The pro anglers BassFans get to see – those who smile and wave as they walk across stage, those who happily sign autographs and interact with kids, those who pump their fists or shout or celebrate on TV after a great catch – seem invincible.
But the truth is many, if not most of those pros are hurting. They retreat to a
hotel room to rest their backs, ice their elbows, relieve their shoulders or gobble down anti-inflammatories just to get through the next day of competition.
You won't hear them talk about it. They're loath to make excuses, and sometimes unable to face the bitter truth that their bodies can't keep up with the rigors of tournament fishing.
Truth is, over the past decade, injuries in the sport seem to have reached epidemic proportions. More tournaments and more practices and higher stakes, alongside new or expanded techniques that punish the extremities, have led to painful days, cortisone injections, surgeries and altered fishing styles.
The first high-profile fishing injuries that offered a hint of what was to come occurred with veterans Larry Nixon, Mark Davis and Denny Brauer. Nixon tore a tendon in his elbow, which required surgery, then developed carpal tunnel, which resulted in another surgery. Now his shoulder's torn up, but he's resisting surgery. Nixon can no longer chunk and wind, and spends his tournaments searching for the "type" of fish he can catch.
Mark Davis had dual surgery in 1999 to repair a torn elbow tendon and labrum (shoulder). He then reinjured the shoulder and went under the knife again in 2004.
And Brauer battled back issues through four separate surgeries.
Another truth: Most fishing injuries aren't reported. Again, modesty keeps much of that information private. But some reported injuries over the past decade, in addition to Nixon, Davis and Brauer, include:
George Jeane, Jr. - Rotator cuff, surgery
Brent Broderick – Hand ligaments
Rusty Salewske – Painful shoulder (baseball)
Bill Lowen – Back
Mark Tucker – Rotator cuff and bicep, surgery, also recently tore all hand ligaments on hookset, shoulder problems
Dustin Wilks - Elbow, Tommy John surgery
Michael Murphy – Ankle/knee (football)
Luke Clausen – Elbow, surgery
Bill Chapman – Back, missed entire tour season
Matt Herren – Broken tailbone
Mark Menendez – Skin cancer
Shaw Grigsby – Elbow
Mike Surman – Elbow
Bill Dance – Skin cancer
David Fritts – Struck by lightning in boat, likely cause of serious eye injury
Scott Suggs – Rotator cuff, elbow
Gerald Swindle – Back and shoulder (football, trade work),
Bernie Schultz – Neck
Jack Gadlage – Shoulder
Greg Pugh – Hernia
Mike Ward – Elbow and shoulder, surgery
Charlie Youngers – Back (surgery, bacterial infection complication)
Fred Roumbanis – Elbow
Zell Rowland – Back (surgery)
Ken Cook – Shoulder (from Lyme disease)
Robert Hamilton, Jr. – Shoulder/collarbone/rotator cuff (surgery)
Clark Wendlandt – Frozen shoulder (surgery), elbow
Mike Wurm – shoulder (surgery)
Scott Suggs fought through rotator-cuff problems, but now faces a potentially serious case of fishing elbow.
Estimates vary as to how extensive injuries actually are in the sport. Wendlandt, for example, believes that 20-year pros over 40 years of age experience nagging injuries at a rate of 85 to 90%.
Scott Suggs believes that 60% of all anglers have some type of issue with the shoulder, elbow or hand.
But one of the biggest concerns is the age at which pros are now starting to experience such overuse injuries. Pros like Clausen, Wilks, Broderick and Roumbanis represent the younger generation in the sport. If they're getting seriously injured at their age, what further issues lie ahead?
Fishing More Than Ever
The previous decade witnessed an unprecedented expansion within the sport. Pros, for the first time, made a living by competing year-round.
Things were different 15, 20 and 30 years ago, when pros fished far fewer events and supplemented their income through guiding, sportshow appearances and the like.
Nowadays, it's not uncommon for a pro to fish hard for 250-plus days a year. That not only increases joint wear, but leaves no downtime for joints to recover. And the motion of casting is not unlike that of pitching – the arm's above the head in an unnatural manner and the elbow/shoudler/hand are all subjected to whipping and snapping movements.
A major-league pitcher undergoes a disciplined ramp-up to full-speed pitching, and is part of a rotation to let the arm heal. But pro anglers perform their functions 8 to 10 to 12 or more hours a day for weeks at a time. There simply is no rest.
"There are more and more guys talking about their elbows and wrists and their fingers going numb and stiff and things like that," Nixon told BassFan. "It's prevalent now. But the guys fishing nowadays are fishing like I did when I was young – driving from one lake to the next and living on different bodies of water and fishing every day. That's hard on you.
"When I was fishing 300 days a year in my 20s and 30s – the other pro fishermen didn't do that. And they didn't have any major problems like I did. But since 2000, the purses have gotten so big, a lot of these younger guys are really full-timers, and when you see that, you're going to see an increase in injuries."
Mark Tucker, at 49 years old, hurt his hand this year and isn't yet sure what course of action he'll take. At the Kentucky Lake Elite Series, he bent his index finger all the way back on a hookset and tore all the ligaments in his hand. And all this was after surgery to repair a rotator cuff and torn bicep several years ago. A shoulder problem has cropped up too.
"It swelled up as big as a grapefruit and for 2 weeks I couldn't get anything done," Tucker said of his wrecked hand. "I went to Ft. Gibson, put ice on it, but it was swelled so bad I couldn't even retie. It may take a year or a year and a half before it's healed. Every morning I wake up and it's numb and it takes and hour just to get the blood flowing."
He wants to fish next year, rather than seek a medical exemption, but isn't sure how the hand injury will play out.
Wendlandt, who's 44, relied on a cortisone shot to make it through this year, but cortisone is a slippery slope – all it does is mask the symptoms. He cant' stop fishing – it's his livelihood – and hopes that stretching will help cure his fishing elbow.
"I haven't come to the conclusion of what's the preventative," Wendlandt said. "What you're dealing with is overuse. And I personally think it's happening to guys at younger and younger ages. Guys are basically fishing faster and faster, trying to be more efficient, making more and more presentations and trying to get better and better. So basically the (joints) wear out quicker. It's really overuse of that muscle set."
Scott Suggs, also 44, navigated through shoulder problems. A reel switch to more advanced magnetic brakes helped him, he said. But lately he's battling a bout of fishing elbow.
Clark Wendlandt, who took a cortisone injection in order to fish this year, believes most 20-year pros over 40 years of age experience nagging injuries.
"It hit me in the last 2 months," Suggs said. "My right casting elbow, when I came in the other night, I watched a football game with my elbow dug into one of those frozen ice packs. It was just throbbing. It would be interesting to find solutions to stuff like that. It's something we're doing nowadays that's causing it."
But not only is there no rest, there's no onsite trainer or medical staff – not even a major study of the toll pro fishing takes on the human body and what can be done to prevent injury.
Bottom line: While pro fishing is a major sport, it lacks one thing all other major sports have – trainers and medical staff able to deliver immediate care and advice.
More Information Needed
Billy Brewer, a former pitcher who threw in the majors for 7 years, developed fishing elbow in just one season on the Bassmaster Elite Series. He was a left-handed pitcher, but worked the rod with his right hand. And he readily relates tour-level fishing to major-league pitching.
"You're out there 14 hours a day sometimes all week long and you make so many casts and use your arm so many times," Brewer said. "You see a lot of guys out there wearing braces on their elbows, but like in baseball, you have to do exercises for the elbow. I think if more guys did that, it would help prevent a lot of injuries.
"But the one thing that really got me was my lower back," Brewer added. "You stand on your feet 12, 13, 14 hours a day, every day, all week long, so you've really got to have a strong core for that not to hurt. Guys like John Crews and Mike Iaconelli would work out during the off-season to strengthen that core, and I think that's a real smart thing to do."
One pro who's successfully avoided the injury bug is Kevin VanDam. His case is especially interesting because he's one of the fiercest power-fishermen on tour. He's well aware of the injury risk, which could potentially force him to change his style. Thus he takes precautionary measures.
"I've never had any problems," VanDam noted. "Over the years I've had a tinge of tennis (fishing) elbow, but that was a long time ago. I'm a pretty active person all the time anyway. And one of the things I'm adamant about is stretching before your day. I do a 5-minute routine. And at the beginning of the day I make a conscious effort not to cast 100%. The worst thing you can do is pull up on your first spot with a big cranking rod and chunk a 6XD as hard as you can out there."
While BASS, FLW and the PAA have yet to commission any studies or announce plans to have a medical staff, trainer or nurse on hand at events – something sports like golf and even rodeo offer the athletes – there's a growing awareness of the problem, and at least one qualified professional has begun serious work in the matter.
Troy Lindner, son of angling legend Al Lindner, is a nationally certified health and fitness practitioner and competitive angler.
Lindner trains out of L.A. and one of his clients is Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard. After seeing his father and uncle Ron struggle with fishing-related injuries, as well as the other athletes he fishes against, Lindner studied the problem and published two booklets titled Fit 4 Fishing. The goal? Help prevent fishing-related injuries.
Both Fit 4 Fishing booklets, as well as a series of video tips that air on WFN, illustrate fishing movements that may create injuries, and simple stretches that can help mitigate or prevent damage.
And to go a step further, today marks the publication of a new Fit 4 Fishing series on BassFan, where Lindner digs deeper into the growing trend of fishing-related injuries – from the tour-level on down to serious anglers at the regional and local level.
"When you're pushing yourself as much as these big-time touring pros, and even local and regional pros who fish year-round, the fishing never stops," Lindner said. "They pretty much fish 10 months a year and that's probably why you're seeing so many injuries."
Troy Lindner, a serious competitive angler himself, offers his Fit 4 Fishing series to help combat the high rate of injuries in the sport. The above exercise helps prevent rotator-cuff injury.
According to Lindner, trainers often use the term "competitive strength." It refers to a level of intensity you can't replicate in the gym or the hotel room. But when athletes push themselves, various hormones and chemicals in the body suppress pain, as do pain-killers or anti-inflammatories. Athletes can thus push themselves too much during competition – in other words, play with pain – but the cumulative micro-trauma through the years escalates. Interestingly, injuries can then happen while doing something simple, like loading tackle into a truck or strapping down a boat, Lindner said.
One example might be Chad Grigsby, who fished hard for a week at the Champlain Eastern FLW Series, then on his way back home, stopped at a buddy's house. A 70-pound bow was there, and like all outdoorsmen, Grigsby felt the need to draw the bow. He tore a muscle in his shoulder as he pulled and now must sit out the Chickamauga Series in order to complete a rehab program.
While not a fishing-related injury per se, Grigsby's injury does fit Lindner's analysis: Severe use and perhaps wear of the shoulder facilitated a later injury during a fairly simple activity.
"Everybody's different, but when you look at a lot of veteran anglers, if you ask them about their late-20s and early-30s, they probably experienced little aches and pains," Lindner noted. "Then 20 years later we see those major injuries like blown-out shoulders and elbows and backs. Their bodies were probably telling them something a lot of years ago, but if you never take care of something, it's going to break. And with so many of power-fishermen in the younger generation today, it's all go-go-go all the time."
While the study of fishing-related injury is currently in its infancy, one key for an angler at any level, Lindner said, is to listen to the body. If something hurts, get on it right away – ice it, rest it and investigate what's causing it. Another is to practice prevention, which is where Fit 4 Fishing comes in.
"Just a couple of minutes each day, or maybe every other day or a couple times a week – that can be all it takes. These little exercises I outline, if you do them, you're investing in your body and yourself so you can fish comfortably for many years to come."
> To read the first installment of BassFan's new Fit 4 Fishing series, which addresses fishing elbow, click here.
> To download the Fit 4 Fishing booklets, visit Fit4Fishing.com.
> Are BassFans at large experiencing fishing-related injuries? Click here to let us know.