By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Prior to just a few days ago, the name Johnny McCombs hadn't resonated in pro bass fishing circles for a very long time. After notching top-20 finishes in the FLW Tour Angler of the Year (AOY) race in his first three pro seasons from 1999 through 2001, things started to go downhill for him.
He fished for a couple more years, but his finishes got progressively worse. His career seemingly ended with the conclusion of the 2003 campaign, after which he fell completely off the fishing map.
He'd become a drug addict, and it would take him more than a dozen years to get his life back together. Veteran anglers who knew him before and have become reacquainted with him over the past several months don't know the details of all he's been through, but they know it was a very rough period.
The long road back hit its high point on Sunday when McCombs, clean for just under a year, won the Tour's annual stop at Beaver Lake. In an event in which continually rising water was the dominant factor, McCombs used an old-school approach, throwing a buzzbait anywhere and everywhere he could place it and reel it back along the new, much higher shoreline of flooded pockets.
His 18-15 stringer on day 3 was far and away the best of the tournament. Although he managed just two keepers on the final day, the 5-04 he brought to the scale was enough to hold off runner-up Jason Reyes on a brutal fishing day that saw only two of the final top 10 catch limits.
Had a Bright Future
One of the veteran pros who knew McCombs best best prior to his descent into substance abuse was three-time Tour AOY Andy Morgan. McCombs, Morgan and two-time B.A.S.S. AOY Gerald Swindle ran together in the early 1990s while competing in regional tournaments across the Southeast, trying to determine whether they could make a living in the cast-for-cash game.
"He was one of those guys who was just a standout," Morgan said of McCombs. "It was kind of like he was years ahead of everybody else. Like now the big thing is to put a Horny Toad on a buzzbait so you can skip it under docks, well, Johnny was doing that years ago with a chunk.
"He always had a shaky-head tied on way before that became popular. I'd ask him why he was planning to fish with that weenie worm and he'd say, 'I'm fixing to kick your (butt) with it.' We could beat him occasionally, but he'd beat us a lot."
Andy Morgan, who fished against McCombs a great deal before they turned professional, said McCombs possessed a skill set that was nearly unrivaled.
That was long ago, before bodies of water could be "video-gamed" via the use of down- and side-imaging features on high-tech depthfinders. Morgan said McCombs was well-equipped for that era.
"We didn't have the knowledge of deep water and to win a tournament, you had to be better with the rod and reel," he said. "We had to cast places where other people couldn't get a bait to. That's how we all grew up, and Gerald's gone on to have a good career and I've had a good career.
"If you watched Johnny at all on FLW Live, you'd have seen that he can flat-out cast. He's very efficient. Some people have to use all of their concentration to make casts like that and they have to slow down and they're not smooth. He's very smooth."
Fall and Rise
Prior to last year, Morgan hadn't been in contact with McCombs since the latter left the Tour 14 years ago. That's often how addiction plays out the afflicted cut off all communications with many of those around them.
"We knew why he was leaving," Morgan said. "There at the end, he was getting strung out and he wasn't catching anything. He wasn't even trying because it had just consumed him. He spent a lot of those next years in trouble with the law. He just kept reverting and going back again and again.
"Then one day I got a text from him and I called and he told me he'd gotten clean. He said he'd found the Lord and his mind was straight and that bass fishing was going to save his life. I told him, 'Well, I know you're good at it, and I believe in you.' The story was right there (Sunday) with him holding up that trophy."
Now Morgan hopes that his old running mate can stay on the straight and narrow path and provide inspiration for others who are battling similar demons.
"I've known some good people around here who got taken down by that stuff, and some of them got off it and came back and are outstanding people. That win right there might've sealed it up; it might've brought him his career back and maybe even saved his life.
"It's a great success story one of the best we've ever had in this sport."