By Todd Ceisner
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
― Jackie Robinson
When Jennifer Nick would see her husband Blake’s cell phone light up with an incoming call from Kyle Mabrey, she’d jokingly say that Blake’s girlfriend was calling him. Likewise, Beth Mabrey would say the same when Kyle would get a call from Blake.
Nick and Mabrey were as close as family, tighter than a Palomar knot. They were inseparable, especially on the water. Fishing bound them together and led to some good-natured ribbing from their spouses about their shared passion for the sport. They’d fish together at every opportunity, no matter the location or situation, three to four times per week when their schedules allowed.
The memories were numerous and everlasting, like the time they sacked 33 pounds worth of spotted bass at the Warrior River on Christmas Eve 2015, a feat that no doubt drew some razzing from their wives.
Nick was blindsided when he received word that Mabrey had died in a late-night, one-vehicle wreck Feb. 19 not far from his home in McCalla, Ala. It also sent a jolt through the bass fishing community as Mabrey was well-known from his time on the Bassmaster Tour from 2003-05 and six seasons as an FLW Tour pro between 2008 and 2016.
He also was a stalwart on the local tournament trails around central Alabama, earning a reputation – as Nick puts it – as a legend on the Warrior River.
“He wouldn’t win by a couple of pounds, he’d win by 10 to 15 pounds,” Nick said. “He was unbelievable when he was on.”
Mabrey touched so many lives, whether it was on the water or through his work as a pediatric respiratory specialist at Children's Hospital of Alabama, where he’d work 12-hour shifts assisting children who were transitioning out of neonatal intensive care or pediatric intensive care.
He'd show the kids fishing videos to take their minds off their own situation and bring in goodie bags of baits for those who showed an interest in fishing.
"I try to do it as good as anybody can and try to make a difference," Mabrey told BassFan in an article published in July 2013. "At the end of the day, we're all just humans. I've seen some guys on Tour that are just so single-mindedly focused on what they're doing. That's understandable, but I see a certain aspect that's missing from their lives because they haven't been touched by those kinds of circumstances. I think I appreciate (fishing) more than some people because I've seen how bad some situations can be and for no reason whatsoever."
Mabrey was an easy guy to like. He'd cut up with the best of 'em, but he took his fishing craft seriously.
“If you had a problem with Kyle Mabrey, you had bigger problems yourself,” said current Elite Series pro Clent Davis. “That’s just the kind of person he was.”
As part of Mabrey’s funeral procession, several pro anglers from Alabama pulled their boats to the cemetary to show their support. FLW Tour pro Brad Knight and his wife set up a GoFundMe account to benefit Mabrey’s widow and children. As of Thursday evening, more than $28,000 had been raised.
A memorial tournament in Mabrey’s honor has been scheduled for July 1 at Lay Lake and donations and sponsor contributions have already started streaming in.
For Nick, just getting in the boat with Mabrey was a privilege.
“Growing up, I’ll always remember that big, red-headed dude,” Nick joked. “I remember him just dominating (around here) and then him going off to fish B.A.S.S. It took me a long time to get in that dude’s boat, but the first time we ever fished together, we caught 20 pounds in 10 minutes. It was a 4-hour Thursday-nighter and when we pulled up on that first place, I will never forget that. I remember Kyle saying, ‘They’re going to get tired of us down here.’”
Over a 3-year stretch, Nick says, he and Mabrey finished in the money in nearly every local derby they entered.
Blake Nick (left) and Mabrey were all smiles on Christmas Eve 2015 when they caught 33 pounds worth of Warrior River spotted bass.
“He just taught me how to fish and be dominant on that river,” Nick said. “I used to tell people I’ve fished against some of the best in the world, but when he was on his game, he was unbeatable. Based on just pure fishing ability, he’ll always be one of the best to me.”
The last week has been a “whirlwind” for Nick, who has taken time away from his own family to ease the burden on Beth and the Mabreys' two children.
“I’ve had some grandparents pass away, but I’ve never lost anybody that’s as close to me as that,” he said. “My wife tells me everyone deals with it differently. It’s been slow at times, then like I’m dreaming. The day after it happened, I was over at his house, thinking it was all a dream and he was about to walk through the door telling a story about how his truck was stolen.
“I feel like I’m dehydrated,” Nick added. “I don’t have any tears left right now.”
What is left is for Nick to honor his friend’s memory the best he can. He’ll do that by taking young Evan Mabrey fishing every chance he gets – where else but on the Warrior River.
“I just pray that I’ve done enough of what he’d want me to do in this time and continue to do,” Nick said. “I pray I can remember all the things he taught me.”
This weekend, Nick will make his way to Florida for the Harris Chain FLW Tour, which starts next week. He’ll carry the memory of Mabrey with him and the hope to cash a check.
“It’ll be tough to be on the water like that, but it’ll be good,” Nick said. “It’d be like a storybook ending if I could go there and win.”
Davis: ‘A very friendly person’
Clent Davis was a student at the University of Montevallo in 2006. He was toying with the idea of pursuing a career as a pro angler after graduating and wanted to bounce some questions and ideas off someone who was already living that life.
So Davis called Mabrey, whose phone number had been passed to him by a mutual acquaintance. Mabrey had fished the Bassmaster Tour from 2003 to 2005 and welcomed Davis’ call.
“I called him and talked to him for an hour and I figured I’d never hear from him again,” Davis said. “Kyle called me back 3 days later and asked how things were going. He was a very friendly person and always cared about what was going on in your life.”
That was Davis’ first interaction with Mabrey, with whom he forged a close friendship with over the ensuing years. In 2011, Davis traveled with Mabrey to the Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour Open to fish as a co-angler. He’d only been to Okeechobee once before and during practice (with Mabrey), he caught an 8-pounder, among the biggest fish he’s ever caught.
From there, they remained close. As Davis began to establish himself in the pro ranks, he and Mabrey would chat multiple times a week, mostly after tournaments to rehash decisions made and to bounce ideas off each other.
“When I got the news that Monday morning, I didn’t even care to fish anymore that whole day,” Davis said.
Last Sunday, when Davis got home from the Lake Okeechobee Elite Series, he wanted to call his friend and vent about his frustrating start to the season. Instead, he broke down under the gravity of the realization that Mabrey was gone.
“Sunday night, I was talking to my wife,” Davis said. “I usually talk to Kyle on Sunday night after a tournament. That’s when it hit me. You don’t understand it until it happens.”
Dave Lefebre and Mabrey were both part of the rookie crop that competed during the 2003 Bassmaster Tour season. Lefebre remembers being asked to stand up at the first pre-tournament meeting so the rookies could be recognized and looking over to see Mabrey also standing up.
“I remember early on it was overwhelming and he had the same wide-eyed look I had,” Lefebre said. “He was hard to miss being a tall guy. We became friends pretty quick and talked all the time.”
Excuse Mabrey's thumb, but it didn't obscure the 8-pounder Clent Davis caught out of Mabrey's boat during practice for an FLW Tour Open in 2011 at Lake Okeechobee.
Eventually, they’d room together on the road. After Mabrey left the FLW Tour after the 2012 season, the two fell out of touch.
“It’s not like we had a falling out,” Lefebre said. “We just went our separate ways, but now it makes me want to call all of my old friends and reconnect because I wish I had the chance to talk to him one more time.
“I’ll always remember his laugh. He had a Santa Claus-type chuckle.”
When Lefebre got word of Mabrey’s passing on the morning of the first day of practice at Lake Okeechobee, he wanted nothing to do with bass fishing. He wanted to trailer his boat, book a flight to Birmingham and do what he could to help Mabrey’s family. It was Nick who convinced him to continue on. Mabrey wouldn’t have wanted him to get off the water.
“I went 2 hours of no fishing,” Lefebre said. “I was on the south end of Okeechobee and the wind was blowing 25. I ended up drifting miles and miles because when I got done drifting I had no idea where I was.
“I stood up 4 or 5 miles from where I’d been and eased into some grass and caught the biggest bass of my life.”
It dwarfed the ruler he had in his boat that maxed out at 24 inches and he estimated it to weigh close to 11 pounds. He thinks that fish didn’t happen by accident.
“I don’t really believe in weird stuff like that, but when I caught that fish, I had just been on the phone with some emotional people and I hadn’t lost it until then,” he said. “I just felt like it was Kyle.”
Just Like Old Times
Russ Lane’s interaction with Kyle Mabrey can be traced to Lessie’s Diner in Clanton, Ala., back in the 1990s. It was at Lessie’s where some of the best bass fishermen in the state would gather on Saturday mornings in the winter to pick a lake out of a hat and then duke it out to see which team’s seven-fish limit won the day.
“Team tournaments have always been big in Alabama,” Lane said. “Going back to the early '90s when I got involved, there were always a lot of good fishermen involved.”
Lane and Chris Rutland won their share of tournaments. So did Matt Herren and his dad. It was a who’s who of some of today’s tour-level pros.
“Kyle was part of that group, too,” Lane said. “We’d draw out for Lay Lake or Lake Jordan or whereever and then drive to the ramp. It was the neatest thing. There was no organization to it. It was just what we did in the winter. It always took 28 or 29 pounds to win. To me, that was the heyday of bass fishing and Kyle was always a part of that. He was always a threat.”
Especially at the Warrior River.
“I didn’t fish up there much, but I knew I had to beat him to win,” Lane added.
Lane was reminded of those old-school team tournaments when he and Mabrey were paired together in the first Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Fork in 2007.
“Neither of us had a great practice,” Lane recalled, “but I had a place by blast-off where I’d caught a couple big ones. Kyle had the best attitude about it. He said, ‘Whereever you want to go, I want to catch ‘em.’”
And catch ‘em they did.
“We get there and it was insane for a dozen casts,” Lane said. “We caught seven fish for [nearly] 49 pounds. It was the greatest 30 minutes of fishing I’ve ever had. We were acting like little kids because we were so pumped up.”
Their team held the day-1 lead before Lane and Mabrey tacked on 38-07 on day 2 to give their squad (Alton Jones and Steve Daniel were also on the team) a 15-pound edge heading into the final day.
Ultimately, they fell short of the victory, but Lane will never forget his experience with Mabrey that week, which included another fishing frenzy on the final day.
“They gave a truck to whomever caught big bass that week and Kyle and I agreed that we’d split the truck if we won,” Lane said. “On the last morning, we went back to the same place (from day 1) and I catch one that weighed 10-15. Kyle netted it and we both went bezerk. We had no doubt that we’d won the truck with that fish (they lost out by 3 ounces). It was freaking awesome. It reminded me of the old days in those team tournaments. It was a cool experience to share with him and to remember how much fun it was.”