None of us will live forever. Most of us merely hope any positive effects we have on people live on beyond our years on this earth. I often hear the term fishing heroes thrown around, especially when someone’s hero passes away, as was the case for many anglers upon learning of Ken Cook’s passing on Friday, Jan. 8, 2016.
I will say before I get too far into this, that I had spoken to Ken Cook on four or five occasions. But I will forever regret that I never told him the impact he had on me as kid going through the awkward stages of childhood while contemplating what I really wanted to do later in life. This will hopefully serve as an open letter to all people, anglers and otherwise, who inspire.
In 1983, I was 11 years old. In 1983, Ken Cook was 36 years old. I had just gotten my first pair of glasses a year earlier. Entering middle school wearing big, ugly glasses (at least that’s how I perceived every other kid saw them) was tough. I went almost immediately from being outgoing to being an introvert in the span of a year. I was incredibly self-conscious about my appearance. It made fitting in very difficult in the pivotal years of social acceptance.
Hope in fishing
I was just discovering fishing at that same time. I had, of course, been fishing a lot as a youngster, but I was taking a real interest in the competitive side of professional tournament fishing. And, to a lesser extent, in the journalism side of the outdoors. I read an article that year about a guy from Oklahoma who just won the biggest payout in fishing, $100,000 in a Super BASS tournament on the St. Johns River.
His name was Ken Cook. And he had glasses. For some reason, I was drawn to everything about Ken Cook. My favorite lure was a spinnerbait. Ken’s favorite lure was a spinnerbait. We both wore less than trendy glasses. And we were both growing up as muddy river fishermen (I lived on the Arkansas River in Russellville, Ark. at the time). He seemed so genuine with his biological knowledge of bass. He had a degree from Oklahoma State and had worked for the Oklahoma Wildlife Department before going pro.
In a strange way, he gave an awkward 12-year-old hope that an ordinary guy, even with glasses, could do something extraordinary in fishing for a living. That pay day, that tournament, that guy, Ken Cook, was the first time I can remember considering fishing for a living being a viable reality.
At 12 years old, I wrote a newsletter about fishing around Arkansas that some local tackle shops let me hang on their bulletin boards. I thought that was a big deal. I talked about throwing a spinnerbait. I talked about not being afraid of muddy water and other lessons I learned from Ken Cook, Gary Klein, Larry Nixon, Rick Clunn, Denny Brauer and some hot shot young guy that was tearing up the trail named Kevin VanDam.
I can remember being so ecstatic when Cook won the 1991 Classic on the Chesapeake Bay (a place I had also lived and fished as a kid while my father was stationed in the Navy there in the 80s). I was about to start my second year of college then, but I could not wait to get that issue of Bassmaster magazine that recapped his win. The footage from that tournament of him fishing that rip rap with his trusty Hart Throb spinnerbait is permanently written in my memory banks.
I went to college to study computers, then accounting but finally ended up in marketing. I graduated and worked in the Information Technology field for a decade before taking a leap of faith to pursue that 12-year-old’s dream of writing for a living in the fishing industry. It was a huge pay cut, and I was moving my family to a state where we didn’t know one single person. But I was still inspired.
I’ve since gone on to be the Editor-in-Chief of FLW’s three magazines for several years and now the Publisher and COO at Wired2fish, Inc. Again a spark that was kindled into a fire by a guy I didn’t know from Oklahoma, that wore glasses and seemed so genuine and tangible to me.
Heroes in fishing and inspiration
To call a fishermen a hero seems far-fetched to many. They do have a point, after all—what is heroic about catching a 3-pound fish?
Catching the bass is not heroic. Inspiration is heroic. As a kid I used to day dream about being a hero … about saving the day … about being recognized for great achievement. As an adult, I realize most of my heroes were people who inspired me to be more. Inspiration makes impossible seem achievable. The inspiration is the heroic part. Not the recognition. The ability to touch people’s lives you’ll never meet or even know exist transcends any talent you have for a sport.
People tell me that I’ve inspired them in fishing careers. Lately many people have reached out to me privately and publicly to thank me for inspiring them in a weight loss journey (I lost 75 pounds in 2015). That is so awkwardly humbling to me. I can’t even express how grateful I am that someone would take 5 minutes to tell me they are inspired by something I did. That’s powerful stuff. The stuff that fulfills the human spirit.
I’ve tried to live my life with a philosophy of trying to do more for others than I do for myself. To lead a life that inspires not diminishes others. Things I saw in other people, like Ken Cook.
I now call Larry Nixon, Gary Klein, Denny Brauer, Kevin VanDam and other legends of our small sport friends. To consider them colleagues so to speak in a small way still humbles me because of the inspiration they gave an awkward kid in the 80s trying to find his way in the world.
Some of them know they were and still are inspirations to me. They know they are heroes to a lot of people, although most are so humble, they find the notion of catching a bass being heroic silly. How could catching a bass make you a hero? Well it doesn’t. That’s the reason not everyone that catches a fish in a tournament is a hero. Very few have the power to truly inspire. But all should know someone is watching, and the opportunity to inspire is always there.
It’s that inspiration that’s heroic. I hope they know that. I hope they know they meant and still mean that to me. Ken Cook did not. And I will regret not sharing that with him forever.