I have been the outdoor reporter for the newspaper here for over two years. That means I have written well over 100 columns. And I cannot remember writing one with a heart heavier than mine is today. My heart is heavy for a man I have never met, for his family and his friends - a man who, literally, lives on the other end of the country. Every once in a while something happens that hits you hard. This was one of those things.
The FLW Costa Series had a tournament on Lake Okeechobee in Florida last weekend. Conditions were not ideal, as they often are not in winter, or at any time of year. Water temperatures were reported to be in the 50s with air temperatures in the 50s.
Bill Kisiah and his co-angler Nik Kayler were among the field of well over 200 boats. It was believed they decided to make the long run from South Bay to the north end of the lake. Kisiah was a nine-year veteran boater of the FLW Series and Kayler had fished 61 FLW events prior to this weekend's derby.
According a friend of Kisiah's, one account was that they stabbed a wave and Kayler was ejected from the boat. Kisiah was unable to get the boat to fire and attempted to get back to his co-angler on the trolling motor. He, too, was ejected from the boat by a wave. He was able to tether himself to the boat, but was unable to get to Kayler.
Kisiah was found alive near his boat late Thursday night, but there was no sign of Kayler. As I write this, the search for the veteran co-angler is still underway. From social media posts, and a special group set up specifically for searchers, there are likely hundreds of people involved in the search, all coordinated through that group. Thousands of prayers and well wishes have been expressed. The fact remains - a fellow tournament angler is still missing. The fact is that accidents happen and that people die doing what I love to do every weekend in the summer. We are all hoping against hope that this is not the outcome of this weekend's chain of events.
A few comments on Facebook got me thinking. There is a good deal of talk now about requiring locator beacons for all anglers in bigger tournaments. Some balked at the cost. One response stuck with me, "You guys will pay over $200 for a rod, but not to save your own life?" I think this is something more and more people will start thinking about, especially those fishing bigger tournaments on large impoundments. A lake like Okechobee can eat you for lunch if you are not familiar with it, and sometimes even if you are. This past weekend's events make it seem almost selfish to get out on water like that without a personal locator of some sort. Will that become a norm in the sport? Who knows. But I do not think it would hurt.
I have also seen at least a hundred people say, "we all know the dangers," etc. The fact is, we all know the dangers of driving a car or flying on a commercial airline, but we never expect the worst. We cannot. We would be paralyzed by fear every day.
Some want to blame the tournament officials for sending the boats out in unsafe conditions. I know firsthand how hard it is to hold a field of guys who just want to get out and fish. But we do it. We do it for fog, we do it for storms. I know tournament directors everywhere have nightmares about things like this. Even in our smaller, local tournaments on comparatively tiny bodies of water, things can happen. Sadly, and some may not agree with this, the sport of bass fishing, at that level, is largely sponsor-driven. There is big, big money in bass fishing. And I cannot believe that has never compromised safety at this level and higher. There are safety standards, but maybe we need to take a look at those and ensure they are top priority, not the almighty dollar.
Inclement weather only adds to the drama and fuels the testosterone of the anglers. Every angler is ready to prove he is bigger, better, badder, tougher than the others. And, while I would like to say this is only a male trait, that would be a lie. I have been out in weather I should not have been as well. It is a competitive drive that puts you out there to begin with, and that same drive puts you out there in conditions that should keep you away at all costs. And, let's face it - drama sells. Again the dollar reins supreme.
Some on social media want to blame the boater. He was the guy holding the steering wheel. He was driving. He was the one who made the run to the other end of the lake. He was not a novice boater, I was happy to see. So many kids are behind the wheel of a high powered boat when they, truly, have no idea how to handle the boat, let alone handle that boat in rough water, and often they learn at the expense of others. This was not the case in this instance.
Granted, Kisiah was the guy holding the steering wheel when the boat stabbed the wave. It is my understanding there was a quick shift in the winds that caused the accident. Either way, it is hard to blame the man. I am sure his heart is heavier than any other angler on the planet this week. To see your co-angler waving you down from the cold water, and to not be able to get back to him - I cannot imagine what Kisiah is going through.
The point is, this is not the safest sport in the world. Competition can throw caution and reason to the wind, if you will. Things happen on the water. Placing blame is counter productive.
But it did not take long for the angling community to come together, and to start helping rather than placing blame. I do not have an official count on how many boats are searching for Nik, but I would guess hundreds. Searchers have used drones, helicopters, ATVs and any other means possible to search the water and the land around the lake. Seasoned guides and business owners on the lake, including professional angler Scott Martin, have offered help and ideas. Nik, someone said, had a tile - either in his wallet or cell phone, I am not sure which, which gave them the last location from which it transmitted, likely the site of the accident. From there, using wind directions and such, people have posted possible search areas and offered up what they could in the way of suggestions.
It is incredible to see the angling community come together like this, and to offer up so many prayers. But, in the back of my mind it sticks - are prayers enough? Nik's daughter cannot hug a prayer at night. A prayer will not chase the monsters from under her bed so she can sleep or walk her down the isle when she gets married. This is tough one. It is just tough. As many others have, I would like to send out a call to look at the safety of this sport. It will never be completely safe, not at any level. All of us who fish tournaments know and understand this.
But I believe there is something to learn in every tragedy. Whether Nik is found alive or not, this is still a tragedy. At the point of this writing, he has been - somewhere in the open - for three days. I hope we can learn something from this. I hope we can somehow improve safety - whether through the use of locator beacons of some sort, or improved standards that force a tournament director to hold the field and not allow them to launch. I know it will be little solace to the family, and I do offer prayers for them, and for a miracle to find Nik alive, but I do hope this will somehow make a difference in out sport. I hope it makes us safer.
Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at email@example.com.