three-peat will be the Tennessee River out of Knoxville, Tenn., host of this year’s Classic on March 15-17.
A few years ago, there were whispers that Kevin VanDam had lost his fastball on the water; the younger generation had closed the gap on him and his best days were behind him. He put an emphatic end to all that talk with a marvelous run through the 2016 and 2017 Elite Series seasons, posting three full-field victories and adding three other top-10 finishes.
Entering the 2018 season, he stood at 24 career B.A.S.S. victories, a record that may stand forever (nobody else has 20). He made it 25 with a dominant win at Grand Lake in late April. It was his 10th Elite Series triumph and second at Grand, where transitions were key.
Let 25 sink in for a second, though. As was noted in the final-day report, VanDam’s milestone is akin to Cy Young’s 511 wins in baseball or Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in basketball – it’s likely to be achieved just once.
Kentucky Lake in the late spring can offer up some of the best bass fishing of any lake in the nation. Last spring, however, the drama outweighed the fishing at least for a portion of day 3.
To recap, accomplished offshore guru Randy Haynes led after days 1 and 2 at the Kentucky Lake FLW Tour with Jason Lambert, another ledge ninja, close behind. Six pounds separated Lambert from 3rd place. It was evident these two had found some of the first schools to move out to the ledges.
Jason Lambert endured a tense on-the-water exchange with Randy Haynes at Kentucky Lake to blow away the field by 28 pounds.
What was also evident was Haynes’ frustration the morning of day 3 after Lambert beat him to a spot that had been productive for both competitors over the first two days. The two fished side-by-side – bumping rub rails off and on – for a while with Lambert boating two solid keepers during the sequence. FLW cameras captured the exchange (click here for video), which concluded with Haynes famously muttering, “Tell you what. You can have it. I’m fixing to go to the damn house. I’ve got to go to work anyhow.”
He then strapped his rods down and drove back to the launch ramp, where he loaded his boat and drove home to Mississippi, leaving a potential $125,000 payday in his wake. After Haynes departed, Lambert had a banner day and cruised to a record-setting win.
Afterward, Haynes said his reason for departing was an ethical matter.
"It's more of a sportsmanship deal than anything," Haynes told BassFan. "I'm kind of old-school and I fish because I love it, but I don't want to fish like that. It's just where the sport is now.
"I was the leader and I'd pretty much sat on that spot for 2 days with nobody around me. He beat me there today because he's got a faster boat. If that's the way it's going to be, I've got other things to do. I'd rather go see my kids and do hardwood floors."
He then explained his actions in more detail on his Facebook page.
Haynes finished the season 13th in Angler of the Year points, but zeroed the first two days at the Forrest Wood Cup and closed the year on a downer. He is not listed among the 170 pros slated to compete on the FLW Tour in 2019.
Three pillars of the sport left us this year in Guido Hibdon, Lefty Kreh and Ed Chambers. All were titans of their own making – Hibdon as a competitor, Kreh as an educator and Chambers as an innovator.
Hibdon, the 1988 Bassmaster Classic champ and 1990 and 1991 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year, passed away in March after a long illness stemming from a battle with colon cancer. He was 71. A lifelong fisherman who started guiding at Lake of the Ozarks as a 13-year-old, Hibdon was a master worm and jig fisherman, but above all, he was a humble icon.
Guido Hibdon was among the legends of the sport who passed away in 2018.
"Not only was he a good fisherman and innovative, but he was so good to people," said Larry Nixon. "I never saw him ignore an opportunity to teach someone about bass fishing and I was around him a lot. He had that good old country boy nature and showed someone how to rig a bait and how to use the lure and make them love the sport of bass fishing. He was a true sportsman.”
Kreh’s fishing roots date back to the late 1940s when he guided for smallmouth bass on the upper Potomac River. In the decades that followed, he became an acclaimed expert in all things fly fishing. He authored more than two dozen books and served as outdoors columnist for several major newspapers. A member of the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame as well as the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, Kreh was 93.
Creating quality products that perform consistently was what Ed Chambers was all about. The founder of Zoom Bait Company and the man behind the highly sought-after handmade balsa WEC crankbaits, Chambers passed away in May at the age of 78. In Chambers, the fishing world lost a pioneer and a gentleman, the likes of which don’t come along too often.
Chambers’ passing prompted many in the sport to recall their first experience with a Zoom soft plastic bait or a WEC crankbait.
“I don’t know if there’s any way to put into words the value of his experience and how many lives and companies that his expertise touched in the fishing industry through the past 35 or 40 years,” Kevin Short said of Chambers. “I can’t say how many other companies’ products that he has helped because of his input and insight. The way he did things was the way of doing business that not a lot of people do anymore.”