For much of the past few days, the sport has been abuzz with speculation about what could now be termed the Erie Incident.
Nate Wellman, after winning the Sandusky Bassmaster Northern Open and thus qualifying for the 2012 Bassmaster Classic, was assessed a $2,500 penalty and placed on probation by B.A.S.S.
B.A.S.S. released the news last week in a brief article on Bassmaster.com, and according to that article, Wellman's penalty and probation were the result of comments Wellman made to his day-3 co-angler, who was later identified to be Joe Stois, Sr. from Cleveland, Ohio.
Although it wasn't explicitly stated in the original announcement, the crux of the incident involved allegations by Stois that Wellman had offered to purchase a fish.
Wellman said the statements were made in jest, while Stois contends they seemed more genuine.
In the aftermath, FLW Outdoors rejected Wellman's entry for next week's Champlain FLW Tour Open and deemed him ineligible to fish FLW Outdoors events for at least 1 year.
In the 5 days since that original announcement, the sport has not heard from Wellman, which led to significant comment and speculation across various fan sites. However, Wellman did issue a formal statement last night, shortly after he granted BassFan an interview.
For Wellman's formal statement, see Appendix 3 below.
Stois, Wellman's day-3 co-angler, contacted BassFan to provide several details of the incident that were not yet reported.
In summary, Stois said, "I wish none of this would have happened and to be quite honest I feel bad for Nate, (but) I think he made a terrible mistake once he started thinking about not making the Classic. I don't know Nate, but aside from the offer, I enjoyed the beginning of the day with him. I told Nate that I would net my own fish so he could have more time to fish. I knew what was at stake for this young man and I didn't want to do anything to ruin his chances. I also know that when he said he 'would give me $1,000 for my fish' and that 'his dad walks around with $1,000 to $3,000 cash in his pocket' and 'we could meet up with his dad after the weigh in to take care of it,' and the fact that he said he 'would drive me out to the middle of the lake to transfer the fish to his livewell so that no one would see' it was not a joke."
Stois added: "I know some of you believe what Nate did was harmless and he was truly joking. That is your right and I'm just trying to let you know what really happened. I myself would never joke about something this important to a person I barely know. The people who know me have stood up for me as you would expect them to. I did what was right in my mind, period. Until you're in a similar situation, do you really know what you would do? As for me, I can wake up every morning and look in the mirror and know I did what was right, and I have."
Additionally, Stois explained why he didn't report his concerns to B.A.S.S. officials immediately after reaching shore.
"I dropped the ball," Stois said. "Truth be told, I was scared. I didn't know what to do and with 150 or so people out watching us weigh in, I was afraid. Sorry I don't have better answers than this, but that's the truth."
In an interview, BassFan asked Wellman to explain his version of the day's events.
Wellman agreed, but said he wouldn't be able to comment about what was specifically said, because he's not sure. He was the tournament leader, his bite was fading, the Classic was on the line and the adrenaline was flowing, he said. And it's in times of duress or intense emotion, excitement or anxiety that people often forget a specific course of events.
Of particular interest is that Wellman said a cameraman was in the boat for the first part of the morning and captured on tape the fish in question – more evidence that he was joking and not serious about purchasing the fish, he said.
"I can't quote myself," Wellman told BassFan, after stating that he's barely slept or eaten for days. "The amount of emotion going through my body at that time, and the feelings I had and the thoughts going through my head, I can't even explain it. I just can't. I had lows, I had highs – just everything. You're constantly thinking about what the other guys have got, you're thinking 'It's tough on me, it must be tough on them,' then you miss a fish and you dwell on that. Everything changed mentally so much throughout the day it's just hard to put it back together.
He reiterated his statement that none of the jests were genuine and again apologized to B.A.S.S., to Stois and to fans of the sport.
About his career from this point forward, Wellman said: "I can tell you that I'm looking forward to the last Northern Open and next season, but you'll probably see a much quieter side of me. Everybody who knows me – I'm a talker and a jokster. I'm loud. I'm that kind of a guy. This is definitely going to change a lot of that, I think. As far as I'm concerned, I'm looking forward to the rest of the year and the season, but I'll basically just shut up and fish.
"Onstage I'll comment about my day and try to be a presentable person – I won't get up there and be shy and quiet – but as far as the other times, I'm just going to keep everything to myself. I'll probably stick to myself a little bit more and just try to get through the season."
There's been a collective sense of frustration among several (if not most) Bassmaster Elite Series pros that Wellman's penalty wasn't more severe. Those pros BassFan spoke with referenced past infractions that led to a day's or full-tournament DQ.
B.A.S.S. ownership partner Jerry McKinnis says a committee rendered the decision on the penalty and probation.
Two oft-cited examples were Gerald Swindle's Classic DQ for what was deemed unsafe boat operation, and Mike Iaconelli's most recent of two Classic DQs, when he was cited for damage to B.A.S.S. safety equipment.
B.A.S.S. ownership partner Jerry McKinnis told BassFan that a committee determined the Wellman penalty and the situation differed from other recent DQ scenarios because "In those cases we knew exactly what happened – the people involved admitted to making an honest mistake and there was no mystery there. We don't have that here, and there's a very good chance that we've missed the boat. But also, there's a chance that the guy (Wellman) wasn't guilty. There's a question as to what occurred."
McKinnis said the committee included himself, fellow B.A.S.S. owners Don Logan and Jim Copeland, plus B.A.S.S. tournament officials Trip Weldon and Chris Bowes.
"We as a group got together and decided how to handle this, and we felt like we did the best we could for everybody concerned here," McKinnis said. "Everybody's got a different opinion of it, but truth be known, it's impossible for us to say what exactly happened. It's a 'He said this,' and then a 'No I didn't, I said that' kind of thing.
"I'd like to say that I really appreciate the (co-angler) who came forward and talked to us, and I hope along the way that it provides encouragement for other non-boaters, marshals or anybody who's refereeing this thing. From time to time we have hiccups and we can't do a thing unless somebody comes and talks to us about them. I hope we did the right thing for us and the sport. I've been around this game for a long time, but this was maybe one of the first times that I've ever been put in that little spot. I probably learned some stuff from it, and again, I really hope we did the right thing for everybody – Nate, the co-angler and all the bass fishermen out there.
"You really have to be careful because it's not just you and these two guys out there – it's a million bass fishermen," McKinnis added. "We want the public to know that we have a great sport and that it's on the up and up and there isn't a bunch of hanky-panky that goes on. We tried to get it right for all of those people and not just the two individuals that the spotlight was on."
Appendix 1: B.A.S.S. Ruling – Sept. 2, 2011
Bassmaster Elite Series angler Nate Wellman has been fined $2,500 and placed on a 1-year probation due to violation of B.A.S.S. tournament rule 3(vii), which prohibits "suggesting to another competitor that he violate these (B.A.S.S.) rules." After an investigation, B.A.S.S. officials found that the outcome of the tournament and the final results were in no way compromised and did not result in changes to the final standings of the Bassmaster Northern Open on Lake Erie. The fine monies will be donated to the Ohio B.A.S.S. Federation Nation to support its conservation efforts.–-Bassmaster.com
Appendix 2: FLW Outdoors Ruling – Sept. 6, 2011
"In light of his recent conduct during the Bassmaster Northern Open on Lake Erie, we have notified Nate Wellman that he is no longer eligible to participate in FLW Outdoors tournaments. We reached this decision after speaking with Mr. Wellman and determining that his actions were a clear violation of FLW Tour rule No. 9 regarding sportsmanship. Mr. Wellman may apply to have his eligibility reinstated after 1 year."–-FLW Outdoors operations-division president Kathy Fennel
Appendix 3: Public Statement By Nate Wellman – Sept. 6, 2011
I regret the statements that I made to my co-angler during the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open on Lake Erie Aug. 25-27, 2011. While I never intended for my statements to be anything more than an expression of my envy for his performance that day, looking back I can understand now why my co-angler would have misinterpreted my statements. My statements were wrong and should never have been made.
To be perfectly clear: I am not a cheater. I've never cheated in the past and will never do so in the future. I've dedicated my entire adult life to bass fishing – the sport that I love – and no amount of money in the world is worth jeopardizing my career that I've spent my life working for. I'm an accomplished angler and am confident about my future. Simply stated: I have no reason to cheat and would never tarnish my accomplishments nor compromise my future by cheating. I respect myself, my family, my sponsors and my sport way too much to bring it all down by cheating.
I apologize to everyone for my mistake, including B.A.S.S. and my co-angler, for putting them in such an awkward position. Also a sincere apology to the fans of fishing for it was not my intention to tarnish the integrity of the sport.–-Nate Wellman