By Charity Muehlenweg
MLF Communications

Candace Baughman started the hot summer day in 1987 like any other, tidying up around the house before heading to get 9-month-old Hunter from his crib to begin their day.

But what she found that July morning would shake any mother to her core.

Her lively, vibrant baby boy was incoherent with a 113-degree fever and had developed spots on his arms and legs overnight. Candace quickly scooped Hunter up and rushed him to the emergency room as fast as possible. After a series of tests, Hunter was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, a severe, life-threatening infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.

What followed was a harrowing three-month experience that changed their lives forever.

Hunter was born on Oct. 21, 1986, and was a cheerful, content baby. Like most parents, Irvin and Candace Baughman had a lifetime of hopes and dreams planned out for their first-born. Irvin was an avid outdoorsman, spending much of his time on the water or in the woods, and was looking forward to bringing Hunter along on new outdoor adventures.

Until the diagnoses that no parent wants to hear flipped their world upside down.

The Baughmans were no longer concerned with teaching Hunter to eat solid food or to crawl or walk – their only focus in that moment was saving his life.

The doctors’ prognosis was bleak – a zero-percent chance that he would survive the meningitis and the subsequent surgeries – and even if he did survive, he would be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. But Irvin and Candace refused to give up, and the doctors didn’t yet realize the strength and determination ingrained in Hunter, even at an early age.

Over the next three months, Hunter underwent nearly 20 surgeries, which involved amputating both of his legs below the knees, his left hand and digits on his right hand – drastic measures taken to stop the spread of the infection and to save his life.

And Hunter proved them wrong. Although he had multiple revisions of the initial surgeries up until he was 10, Hunter had no lasting cognitive effects from the infection.

“Looking back, that’s why my faith is so strong,” Hunter said. “I was given a zero-percent chance of surviving, so what other explanation is there besides divine intervention? I came from a strong Christian family, and we all believe that prayer and the good Lord is how we made it through to the other side of this ordeal.”

And that life-changing moment certainly wouldn’t be the last time Hunter would prove naysayers wrong.

On another hot, late-summer day in September 2022, 36 years later, Hunter rolled across the stage at the MLF Toyota Series tournament at Truman Lake in Warsaw, Missouri, bringing the biggest five-bass limit of the event – 19 pounds, 1 ounce – to the scales. Hunter beat out hundreds of competitors to win the event and earn the top payout of $32,429, his first major career win.

“Your champion, Hunter Baughman, getting it done on Championship Saturday with a huge three-day total of 48 pounds, 10 ounces,” MLF Tournament Director Mark McWha boomed from the stage as the crowd at the weigh-in erupted in applause. “This is a long overdue moment for this competitor.”

What followed was an interview that had everyone on the stage and in the audience in tears.

“God is good first and foremost and I’m happy to be here,” said an emotional Hunter. “This has been an incredible week. This is my biggest win by far and everybody’s watching back home – my parents, my wife’s parents, all my buddies. Everybody.”

Courtesy of Hunter Baughman
Photo: Courtesy of Hunter Baughman

Irvin Baughman is an avid outdoorsman who was eager to share that passion with his son.

Reminiscing on the win a year later, Hunter said it was a career-defining moment for him.

“It was just incredible,” he said. “I’ve wanted to win a professional-level tournament for many years and it being my first big win was amazing. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of years competing, all compiled into one moment.”

While some of his struggles are unique within the sportfishing industry, many more are the same problems every tournament angler faces during an event – lost fish, boat and motor issues, snapped lines, inclement weather and stingy fisheries.

“I’ve fished my whole life and had fished tournaments for many years, so I knew I could win a major tournament, but it took actually winning one to really be confident that I had what it took to cross that threshold,” Hunter said.

Hunter began fishing MLF events in 2007 and over the last 16 years has competed many times in the BFL Arkie Division, the Toyota Series Central and Plains Divisions and at a Pro Circuit event as a co-angler. He started fishing professionally with the National Professional Fishing League (NPFL) in 2021 and is planning to continue fishing MLF events around his touring schedule in 2024.

Hunter said while the high of the win in that moment was addicting, the aftermath of it was even better.

“It was crazy,” he admitted. “Before I got home that night from the weigh-in, I’d scheduled eight podcast interviews. Although I’d been fishing with the NPFL for two years at that point, I feel like that was when the fishing industry took notice of me and learned who I was. It boosted my career, enabled me to sign on more sponsors and boosted my confidence – just a little bit of everything and I’m so thankful for that opportunity.”

In a world where disability culture is constantly evolving and changing, Hunter is a beacon for
normalizing disabled individuals in everyday life.

Hunter, who considers himself “limb-challenged”, said he credits his parents for his determination to succeed in everything he does, as they worked hard to ensure that his disability didn’t divert his focus or hinder him from achieving his goals in life.

“Growing up, I spent most of my time in the outdoors,” Hunter reminisced. “Mom and dad encouraged me to live a normal life, despite my disability. I don’t remember the first time I caught a fish or the first time I went hunting. I started at such a young age, it’s just part of my family’s culture.”

A blue-collar, hard-working man by nature, Irvin Baughman worked in the grocery industry his entire life, working his way up through the ranks to ultimately own his own grocery stores and retire in the industry. He knew firsthand the importance of working hard to get what you want, and he and Candace began instilling those values in Hunter from an early age.

However, Hunter’s insatiable drive and competitive nature were solely his own. He actively pursued opportunities to compete despite his physical limitations, participating in soccer and basketball throughout junior high with the use of artificial legs.

“I’m very competitive and I tried to scratch that itch with those sports,” Hunter said. “I was able to do them, but not well. I realized that those sports just didn’t fuel my desire to compete. I grew up crappie-fishing with my grandparents and my dad, and although they weren’t into tournament fishing, I started looking into fishing tournaments, thinking that might be an avenue for me to excel and a place where I could actually compete and do well.”

Hunter acquired his first bass boat long before owning his first truck, eagerly joining anyone willing to tow him to the water. The Arkansas native was only 12 years old when he fished his first bass tournament.

Courtesy of Hunter Baughman
Photo: Courtesy of Hunter Baughman

From soccer fields to bass boats, Baughman's competitive drive has taken many forms throughout his life.

“My dad and I borrowed a little flat-bottom boat from a local boat manufacturer for a big weekend bass tournament and we did terrible,” Hunter said, laughing. “But I remember it was super exciting for me. From there I fished several tournaments with my dad and once I started driving, I fished tournaments with my cousin a lot.

“We fished together for several years before ever earning a check, so that first check was a huge relief. I was a teenager, and we won $4,500 the first time we cut a check and then another $1,000 about a month later. That’s a lot of money for a high school kid and it just whet my appetite for more.”

Hunter explained that he approached tournament fishing similarly to everything else in life: rather than focusing on what he couldn’t do, he concentrated on finding ways to make it happen.

“There isn’t really a lot that I do differently from any other angler,” he said. “My boat is set up about the same way as everybody else. I obviously don’t have a ‘hot foot’ or gas pedal, I use a hand throttle. I keep the seat on the front of the boat set up without the pedestal under it and use it almost like a little stool.

“I can launch and load my boat by myself, but it is a pain to do. Most of the time I have someone go with me, or I’ll just grab someone else at the ramp and have them dump my boat in and load it at the end of the day.”

Hunter fished his first BFL tournament on Lake Hamilton as a boater in 2007 (finishing 105th) and began fishing the Toyota Series in earnest in 2015.

“Everyone has always been so helpful at MLF events, especially Mark McWha, the Toyota Series tournament director,” said Hunter. “He has my wheelchair on the dock waiting for me when we come in at the end of each tournament day. Everyone at MLF absolutely goes out of their way to make sure I’m taken care of and after a long, hard day on the water, those little things are huge and help me be able to focus on what matters most – the competition.”

Off the water, Baughman is an avid hunter, father, husband and motivational speaker, who also happens to have a disability that would hinder most people from the physical rigors of fishing professionally, if at all.

Hunter admits that in day-to-day life, his wife Andrea is a Godsend.

Courtesy of Hunter Baughman
Photo: Courtesy of Hunter Baughman

Baughman and his wife, Andrea, recently celebrated their 10th anniversary along with their daughters, Kinley and Kassidy.

“She helps with everything around the house and with our daughters, Kinley (2) and Kassidy (1),” Hunter said. “Thankfully my family can travel with me to fishing tournaments. We have our hands full with those two girls, but my wife doesn’t miss a beat. She helps pack for the trips, clean the boat, load the boat and whatever else I need done to get ready to head to these events. She’s a huge help and I certainly couldn’t do this without her.”

Hunter believes the biggest misconception that people have around him and professional fishing is that people assume he’s just a casual angler – and nothing could be further from the truth.

“When I meet someone who doesn’t know me or hasn’t seen me compete, they think, ‘Oh he gets out and fishes. Good for him.’ But they don’t see me as actual competition on the water,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful to be able to get around on my own and to just get out on the water, but I’m not there to get out of the house or to just kill time – I’m there to beat you. I’m out there to compete and I’m ultimately there to win.”

It's that dogged determination and drive that he hopes to share with the world.

“No matter your situation, don’t be afraid to chase your dreams and don’t let your disability define who you are and what you can accomplish,” Hunter said. “Get off the couch. Quit feeling sorry for yourself and figure out how to do whatever it is that you want to do. Anything can be done, sometimes it just takes a little more work to figure it out.”

Hunter said thanks to his parents, his low moments in life have been few and far between.

“Everybody has bad days, but when I had those moments as a child, my parents nipped it in the bud,” he said. “They didn’t allow me to wallow in the obstacles or how hard things were, they just pushed me to live a normal life. Their support in that way, at such an early age, is a large part of why I am where I am today.”

Hunter is thrilled with his first professional win and looking forward to his next big trophy, but most of all is proudly and unapologetically just … human.

“I hope I can continue to make a difference in the world today and in our industry,” he said. “The reality is, the fish don’t know what you look like – they don’t know your gender, the color of your skin or whether or not you have legs. They don’t know and they don’t care. I hope to help people realize that if they want to go fishing, they just need to get out there and make it happen.”

Once hunting season ends, that’s exactly where you’ll find Hunter, and to quote one of his peers, "There are certain anglers you don’t want to have to compete against out on the water, and Hunter’s one of them."