'Normal, Nothing Else'

By Mike Suchan

Tenacity is moving Hunter Baughman closer to his dream of fishing professionally.

Photo of Hunter Baughman landing a bassHunter Baughman lands a bass on central Arkansas' Lake Atkins, where he learned to fish with his grandfather. Feeling more enabled than disabled, Baughman has dreams of fishing professionally. (Mike Suchan photo)

ATKINS, Ark. — "Slide it under here; I don't need no leg room," said Hunter Baughman, an avid outdoorsman who enjoys seeing the reaction such comments elicit. On a duck hunt, when someone says their feet are cold, he spouts off, "Mine aren't."

"I love doing that," he said. "I used to tell my mom ... she'd be talking about something costing money that I wanted. 'Well, you never bought me shoes all my life, why can't you buy me that?'"

Busting jokes breaks the ice, make others know he's comfortable with who he is and that he wants to be treated like everyone else. Baughman might say he’s limb-challenged, but that hasn't stopped him from doing anything, including aspiring to fish professionally.

Bacterial meningitis at 9 months required amputation of both Baughman's legs below the knees, his left hand and digits on his right hand. The 27-year-old said he feels blessed to have a right thumb to push the button on his baitcaster and control the line.

His line about leg room came when photographer Seigo Saito was looking to stow his camera box, moments after he and the author boarded Baughman's BassCat on Day 1 of the Bassmaster Elite at Lake Dardanelle. Baughman, a fixture in central Arkansas fishing derbies, was hired as camera boat driver.

He woke in the wee hours to a 100-mile drive from his home in Judsonia for the 6:15 a.m. launch. He might have taken a little longer than usual, preparing for a day on Dardanelle then a Thursday night bass event in Little Rock, about 80 miles away. He hit the dock in a manual wheelchair around 5:45, watching the 108 pros launch.

Baughman gets after every task in front of him, doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him, just wants to be one of the guys.

"The more you get to know me, I hope you just see me as normal," he said. "Normal, that's it, nothing else."

Growing Up Hunter

Nine months old is about the time most children start standing before taking their first steps. Not Hunter. He was at Arkansas Children's Hospital for three months, undergoing several surgeries after contracting the fast progressing disease that can lead to death within a day. It affected his extremities. Taking them saved his life.

"I was so young when I got it — it was all I ever knew," he said. "Learn how to deal with what you're given and do it. That's still my outlook.

"It's boring on the couch, and there's no reason why you can't just do whatever you want to, as long as you put your mind to it. God is big in my life. Church is big. If it wasn't for the good Lord, I wouldn't be here."

Photo of Hunter Baughman on his BassCatBaughman, driving his BassCat on Lake Dardanelle, is a force in local tournaments. (Photo: Seigo Saito)

Baughman used prosthetics until he was 13, playing soccer and junior high basketball, but they hurt. Although he uses a wheelchair, he can walk on his knees — "they work, they're just short." He's probably most comfortable on a boat, climbing in and maneuvering quickly from the driver's seat to the flush-mounted chair on the front deck.

He's fished as long as he can remember, starting on crappie with his great grandfather, Lloyd Keener, in Atkins. After a second day watching the Elites, he scratched an itch by towing his boat 20 miles to revisit Lake Atkins to fun fish with Tim Preator, one of his fishing buddies also serving as a camera boat driver.

"When I was young, I spent a lot of days crappie fishing in here," Baughman said. "My whole family fished. I don't remember my first fishing trip. I remember crappie fishing one day when I was about 5 or 6, and catching so many I told my dad I was going to sit in the bottom of the boat because I was tired of winding fish in."

Baughman had his first bass boat before he had his first truck. He would fish with anyone who would drive him. He learned to tie lures, cast and unhook fish his way.

"Kind of like everything else in life, I never knew it any other way," he said. "You're going to do it one way and I'm going to do it another way."

His parents gave Baughman an Arkansas lifetime hunting and fishing license for his 16th birthday. Baughman already had been fishing tournaments for more than a year.

"I didn't do good for like 2 years," he said, "but I felt like it was something I could compete in. I'm a competitive person. I love being outdoors."

It took three years before he cashed his first check, but it was a whopper, like the bass he weighed in the big fish event.

"That first check was $4,500. I thought, this is cool — $4,500 to go fishing, I'll take it," he said.

That same year he added almost $1,000 by winning a team championship on Lake Hamilton, where he had cut his teeth on bass with a cousin. His mother would take them to a condo there and they'd spend several weeks at a time teaching themselves the ways of the bass.

Dream Catcher

Baughman was only several months old when he was taken on his first hunt. He was in a car seat when his mother parked on an old logging road hoping for a deer to pass near. He's been duck and deer hunting as long as he can remember.

"Deer is my favorite," Baughman said. "I've been blessed. I've killed a lot of good deer. I've got 10 deer mounted."

Photo of the Dream Catcher TruckA participant in Dream Catcher, which takes the disabled or terminally ill hunting and fishing, Baughman now works for the nonprofit organization raising funds. (Photo: Mike Suchan)

When he was 12, he got a call to be on the first hunt with Dream Catcher, a non-profit in Russellville taking the disabled or terminally ill on outdoors outings. Baughman was a participant from 1999 to 2012, when he took a job there as Director of Funding. He works mostly from home securing donations.

"For me, it was great, but I was going to go hunting or fishing whether I went with them or not," he said. "But a lot of people don't get to do that. A lot of people don't have the ways to do that, or people to help them."

The most enjoyable part for him is putting people on game. He recalled learning one man on a hunt had never caught a bass, but Baughman fixed that, taking him from the deer stand to a pond.

"The first bite he got was almost 5 pounds, and he was flipping out," Baughman said. "He's 24 or 25 and never caught a bass in his life. He can't even throw the rod. He had to have it handed to him. Oh, he was just beside himself. And that's what it's all about."

That's the part of Dream Catcher he loves, and he'd trade his hunts away for others.

"I've killed my deer," he said. "If I never killed another deer and got to sit there and watch somebody kill their first deer since they had an accident, or kill their first deer ever, if I can see the joy on their face, that's better than me killing one."

You Can't Complain

Asked if he's an inspiration to others in Dream Catchers, Baughman didn't get much chance to answer.

"I want to step in on that," Preator said as he stopped casting. "I don't think he's an inspiration to just disabled people. Hunter is an inspiration to everybody. You can't complain about nothing in life."

"I talk about Hunter a lot. I do a non-profit organization as well, where I take wounded warriors fishing. Some of our guys are not physically disabled, have PTSD and the like. I tell them, I know a cat who is probably one of the most remarkable people I know. Remarkable. I tell them about Hunter and they're like, "You kidding me?" I get on Facebook and start pulling up pictures. They're like, "Oh, wow!" So I wouldn't say just to disabled, he's an inspiration to anybody."

Photo of Hunter Baughman with rod and reelBaughman said he found his own way to fish. (Photo: Mike Suchan)

Although Preator and Baughman interacted like they'd known each other all their lives, they only met four years ago. Preator first saw him as he sized up competition at angler meeting for a tournament. "I was like, 'I ain't worried about this kid,'" Preator said.

"Ha, now the truth comes out," Baughman interjected.

"But honest to God, he smoked me," Preator said. "There's certain people that you don't want to see pull up to a tournament, and Hunter's one of them."

"Oh, c'mon now," Baughman said.

"What'd you do last night? You drove from Russellville to Little Rock and won a tournament," Preator said. "Don't let him fool you. He's a good fisherman. He really is." Baughman's not about to boast on his angling prowess, instead saying he's just fortunate to spend a lot of time on the water. With that time has come success. He's won several team titles and took Angler of the Year in the Central Arkansas Bassmasters.

"It wasn't a big club, but it showed me, all year long, I was the best fishermen," he said. "I think the reason I'm so competitive is, it's like I never prove it to myself. I could go win 20 tournaments in a row and still it wouldn't be enough. I like team tournaments, but individual tournaments prove it to myself. It's not to rub it in or be cocky. I want to prove myself to myself. I want to know I was the best every time I get on the water."

The Next Step

Going into Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open competition is the next goal for Baughman, and that potentially means getting out of his comfort zone of river fishing and going out of state. He's fished Texas in the Paralyzed Veterans of America events, making the top 3 twice and taking seventh on a lake he knew nothing about.

Photo of Hunter Baughman tying a lure(Left) Wrapping the line around his left arm, Baughman ties on a new lure ... (right) then uses his teeth to secure the knot. (Photos: Mike Suchan)

Vacationing at Disney World this past year with his wife, Andrea, he snuck out for about four hours when she was shopping. Fishing Lake Toho, Baughman caught a bass just shy of 10 pounds, topping his previous best of an 8-1/2 on Greers Ferry. With a number of top level pros from Arkansas, Baughman and Preator know the thread that if you can catch fish in Arkansas, you can do it anywhere in the country.

"I don't want to sound cocky," Baughman said, "but I know for a fact you can take me anywhere in the world on a river or a place with current, and I'll catch them. I love current fishing and it doesn't change. You get on the lake and you have to fish ledges, ridges, brushpiles and humps, I struggle a bit offshore."

They said that skills aren't that much higher in pro levels. The big factors, they say, are the experience, decision-making and being able to market oneself to secure sponsors.

"I would like to see myself fishing the Opens next year or the year after," Baughman said. "I fish a lot and I spend a lot of money on fishing. I promised my wife I would never go to that level and spend $1,200 entry fee out of our pocket until somebody was paying for at least part of it.

"My goal is to fish professionally. It's been my goal since I've been probably 16. I'll try my best to make it happen. Getting the right backing is the biggest thing."

Watching the Elites fish, Baughman learned the pros really pick apart the water and manage their time. While he admits he has plenty of learning, he knows he has the desire.

"Yesterday, there was no points in that tournament," he said. "There wasn't any reason I had to be there. But I wouldn't change it for nothing. If they had another tournament tonight, I'd go back. I'd drive back every night this weekend. I know I got the will, the want to."

Preator said he thinks Baughman's chances of fishing on the pro level are tremendous, just "off of his determination."

"Once I get there, we don't know," Baughman said. "There's a lot of learning between now and then."

Like how he missed a 5-pounder that Preator caught from the back of the boat.

"I wish he would catch 20 more fish like that," Baughman said, "but I'm trying to figure out why I didn't catch it, why it got by me."

"I'm trying to figure that out, too," Preator said. "I'm glad you missed it. That felt good."

That's the type of normal exchanges Baughman strives for. Yet he concedes his condition might punch his ticket for a shot in the big show. There's 30,000 other anglers just like Preator, he said before posing a question of who might be more marketable: "If both of us walk into a room, who're you going to remember?" End of story hook

— Published: Summer 2014

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