The impact of local anglers on professionals competing in tournaments is nothing new. One of the most recent prominent examples was at last year’s Forrest Wood Cup where eventual winner Anthony Gagliardi had a verbal encounter on the water with a local angler who was upset that Gagliardi – and his band of spectators – had uncovered the man’s favorite fishing hole.
A similar situation occurred on the final day of the Potomac River FLW Tour last weekend involving FLW Tour angler Bryan Schmitt, only this time the local didn’t seem concerned about his favorite spot being revealed to the masses.
Schmitt, who began working his way up through the FLW ranks in 2006, joined the Tour last year. It’s tough enough battling fish, fishermen and whatever else the water and the road throw at you, but his career hit a major snag in 2011.
Several months after he finished 4th at the Potomac River FLW Tour Open, Schmitt was in contention at the Lake Guntersville FLW Tour Open when he was approached by FLW officials. An accusation had been leveled against Schmitt the he violated FLW Tour rule No. 5 regarding off-limits, practice and competition for the Potomac River event. More than 3 months had passed since the alleged violation occurred.
When presented with the option to take a polygraph test, Schmitt admitted to the violation (click here to read more) and FLW disqualified Schmitt from the Guntersville Open and tacked on a year-long suspension that kept him on the sidelines in 2012.
Schmitt declined then to comment on the specifics surrounding his ban. Not much was made of his accuser’s after-the-fact allegations, but questions were raised about the lag in time and the way the situation was handled.
After serving the suspension, Schmitt picked up where he left off, winning two Rayovacs in 2013 and adding another victory in 2014. As for the Tour, he was finding his way and becoming more consistent across the diverse fisheries on the schedule.
He grinded out solid limits every day at the Potomac River last week and entered the final day with a realistic shot of winning.
He was 5 pounds behind leader Clark Wendlandt and he’d been able to fish in areas he had to himself most of the tournament. He also felt the cumulative effect of the rainstorms that came through at various times of the tournament might start to have a negative impact on the other contenders’ patterns.
On his way to his first spot, two camera boats and a recreational angler followed Schmitt. Within 10 minutes, he had his first keeper. About 20 minutes later, he noticed a bass boat approaching very quickly. It stopped close to him and the unthinkable began.
“When I would try to turn and go the other way, he would speed up to catch up to cast close to me to provoke me to mess my head up,” Schmitt said. “I never said a word. My camera guys said they never have seen this before.”
Schmitt said at least one cast from the other man flew over the head of an FLW cameraman. The other individual wasn’t fishing – he was blocking, disturbing and attempting to aggravate Schmitt.
After Schmitt would cast, the other man would intentionally make cast after cast over his line. To avoid getting tangled, Schmitt retrieved his bait to allow it to drop into a spot to fish. His presentations were cut short, as another cast would cross his line. This continued for 90 minutes.
“I had to leave to go get my head right,” he said.
Locals identified Pete O’Donnell as the man in the other boat. When reached by phone, O’Donnell denied casting over Schmitt’s line and cutting him off. He said he made a cast toward the cameraman in an attempt to get Schmitt to back off.
"He can make all the excuses he wants,” O’Donnell said of Schmitt. “They have video cameras. If I did interfere, they should have it on camera."
O’Donnell went on to reveal that he was the individual that provided the information to FLW back in 2011 that ultimately led to Schmitt’s punishment.
Schmitt came back to the area later, but he approached his spot from a distance, far away from O’Donnell’s boat. This didn’t work. O’Donnell remained in the same area as Schmitt, who was trying to avoid an altercation.
For the next 5 hours, Schmitt left and returned to the same spot, only to find O’Donnell waiting for him each time.
“He was there to provoke me and I wasn’t going to let it happen,” Schmitt said. “I was watching my chance of finishing in a top spot slip away. It was one of the most painful days I ever had. I hope no one else would have to experience this.”
Ryan Ingalls, who lives in Fairfax, Va., was on the water on the final day as a media boat driver and watched Schmitt for most of the morning. He witnessed the numerous encounters Schmitt had with O’Donnell and said it was apparent that O’Donnell’s boat maneuvering and body language made it clear that he wanted to rankle Schmitt.
Ingalls said when he initially pulled up to watch Schmitt, O’Donnell wasn’t there yet. A little while later, O’Donnell came into the area, swung well out in front of Schmitt, dropped his trolling motor and began heading down the bank toward Schmitt, effectively cutting him off.
“We watched for a while,” said Ingalls, who tweeted this photo from the water on Sunday. “The guy went past Bryan and then Bryan turned around and came back toward him. Eventually, Bryan left to go to another spot for 20 minutes, then came back to the same spot. The same guy was still sitting there. At that point, it started to get ridiculous.”
A few moments later, Ingalls said Schmitt stopped fishing to call tournament director Bill Taylor to inquire if there was anything FLW could do to resolve the issue with O’Donnell. Schmitt was told that since it was a public waterway, there was nothing FLW could do to deter or prevent O’Donnell from fishing there.
“It was ridiculous what the guy was doing,” Ingalls said. “He was clearly trying to get in (Schmitt’s) way and not allow him to fish the way he wanted to. One hundred percent, that guy affected how his final day went. It’s sad that kind of stuff happens.
“He wasn’t purposely trying to catch fish. He was trying to prevent Bryan from catching fish. When that much money is on the line and that’s how you make a living, it’s not cool.”
There were no other reports of locals interfering or hindering FLW pros either in practice or during the tournament. Some anglers said O’Donnell was planning this all week and even questioned other anglers about Schmitt’s location.
This incident puts FLW is in an interesting situation. Hindsight shows the ill-advised suspension was a rush to judgment, given the lapse of time from incident to report and the latest actions of the character involved.
Now, FLW must interview Schmitt and his cameramen and review whatever video footage is available. Nothing will return that year Schmitt lost to suspension. However, should the evidence support the reported interference, then swift action should be taken by FLW to ban the harassing angler for life from all FLW events and to send a letter to other fishing organizations detailing these unsportsmanlike and dangerous actions.
It’s also time for all fans of bass fishing to take a step back and to consider their impact on the outcome of the sport, whether before, during or even long after an event.
(Capt. Steve Chaconas has been covering pro bass fishing for more than 20 years. He's a guide on the Potomac River and is a contributing writer for BoatU.S. To contact him via e-mail, click here.)