In November of 1997, I was a third-year associate at a law firm, spending ridiculous hours working on a financially substantial ratemaking matter before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The case was reaching a boiling point that fall, which was not a problem for my ledger of billable hours, but nevertheless caused me great angst because I had qualified to fish as a co-angler at the FLW Championship (before its name had been changed to the Forrest Wood Cup) on Lake Ferguson in Greenville, Mississippi.
The partner in charge of the practice group was a stern taskmaster with no life of his own, and no sympathy for anyone with outside interests. In fact, he seemed to take great delight in forcing young attorneys to cancel their plans at the last minute, often with a smirk and a condescending line about how much they were helping their own career by taking one for the team.
I was afraid that he was going to ask (read: tell) me to skip the Championship. Since I was fairly certain that I would never qualify for another championship on any major tour, I was ready to quit the job if push came to shove.
Fortunately, it never came to that. I was able to fish the tournament without being asked to leave the firm.
More fortunately, a little over three years later I found another job that I enjoyed more and where not once in the subsequent 18 years have they asked/told me to miss another tournament of any level of importance.
The trip to Greenville marked my first visit to Mississippi. I ate at the world famous Doe’s Eat Place, saw the Ole Miss campus, and detoured to Logan Martin on the way home (long story). We held our pre-tournament meeting in a casino, probably a no-no in any sport at the time except ours or high-stakes poker. It was the most low-key big-time event you could imagine, probably because FLW was still in its infancy.
I arrived with enough time to practice but not knowing anyone in the field. One of my partners from that season’s Minnetonka event told me to introduce myself to Terry Bolton if I ran into him. When I arrived at the brand spanking new Greenville Holiday Inn (worst shower water in the history of fishing hotels – felt like the soap never washed off), Bolton’s room happened to be underneath mine. I asked him if I could spend a practice day in his boat and he agreed.
To tell you how long ago this was, Bolton’s running mates were: Shawn Penn (not Madonna’s ex), who as far as I know hasn’t fished even an AAA event in the better part of a decade; Dan Morehead, who just a year earlier had won a Top 100 on the Potomac with an oddball crankbait called the Mann’s One Minus; and Andy Morgan, who was already legendary at the BFL level, but not well-known beyond the mid-south.
That was the first year I’d fished with any professional anglers, so I was still a sponge for information. Bolton had a fun day of fishing, caught a few, and I learned a few tactics, most notably how best to run the narrow chutes into the mighty Mississippi’s various oxbow lakes. I went on to have a memorable but crappy first day in the event, and a decent second day, ending up 21st. Bolton did much better, claiming 4th place on the pro side, although he was off the winning weight achieved by David Fritts by over 24 pounds.
To be honest, I didn’t think much about Bolton in the ensuing years. Occasionally I’d see him in a magazine and a couple of times I interviewed him for web pieces, but mostly he blended into the vast mass of solid-but-not-exceptional pros who populate the long-lived middle ground of the pro tours. He won an FLW Series tournament on his home waters of Kentucky Lake in 2005, made the Cup over half the time and grabbed a bunch of checks, but there wasn’t more about him that stood out. He went to work, carried a lunch pail, and hung on.
The next time I saw him was this past October at a media event at Kentucky Lake. We chatted a bit and while he was still recognizable, the smooth skin of his twenties had been replaced with a few wrinkles. The once all-dark head of hair had some gray in it. Then I looked in the mirror and realized that I had aged substantially more. A lot has gone on in the two-decades-plus since then, in our lives and in the sport. More opportunities have come, but more solid anglers have left.
I’ve often wondered why so many anglers in Bolton’s shoes keep at it. Is it a profitable business? Is it an obsession? Do they not know how to quit? It has to be extremely frustrating to be so close, so often, and never grab the brass ring. Plenty of them should take the opportunity to get back to their families and get on with their life’s work, but the truth is that they’re always just one big derby away from redeeming themselves and proving that the juice was worth the squeeze. Terry Bolton showed us that last week at Sam Rayburn, where he gave us 125,000 small reasons and one very big reason why he never dropped out.
In 1997 could I have envisioned that I’d be doing what I am today? Not completely. Twenty-seven year-old Pete would probably be mostly pleased with where 48-year-old Pete has gone and what he’s done, but I’m sure there’d be tinges of disappointment, too. He’d probably be surprised that he was still alive, rather than lying face down in a gutter, the victim of a Pop Tart overdose. Terry Bolton, on the other hand, likely knew where he’d be in 2019, winning tour-level events. I doubt he expected that it would take this long, but I also doubt that he ever meaningfully questioned his ability to get there.