By Jason Gibson’s standards, the bass he caught while fishing this weekend was small: 1.64 pounds, almost eight pounds lighter than the large-mouth he reeled in on Lake Wheeler three months ago.
But Saturday’s catch was still worth plenty — $10,480, to be exact.
And no, that’s not a typo. Gibson, a 17-year-old Chatham County native, ended up turning his appearance in the 2020 Big Bass Zone Junior Championship into a major gift for ALS research.
Ahead of the national tournament in Idaho, Gibson set up a fundraiser where supporters could pledge a certain amount of money per pound— $5, $20, $100 — for the single largest bass he caught on the massive Lake Pend Oreille, rounded up to the nearest whole number.
Every penny of the proceeds would go to the Healey Center for ALS at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Gibson’s longtime friend, Chris Smith, has gotten treatment since being diagnosed with the disease last summer. Gibson secured $5,240 worth of pledges from 100-plus donors before he hit the water Saturday — and by Tuesday, he was finalizing the logistics of a big-time donation for a cause near to his heart.
“With all the stuff Chris has done for me and helped me with,” Gibson told the News + Record, “this was the least I could do to give back to his family.”
Fishing has been a hobby for Gibson since he was 3 years old, using a red and blue children’s rod in the ponds around his house in Governors Club. When he turned 6, he specifically requested an all-day fishing excursion with his dad, Andrew, as a birthday present. They caught 100 fish.
“Looking back, it’s not as much as it seems,” Gibson said, “but it’s still amazing at that age I was willing to stay out eight to 10 hours.”
Sure enough, that kindergarten-aged dedication proved a precursor. As he attended elementary and middle school at Durham Academy, Gibson zeroed in on the idea of someday fishing in the big-time tournaments: Major League Fishing, Fishing League Worldwide, the Bassmaster Elite Series.
He drained his savings as a 12-year-old for a small $300 boat — “I was so proud,” Gibson recalled — and upgraded three years later to his current ride, a 14-foot Alumacraft fishing boat. He fell in love with every aspect of fishing: the strategy, the waiting game, the serenity, the thrill of a catch.
Blake Smith, one of Gibson’s best friends since elementary school, loved fishing, too — as did Blake’s dad, Chris. And with every hour on the water, hunting trip or hangout over the years, the Smiths started to feel like family. Chris has “honestly been like a second dad to me,” Gibson said.
That made the news of July 1, 2019 — that Chris had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurological disorder also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease — extra rattling to Gibson.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I wanted to help.”
A year later and a little serendipitously, he found a way to do so.
The 2020 Big Bass Zone Junior Championship was limited to 52 anglers — in Michigan and Alabama, two people tied for first — who qualify through state tournaments. In North Carolina, fishermen ages 13 through 19 could sign up and compete from January to August 2020, trying to catch the heaviest bass.
Gibson didn’t find out about the qualifying round until early July. His mom, Tracy, a freelance writer, came across the competition on social media and asked her son: “Why don’t you try this?”
“So I fished my butt off,” Gibson said, laughing. “Probably an average of five to eight hours every day of July. I took it seriously.”
He was already on a bit of a hot streak this summer, winning first place and a $2,000 grand prize with his friend for a bass fishing tournament on Jordan Lake in June. Gibson quickly jumped to second place in the statewide competition after catching a 6.86-pound bass, but his true luck came on July 28.
He was fishing with his friend on Lake Wheeler in Raleigh that day, and neither was having much luck. Gibson navigated them back to the dock so he could use the bathroom, and they returned to a new spot on the water afterward. On his first cast, he immediately felt a pull.
He set his hook and reeled in a large-mouth bass that ultimately weighed in at 9.48 pounds — beating out the previous first-place fish, which weighed 9.43 pounds, by a razor-thin margin. In layman’s terms, Gibson said catching a fish of that weight was equivalent to a half-court buzzer beater in basketball or a completed Hail Mary in football.
“It was the most crazy, stressful and exciting thing,” Gibson said. “I think it was really meant to be.”
Once judges confirmed his fish’s weight through measurement photos he provided, Gibson was locked in as North Carolina’s BBZ Junior Championship qualifier.
He knew, almost immediately, he wanted to use the platform to help out Chris. Gibson checked in with Blake, who agreed his dad would love the idea. Tracy, Gibson’s mom, gets credits for the unique and unpredictable pledge-per-pound idea. They surprised Chris with the concept earlier this month.
As Gibson described it: “It was kind of like gambling, but you know you’re going to lose, but it’s also going toward a great cause.”
After a quick stop in D.C. — Gibson is a high school senior at a boarding school in nearby Alexandria, Virginia — he flew to Idaho on Friday and fished from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday with New Jersey’s BBZ Junior qualifier as his boat partner. Gibson ultimately placed 35th out of 52 fishers.
But he left the event grateful: for the opportunity to fish on a national stage, and, more notably, for the opportunity to salute a friend with a $10,000 catch that was, for once, made out of the water.
“It’s more important than any prize I could have won,” Gibson said.
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