Accidental blessing

An accident that took place on the first day of the Genuity River Rumble could have marred this event and its memory for several years.

As it turned out, an unfortunate, almost freakish accident revealed the true nature of some of the anglers on the Bassmaster Elite Series.

The accident occurred on Day One of the River Rumble when the Marshal for Elite angler Derek Remitz, Jerry Van Sickle of Oelwein, Iowa, was thrown from the boat. Remitz was following a line of anglers into one of the backwater lakes in Pool 18 on the Mississippi River.

In a game of inches that normally translates to fish lengths, Remitz's boat struck an underwater object that everyone else was fortunate enough to miss. The object was hard enough to completely shear off the lower unit of the boat, sending it into a hook and slide across the canal where they were traveling.

Sickle was thrown from the boat, landing on the bank in some thick kudzu, the fall knocking him unconscious and injuring his shoulder. Remitz immediately jumped from the craft to aid Sickle.

Gerald Swindle was one of the first anglers on the scene. He rounded the bend just as Remitz's boat was sliding down the embankment minus its two passengers.

"My first thought was they were both in the water,'' Swindle said. "It was such a blur. I started tearing off my clothes to jump in and see if I could get my hands on them. I heard someone yell, 'They're in the woods.'"

That's when he saw Remitz looking for Sickle in the thick kudzu that lined the bank. Sickle was face down and unconscious. Remitz was shaken up and clearly in emotional distress.

"As long as I live I will never forget those moments,'' Swindle said.

The two moved to make Sickle more comfortable and to make sure he could breathe. By that time other boats had arrived at the scene. Reports vary on how many of the Elite anglers stopped, but every one of them in the area pulled over. Estimates range as high as 30 Elite anglers. Most of them jumped into action.

"It was a blur of activity,'' Swindle said. "One was running to a nearby duck camp, another was on the phone to the paramedics, another was running down a road to make sure help could find us.

"I'm telling you, for a moment the world just stopped for all these guys and they wanted nothing more than to make sure that he [Sickle] was safe."

The rest of the anglers prayed, fearing the worst.

Randy Howell showed up in the middle of the fray, realizing that something bad must have happened with so many boats pulled up to the bank.

Even after a day and a half had passed, Howell was emotional in relaying the moments that followed.

"I was pushing up to the bank, praying under my breath that no one was hurt,'' Howell said after the Day Two weigh-in, pausing a moment to wipe his watery eyes. "Something told me that I needed to get out of my boat and be at [Sickle's] side."

Swindle added in a separate interview that when he saw Howell, who is always open about his Christianity, he said, "Randy, you are the closest man to God we got, please come pray with this man."

Howell kneeled beside Sickle, and every angler present bowed his head.

"I saw how bad he looked. Derek (Remitz) was crying," Howell said. "I put my hand on his shoulder and started praying that he would regain consciousness, that he would be OK, that God would take care of him.

"As soon as I said, 'Amen,' like a miracle, his eyes opened.

"I knew at that moment that God was involved. There are so many ways that this could have been more serious. For instance, that canal is lined with huge oak trees for miles. And the only place there is this small area with vines and grass and that's where it happened.

"You can't tell me that God didn't have a hand in that. I don't know why it happened and what the ultimate plan is, but it totally transformed everyone there."

Moments after the prayer, a local physician, Dr. J.J. Patton, who also was serving as a Marshal in the event, showed up with his angler and began treating Sickle. With help there and more on the way, it would be easy to assume that some of the professional anglers would start slipping out, getting back into the intense game that they were there to play.

"But not one angler left,'' Swindle said. "Not one angler idled by. Every one of them stopped and pitched in whatever way they could."

The professional anglers set up a fireman's line of sorts to carry Sickle on a stretcher from his position to Jimmy Mize's boat for a short ride to where an ambulance could pick him up.

"It was muddy and slick and nasty,'' Swindle said. "Jason Quinn fell in the water getting a stretcher up the bank. But none of that mattered."

The focus they normally shared of putting five bass in the boat was minimized by the new focus, many of them said, of taking care of "one of their own."

"That's the thing that strikes me most about this whole thing,'' said Chuck Harbin, Bassmaster assistant tournament director. "It was like family pulling together, everyone forgot the tournament until the business of taking care of Mr. Sickle was done. I'm humbled by that and deeply proud of our anglers."

Sickle, who underwent shoulder surgery on Friday and was unavailable for comment, is recovering in an area hospital. And following the Day Two weigh-in, many of the anglers left the weigh-in stand and headed to the hospital, including Swindle and Marty Stone.

"I've been competing like this for a long time," Howell said. "I've never seen or even heard of an accident like this, so you don't know what to expect.

"But we are all competitors in a tournament that is extremely tough. One where getting to the spot first could dictate if you catch anything or not. We all knew we would be crowded, and first pick of the best spots is paramount in this event.

"But when something happened, the fish didn't matter. We just did what we had to do. All of the sudden this tournament was not on because we had to make sure everyone was all right.

"The thing is when we finally got him in the ambulance and he was on his way to the hospital and we took care of Derek, we had to go fishing. Even then it completely transformed everyone there.

"No one was really ready to start fishing, we weren't rushing to get to the best spot. We were like, 'You go.' 'No, you go.' Normally in a situation where everyone is crowded in a lake like that, there can be some territorial issues. But we didn't have that. The realization that there were far more important things in life than who was fishing where took hold.''

For the record, Howell, who didn't catch a single keeper in the three days of practice, led the event after Day One and sits in fifth place after Day Two.

"God truly blessed me with how things turned out,'' Howell said.

The blessing was one that, despite the injury, was received first by Sickle, and in the end, the whole bass fishing world.