Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The Journey West
By Kyle Carter ESPNOutdoors.com
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — If you just walked up on the scene, you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Darrell West and the other 50 competitors in the 40th Bassmaster Classic.
His boat is a brand-new Bass Cat, it's wrapped, his equipment is all top notch, and he looks the part. And that's the way he'd like it. The Bassmaster Weekend Series champion said he does his best not to be in awe of the names around him, but it's not easy.
He grew up watching Denny Brauer on television, and remembers Kevin VanDam when he first hit the circuit. VanDam and West are roughly the same age and about the time VanDam started living West's dream, West had his first child, which forced him to give up tournament fishing and as he put it, "get a real job."
On Wednesday, he was doing his best to be just the 11th boat in line to launch for the final practice day before the Classic starts on Friday, but the moment meant more to him than he wanted to show.
"This has always been a dream of mine and to be honest, I was beginning to think it was never going to happen," West said. "Most people don't feel like there's a lot of pressure on me because there's not a lot of expectation. But if I'm going to launch my fishing career, I need to do well in this tournament.
"I'm in a position right now where it would work, but I need to make something happen here."
It's a position he hasn't been in for the past 24 years. West's "real job" throughout his 20s was working in a dental laboratory.
"I tried college for a semester, but thought, 'Man, this isn't for me. I need to get a boat,'" he said.
His 30s were spent building and owning his own dental laboratory, raising his two sons and taking care of his wife of 21 years. With his youngest son getting close to turning 20, West thinks it might be time to re-pursue the dream.
So, for the last two years, he's been trying to qualify for the Classic anyway he can. In '08, he fished the Central Opens and the Weekend Series, but cut just back to the Weekend Series this year when he heard the championship would be in Arkansas.
In reality, there are a lot of reasons West, of Drasco, Ark., shouldn't be at the Classic — a lot of things that could have gone wrong at the wrong time and he would still be chasing the same dream like so many that you never read about.
He qualified through arguably the most difficult path, besting thousands of anglers for the one position. He barely qualified the Weekend Series championship after an average performance on Sam Rayburn in Texas.
Everything fell his way and now he's representing weekend anglers everywhere who will watch him on ESPN this weekend and wish they were him.
"I don't know why everyone doesn't try to qualify through the Weekend Series," West said. "It's the Classic. I haven't been here a week and I'm spoiled. I'm already trying to figure out how I can get back."
West is obviously excited he made the Classic, but he could have picked a better year. He was officially introduced to the biggest tournament in bass fishing by 4 inches of snow last Friday, and it hasn't gotten any warmer.
West chose his first spot on Wednesday partly because it wasn't far from the ramp.
West caught his only bass of the day just before noon.
"I've been wanting to check this spot out and I've had enough of driving in that cold," he said as he dropped his trolling motor and started casting. "We'll try and stay here until it warms up."
It was only 30 degrees at the time, which was relatively warm for the past seven days, and the forecast showed hope of clear skies. The sun did show up later in the day — but it was still cold. Every fifth cast for the first hour, West would have to dip his rod in the water to shake the ice off his guides.
And the bite wasn't much better. West only had three bites in three days of practice last weekend, but he's an optimist. He's excited about the spots he found and left them alone Wednesday as to not temper his enthusiasm.
"I try and create a situation where I have an area or a lure that I'm confident in," West said. "So I am at least starting out the first tournament day thinking that I am going to catch them."
The tough conditions? That only means it takes one good day to be in contention. The cold weather? It's supposed to warm up.
The one bass he caught on Wednesday easily carried him emotionally as he looked for similar spots all afternoon — and each spot was prime bass country.
"I think you have to be confident to compete at this level," West said. "You have to be optimistic and believe you're going to catch one on every cast, no matter how hard the bite is."
He's a long shot to win or even to do well at this year's Classic, but this whole experience for him has been surreal, so why not one more chapter?
In 2007, West said he was rooting for Boyd Duckett because he was the underdog. On Wednesday, he spent half the day fishing in sight of Duckett — and now he's the underdog.
"It was a dream I never thought I'd get to fulfill," he said. "So, I worked hard for 25 years and here I am. You can beat yourself before you ever get on the water and I'm not going to do that. I plan on catching fish Friday."