The boat smells like a commercial fishing vessel as I unload it one last time. Mondays have always been the day to clean and patch up my gear, tighten a few screws and assess the damage done by another Great Lakes bass tournament. But this time it would be different.
I just finished competing in the Rayovac on Lake Erie, earning a respectable Top-10, but the big news is of my looming move from Michigan to Florida and my overall ďretirementĒ from Great Lakes bass derbies.
ďAw, you canít get smallmouth out of your blood; youíll be back in the summer,Ē friends mentioned.
Truthfully, Iím not entirely sure what the future holds. Iíve always wanted to live in Florida, very near the Ocala National Forest - in my opinion, the Holy land of bass fishing. And thatís where Iím headed.
Such a move brings incredible anticipation and excitement, making it easy to temporarily brush off any sadness. But the memories I have run very, very deep.
Iíve fished bass tournaments on Lake Erie now for over 20 years. Through that time, Iíve watched and learned from the pioneers of the trade; guys like Steve Clapper and Danny Devera. Together, we often tried things no one else ever had, as far as we knew. Back then, there were no long-shaft trolling motors, no goby baits, no oxygen tanks for keeping fish alive despite harrowing runs. At the time, there certainly were no boats that would hold up.
Iíd like to think that I had a respectable influence on a lot of that. I see it when I glance at the rigs of other anglers, watch how they tie down their Minn Kotas, and overhear their discussions on rain gear.
But those days will soon be behind me.
Something happens when you attempt what seems impossible. I remember running 99 miles Ė one way Ė in a Lake Erie event, just to see if I could. I remember the first time I heard Clapper talk on stage about ďcrossing the lakeĒ to the unknown Canadian shoreline. In my mind, it was as if he ran into another world. I can still see his monstrous bag of fish, literally stuffed into the undersized weigh-in bag almost devoid of water.
And Iíll never, ever forget the Bassmaster Open of 2006; easily the roughest bass tournament ever held, to the best of my knowledge. Many of you know that I received considerable attention the first day of that event for being the only competitor to brave the elements and run out into Canadian waters. That much is true, but I would never, ever do it again.
If I told any of you how high the waves were on my return, the numbers simply wouldnít do them justice. Only Mark and I know. Only we were there. Today, I still shudder when I think of it. I honestly believe it was the closest Iíve ever been to death, despite a youth filled with stupidity.
And something changes, something about the place, about the pursuit, about the obsession, when your pastime becomes dangerous. Somehow, it just adds a different factor; one I doubt very highly we see in bass competitions elsewhere. Good, bad or indifferent, itís our Deadliest Catch.
As I continue to pack up, I head to the garage and again run across so many memories. My master GPS files. My enormous tub of tube baits from an era long ago; I see many that I helped design, still in an old package with my name on it.
My trophies sit atop the cupboards. My God, what will I do with my trophies? I see so many from the early 2000s, when us northern guys got our shot with the arrival of the EverStart circuit. Finally, we fished for the big money so common down south.
I head to the house and move into my office to take a few things off the wall. One is a press clipping of a big win, another from a magazine where I was coined ďThe Master of Lake ErieĒ. I laugh, knowing that even I, a guy who grew up on the big lake, knows nothing of her fish.
I decide Iíll give a buddy a framed piece of artwork entitled ďLake Erie, the Grave Yard of the Great LakesĒ. How ironic; the final day of my recent event found me hovering 40 feet above one of the famous shipwrecks featured on the chart. My co-angler, relatively new to the game, had a blast knowing he was fishing a 200-year-old vessel. Truthfully, even after catching hundreds of monsters there, those last five were possibly the best.
A few more items are packed, and I come across some old photos. These, again of Clapper, make me cry. Not because Iíll miss the fishing, but because Iíll miss sharing a boat with one of the most enthusiastic men I have ever seen on the water, me on his back deck, watching him truly at home.
I think the same of my Labrador retriever, Ernie. Dear Lord, how he will miss the endless December flights of mallards coming in off Lake St Clair. But Ernieís old now, and old things are happy in Florida. I wonder what heíll think when he first sees The Forest; will it be the start of our new adventure, like Iíve always dreamed?
Seasick co-anglers, flooded ďdry boxesĒ and busted RAM mounts; these are now a thing of the past. No more brutal St. Clair boat traffic, no more having the weather ruin my fishing day rather than just influencing it. True, there will be a lot of things I wonít miss.
But then I think back to the early days. Lake Erie was limitless. The big score was always just around the corner. The structures were uncharted and undiscovered; many still are despite our attempts to harness nature. And, just when you thought you had her figured out, she crushed your dreams.
I remember the time Erik and I heard the wind coming, giddy laughter instantly turning to fear.
I remember when the Central Basin guys just about carried me out on their shoulders after taking home the first big title on Sandusky. True pioneers, once I left them, they continued to take down more.
I remember when no one could beat Clapper and Williams, later replaced by Hayward and Bensch, then Coates and Parker.
And Iíll never forget the co-anglers who won with me; I saw the true appreciation in their eyes as they were crowned champions. They did it, not me.
Sometimes, in life we get so busy that the memories are put on hold; moving across the country can sure do that. But I wanted to share a few with you, probably more for myself than anything. Itís likely the hardest thing Iíve ever done.
Ahead is a new chapter in my personal book of life. But finishing this one and putting down the pen seems to just get harder. Something happens when youíre out there, alone. Itís a place that can seem so gracious, yet so ugly, all in the same day.
Alone, hovering. Forty feet above the bones of those who were also Great Lakes pioneers, but never won a dollar, now silent in their tomb.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)