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The Co-Angler

Life on the back deck

One week ago this morning–right about now, around 8:30 Eastern time–Nik Kayler was ejected from Bill Kisiah’s Ranger and the FLW Tour season was to begin with a tragedy beyond our imagination.

I just can’t stop thinking about Nik Kayler. I didn’t know him–few of you who read this probably knew Nik. He was a family man with a wife and daughter and many people who loved him–and who knew how much he loved fishing. And that’s something we can all share in his memory.

Nik was fishing in his 62nd FLW event, and that makes him an experienced angler. Just like Nik, there are many of who are experts from the back of the boat (my first FLW tournament as a co-angler was in 2004 at the Harris Chain and my last one was the 2016 BFL Regional on Seminole).

We don’t know exactly what Nik was thinking that night before, but we can make an educated guess. As life-long co’s, we know what it’s like at the draw meeting when you get a partner that tells you he is “on fish” and you will both have limits by 9 a.m. (that is never a good sign). You wonder if the guy will be a smoker, and you are downwind all day as he lights up at every stop. You hope he knows the lake well–but not too well (sometimes locals are so set on their community holes they won’t move when the bite is elsewhere: “these fish are always here, I don’t know where they’ve gone,” is a common expression you hear from the front. You hope your boater gives you the opportunity to catch fish (most boaters do)–and that you don’t get front-ended by a dock fishermen like I did one (long) tournament day on Oconee.

Perhaps Nik experienced some of these things the night before the first Costa event. After the draw, you go back to your room, with all your rods (eight is too many, four not enough) rigged for the shallow bite only to find out that your boater will be fishing offshore. Like Nik, you probably went back to your room (or truck) and re-rigged a few rods, checked your knots, made choices of which rods you would not take, watched some TV and tried to be in bed my 11 (which seldom happens to a co-angler). You set your phone to wake you at 3:30 am even though you will not meet your boater until 5 a.m.  Even though you are in the fifth flight–boat #126–your boater wants to be there a full 90 minutes before boat check, a totally unnecessary occurrence and a bad sign that he may not be as tournament savvy as you had hoped.

When you get to the ramp, he assumes you can’t back a boat down, even though most long-time co’s have their own boats and back them down all the time–you are sort of treated like a rookie. “Yes, I can back you down,” you say, almost defensively. Then the waiting begins. Like Tom Petty wrote: “…the waiting is the hardest part.”  You float around in the flotilla of 249 other boats, often times your boater knows other boaters and they talk while you double-check your rods are strapped down. There is no conversation among the co’s–not because they don’t each other, but rather, you defer to the guy behind the steering wheel, and you know your place in the tournament world’s pecking order–a second fiddle to the orchestra conductor, the boater whom you can only hope has a plan, and then a backup plan.

When Nik & his boater Bill Kisiah took off last Thursday morning–one week ago this morning–they were making a long run, north to south (which is a moon shot on the Big O). We don’t know if Nik knew Bill, but he probably did not. Both were experienced fishermen. Nik must have been thinking, as they were flying across the choppy inland sea that is Okeechobee, “I hope this guy gets us to the first hole safely.”

We have all been there. Like racing across the west side of Lake Eufaula in one foot of water while our boater has the hammer down–you hope he knows this area well, otherwise you will do hit a stump and flip like the Miss Budweiser on a practice run. You have your life vest on (you think “will my Mustang really inflate if I fall out“–and then you cuss yourself for never trying it in a swimming pool). Like Ish Monroe, your boater has his ear buds in below his Buff (no helmuts for these top boaters!) in the 45 degree air temperatures. You wonder if he is listening to Dvorak or Kid Rock or Travis Tritt (you hope it is not Snoop Dog, as that would make for a very heavy foot on the pedal).

Let me say here that I’m not slamming boaters! I love you guys. Heck, even I fish local tournaments from the front of my Ranger. But the ones fishing the BFL’s and Costa’s and Opens have so much more experience than most co-anglers, so we need to look at every trip out as a chance to learn (hey, if we finish in the money, it’s icing on the cake). I have met some wonderful people who were also great boaters, and I thank them all. If they weren’t registered (and paying that higher registration fee) I wouldn’t get the chance to fish! So, thank you guys for being the pros that you are–and for giving us the chance to catch fish.

We don’t know how many of these things Nik Kayler, the son, ex-soldier, husband, father & brother might have been thinking about one week ago today. But for those of us who have spent a lifetime on the back deck we understand there are no guarantees.

We grieve for Nik’s wife and daughter. If we can, we contribute to the Go Fund Me page. We offer silent prayers–on and off the water. We commit to being safer on the water–and wearing those life vests. Nik’s passing should make us all reflect on what we do–and what our priorities are in life.

In the end, when our boat number is called, we all recognize the brutal truth: we are only one ride away from eternity.

May God bless us all.