By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Ott DeFoe will return to competitive fishing this weekend, a little more than four weeks after having surgery to repair a torn mitral valve in his heart. He'll team up with 8-year-old son Parker for a youth-parent event at Douglas Lake, and one of the duos they'll be competing against will be wife Jennie and daughter Lizzie, who's Parker's twin sister.
The DeFoes' oldest child, 12-year-old Abbie, will sit this one out.
"She originally wanted to fish just because she wanted to try to win a hundred bucks," Ott said. "We ended up having to pay her off."
It'll be the reigning Bassmaster Classic champion's fourth time on the water since the surgery that caused him to miss the MLF Bass Pro Tour regular-season finale last month in Neenah, Wis.
"The first time I went out with a buddy and he ran the boat and I was just kind of there. I was at less than 50 percent of normal speed and capacity, but I caught a few and that felt good.
"Then me and Parker went out behind the house (on the Holston River) for a couple hours, and yesterday we went to Douglas to practice for the kids' tournament. I did most of the driving and I fished pretty hard, and I still felt pretty good after 4 hours."
DeFoe has no idea how the injury to his heart occurred. All he knows is that the 3 1/2-hour surgery in late June went precisely as planned and he's felt better day by day. He spent the three days after the operation in the hospital and has been recuperating at home ever since.
"When I went back for my two-week checkup, the surgeon told me he could make up four or five different stories that would all sound really good and I'd believe any of them, but the truth is there's no way to know how it happened," he said. "It just happened. It's possibly genetic, but not necessarily and nobody in my family ever had anything like this before.
"It doesn't happen all the time by any means, but it's more common than a lot of people realize. The day I had my surgery, there were two before me and the first one was a 44-year-old hiker who was in excellent physical shape – better than I am – and he had the exact same thing."
He began experiencing severe shortness of breath right around the time of the Classic. He was initially diagnosed with bronchitis and was told the condition could persist for four to six weeks. He'd about gotten used to dealing with it, but then realized that his health wasn't improving while on a trip to Wisconsin for a Mercury event.
"I was in an airport to catch one of my connecting flights. I'm pretty long-legged and I usually walk faster than the people around me without even meaning to, but everybody was going past me at the speed that I could walk without getting totally out of breath."
Real Cause Discovered
Upon returning home, DeFoe sought additional medical attention, and that's when the actual ailment was discovered. A torn mitral valve doesn't lead to a spike in blood pressure, but pressure within the heart is substantially increased and can lead to a heart attack if left untreated.
"It wasn't like it was barely caught in time, but it's potentially life-threatening if it goes on too long," he said.
He was told he could fish at Neenah and have the procedure done afterward, but with no chance of winning the Angler of the Year title nor of falling below the Redcrest qualification line (he finished 16th in the final points standings even without competing at Neenah), he opted to get it done right away.
"Had we delayed it, that would've pushed it that much closer to not being ready for Redcrest, so I had to kind of pick my poison a little bit. The way God lined it up, I didn't have much of anything on the line and it didn't bother me too much to have to miss that one."
The operation required the surgeon to make a 6-centimeter incision just below his right breast so that his heart could be accessed between the eighth and ninth ribs. The ribs had to be separated to the extent that a baseball would almost fit between them.
"That's where the soreness is coming from right now and it's the most limiting factor four weeks out. It's not terrible, but I definitely know that something's there."
His return to top-level competition will occur next week at the second MLF Cup event of 2019 at an undisclosed venue. He's not completely confident that he's ready, but the staggered daily schedule gives him hope that things will be fine.
"I have the full intention of fishing every day (that he's scheduled to be on the water), and of winning it. The good thing about the Cups is you don't have to fish six days in a row or anything like that – there's no practice.
"It's kind of a trial run (for the RedCrest) and we'll see how it goes. Hopefully I'll be up to speed."