Breaks of the Game

Chapman nearly drowned in 2011, but fate and faith have lifted him to new heights

Article by Steve Wright

Photo of Brent Chapman reeling in a bass

Brent Chapman nearly drowned in 2011, both literally and figuratively. If you must hit bottom before you can rise to the top, Chapman's last 12 months stand as proof. The 2012 Bassmaster Elite Series Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year was hanging by a thread in the final months of 2011. Now he's on top of the bass fishing world.

Actually, he was hanging from a buoy in the middle of a Lake Quivera cove one October day, when a passing boater happened to see him and came to his rescue. One of Chapman's goals for his next season on the Elite Series was to get in the best physical condition of his life. He was training for a triathlon when he decided to take a swim in the lake near his home. He'd used a rangefinder to mark a halfway point for his swim, but he hadn't calculated the effect cool water would have on his body.

"My body was shutting down," Chapman recalled. "If that buoy hadn't been there, and that boat hadn't been there to help me, I would have drowned. There's no doubt."

Chapman's bass fishing career was sinking as well. He missed the Top 50 cut in four of the eight Elite Series events in 2011. In a further drain on his confidence, those four missed cuts came consecutively.

He managed to squeak in among the final qualifiers for the 2012 Bassmaster Classic – the 11th Classic of his career. But he hadn't won a B.A.S.S. event since the 2005 Busch Shootout on Table Rock Lake. 

Chapman hadn't competed in the B.A.S.S. Open Division events since 2007. Needing to put some money in the bank to support a wife and two kids, Chapman signed up for the three Central Opens in 2012. The first one came two weeks before the Classic. And upon arrival, it had the feel of a mistake.

High winds and cold temperatures met the anglers at Texas' Lewisville Lake on the second week in February. After three days of competition, Chapman and Josh Bertrand of Mesa, Ariz., were tied with exactly 20 pounds, 9 ounces. The tiebreaker would come in a five-hour "fish off" the next day, when everyone expected to be driving home after three days of frigid fishing at Lewisville.

"It was brutal," Chapman said.

One day during that tournament, after boat spray from the white-capping lake had covered Chapman and his co-angler on a ride across the lake, both men looked like "glazed donuts" when they stopped to fish. "We stood up and the ice just fell off of us," Chapman said.

The Elite Series dropped the co-angler format a few years ago, allowing each pro to fish with only a Marshal aboard. But co-anglers remain in the Open Series, and Chapman is thankful for that. During the first three days, Chapman drew a co-angler once who caught a couple of keepers fishing from the back of the boat with a wacky-rigged finesse worm. "The ultimate finesse," Chapman said.

So Chapman rigged one for the fish-off Sunday. On his third cast, about 8 a.m., he caught a 6-pound, 5-ounce largemouth on the wacky worm. It would be the only keeper caught that day.

Chapman was also aided by the fact that Open Division events allow for the use of landing nets; in the Elite Series all bass must be landed by hand.

"I got that fish in the boat and the hook fell out of its mouth," Chapman said. "If I wasn't able to use a net, that fish would have gotten off."

Are you starting to see a pattern here?

  • IF the buoy hadn't been there on his swim;
  • IF the boater hadn't come by to rescue him;
  • IF he hadn't had a co-angler to provide a fish-catching clue;
  • IF he couldn't have used a landing net.

There would be one more big "if" that led to Chapman's dream season. If he hadn't assured himself of a 2013 Bassmaster Classic berth with the win at Lewisville – two weeks before the 2012 Classic was held – Chapman wouldn't have been able to fish with the confidence he had at the start of the 2012 Elite Series in March.

Chapman posted a respectable 18th-place finish in the Classic at Shreveport. But he started red hot as the Elite Series began: fourth on the St. Johns River, fifth at Lake Okeechobee and fifth at Bull Shoals Lake.

"I've been taking some calculated risks in all three of these tournaments, and it has really paid off for me," Chapman said, after the final day on Bull Shoals. "It's something I'm just still trying to figure out mentally.

"I'm just a little too conservative, I guess. Maybe in the past I was just trying for ounces instead of taking a gamble and going for the big bite to really make a change.

"Having that Classic berth sewn up has allowed me to fish differently."

Chapman had his only "hiccup" of the season in the next tournament at Tennessee's Douglas Lake, where he finished 68th. But that feeling didn't last long. Chapman vaulted back to the top of the Angler of the Year standings with a victory at Toledo Bend.

Suddenly, the guy who hadn't won a B.A.S.S. event in seven years now had two titles on his record in 2012. The first came in the freezing cold using a four-inch wacky-rigged finesse worm; the second came during 90-degree heat at Toledo Bend using a giant flutter spoon that's almost the size of a boat prop blade. Nothing summarizes Chapman's versatility like those two wins.

If the win at Lewisville allowed Chapman to fish free and easy for the first half of the season, his place atop the AOY standings put him in a pressure-cooker for the second half. There were six weeks between the Green Bay Challenge on Lake Michigan and the series finale on New York's Oneida Lake. That's a long time to stew over not blowing what he'd accomplished already, and possibly losing the AOY title in the last event.

Ron Chapman – Brent's father – "un-retired" after the Elite Series dropped the co-angler format. He'd traveled with his son and fished as a no-boater in Elite events from their beginning.

"I didn't have a reason not to work anymore," the 65-year-old Chapman said. He'd founded a tool-and-die business, Ultratech, in the Kansas City, Kan., area many years before. He started showing up for work again at his own business when the co-anglers went away.

"I still fish (as a co-angler) in some Opens, but it's not the same," Ron Chapman said.

He's got plenty of confidence in his son, who started fishing soon after he was old enough to walk.

"I've got a picture of him when he was about 4-years-old, carrying a pole and a minnow bucket," Chapman said.

But Ron has been around tournament fishing enough to know that anyone can have a bad tournament. And he didn't have a good feeling about his son's chances at Oneida, where the Elite Series had visited three previous times.

"I'd fished all the Oneida tournaments that he'd fished," Ron said. "I knew it wasn't one of his better lakes. And I talked to him every day after practice. It wasn't that encouraging."

Brent Chapman entered the Oneida Lake tournament with only a 13-point AOY lead over Ott DeFoe; a mere 20 points back was Todd Faircloth. Chapman would have to earn the AOY title.

"I don't think I took a full breath in those six weeks between tournaments," Ron said.

Photo of Brent Chapman with his Angler of the Year trophy

He finally got to breath again while standing in the crowd at Saturday's Oneida Lake weigh-in site, the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse. Chapman clinched the AOY crown that day by qualifying among the final 12 anglers who would compete Sunday. Nobody could catch him now.

Brent Chapman, for the first time all season, got emotional on the weigh-in stage. He has always expressed, when asked, his strong Christian faith, something that was able to sustain him through some lean times in the past. But you'd have to know about the buoy and the boater and the co-angler and the landing net to fully appreciate why the even-keeled Chapman finally shed a few tears that day.

"There, Randy, I cried. Are you happy now?" said Chapman, in reference to his best buddy Randy Howell's gig about Chapman being unemotional.

And the ever-practical Chapman did have a back-up plan, if his fishing career had hit the rocks. His wife, Bobbi, might have become the breadwinner in the family.

"Bobbi has got a knack for certain things," Chapman said. "She's always been good at poker. I've said she might have to go on the poker tour, and I'll stay home to take care of the kids."

Chris Lane, the 2012 Bassmaster Classic champ, and brother Bobby Lane can attest to the fact that a poker game with the Chapmans is a losing proposition. Two years ago, when their money was tight, Brent and Bobbi fleeced the Lane brothers in a friendly campsite game of Texas Hold 'Em.

"They cleaned us out," Chris said. "They kicked our ass."

Who was the better player?

"Bobbi," said Chris.

The idea of Bobbi Chapman hitting the professional poker tour is recounted in jest. That wasn't ever in the plans, and it's certainly not now.

In 2012 Brent Chapman was the best bass tournament fisherman in the world. And that will pay a lot of bills for a long time.