Dortch’s Sacrifice Finally Pays Off - Major League Fishing
Dortch’s Sacrifice Finally Pays Off
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Dortch’s Sacrifice Finally Pays Off

From busted boats and the “Particle Board Palace” to FLW Tour champion
Image for Dortch’s Sacrifice Finally Pays Off
Bradley Dortch Photo by Andy Hagedon. Angler: Bradley Dortch.
March 23, 2017 • Joe Sills • Angler News

“I didn’t tell her the center of the hull was cracked. Every time you hit a wave, the water would blow out of the carpet like a porpoise. ”

Five years ago, Bradley and Rebecca Dortch were running across Lake Toho in a 16-foot aluminum boat. The husband-wife duo had entered into another Wednesday night tournament, the kind they’d sometimes fish for fun on warm, Florida weeknights while Bradley was earning his stripes fishing T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League events on the weekends and when Rebecca needed a release from the daily grind of Florida real estate.

That’s when the water started shooting up from the hull, when the duct tape that Bradley had applied to it before launch failed.

“The tape would only last about an hour of running,” he admits. “Then you’d just run the bilge pump the whole time.”

Months prior, Bradley had cracked the hull by cutting it too close on a rocky Flint River shoal at a BFL event on Lake Seminole. He’d found a solution, of course, and though his longtime co-angler, Augie, knew about the tape, Bradley hadn’t told his wife.

Days after his first FLW Tour win at the Harris Chain in early March 2017, Bradley Dortch can look back on that Wednesday night and laugh. He can look at the trophy and the $100,000 paycheck. He can miss that ragged aluminum boat. And he can tell you he might still be in that boat, getting laughed at before a BFL takeoff, without his wife.

 

Young Bradley Dortch

Atmore

The small town of Atmore, Ala., rests about an hour northeast of Mobile. Somewhere under the towering, scattered pines that dot the state’s most southern section sit the beginning and the end of Bradley Dortch’s climb from childhood angler to FLW Tour winner.

It was here, in Atmore, that a young Bradley would follow his grandpa, J.C., to and from nearly every fishing hole on the Alabama Gulf Coast. J.C. retired from an International Paper mill when Bradley was about seven years old, and since there wasn’t much else to do in south Alabama, the old man quickly made a ritual of fishing with his grandson. Together, they’d pull crappie, bass and bream from the local lakes and rivers almost every day of the week.

“He fished every single day in the summer except for Wednesdays and Sundays, when he was at church,” says Bradley. “If it wasn’t one of those days, he was going fishing somewhere. His boat was full of minnows, crickets, wigglers – anything you could catch a fish with. And you couldn’t even walk in it. You had to jump from the cooler to get to the back deck.”

When Bradley wasn’t on the water with his grandpa, he was riding a bike to nearby creeks, hoping to land something, anything, with a Beetle Spin or a worm. And when he wasn’t riding his bike to those creeks, he was on the road with J.C., sometimes leaving the freshwater behind for a trip to the old man’s beach house in Navarre, Fla.

“It was just a little house made out of blocks,” Bradley recalls. “I think he built it in the 50s or early 60s. We’d go to the beach and catch speckled trout or redfish or flounder. If they weren’t biting, we might load back up and go to the river.”

Thanks to J.C.’s dedication to the water (with a good bit of help from a ProCraft and a 75-hp Johnson), Bradley grew up hoisting nearly every kind of fish you can find on the Gulf Coast into a cooler. Eventually, his father, Mark, would take Bradley out into the Gulf in a 22-foot Weldcraft with a 150. On flat days when the Gulf was slick, that gave them access to amberjack, king mackerel and red snapper.

“If it bites and it fights, I wanted to catch it,” Bradley recalls. “I still do.”

 

The Aluminum Porpoise

Bandits and the aluminum porpoise

They were a ragtag band, these Dixie Bandits – a dozen or so local boys from around Atmore that fished for chicken scratch and bragging rights, the sort that would bring a cash pot to a catfish pond. By age 13, Bradley had already run into their kind on the water, thanks to the lingering element of his dad’s 1980s bass club career.

“Dad would meet up with his work buddies and have these $20 ‘jelly-bean tournaments,’ so I started going with him,” Bradley says. “We’d fish with his little company from daylight until lunch, and I really enjoyed that, so I joined an association called the Dixie Bandits Bass Club.”

The Bandits were a gateway drug for Bradley, his first real foray into tournament fishing. They’d load up two guys to a boat, fishing against each other in a cutthroat form of bassin’ under the beating Southern sun.

“Every now and then I would cash a check,” he remembers. “But most of the time I got my butt tore up.”

Bradley fished with the Bandits for about five years, bringing him into his late teens. After graduating from a Mobile technical college with an associate degree in computer engineering in 1998, with “basically no idea what to do,” Bradley joined a college friend in the construction business. In construction, he would earn enough to begin funding the foundation of a professional fishing career.

He’d briefly own a first-rate bass boat before abandoning it in 2003 to become a lethal co-angler in Bassmaster Opens. By his estimates, Bradley cashed a check in more than 90 percent of the 21 tournaments he fished from the back deck from 2003-2009.

“I was soaking it all in,” he says. “Fishing co-angler cuts your learning curve by probably three years. What you learn in three tournaments, it could take you two or three years to learn on your own. I fished a lot with a guy named Tom Hamlin Jr., just practicing and traveling and cashing a lot of checks. People say they don’t want to get in the back of the boat, but there’s something to be said for it. You split hotels, you don’t have to pay insurance on a boat and you learn a lot. I was around some really good guys.”

But co-angler checks – usually a few hundred bucks at a time – don’t keep the lights on. In between tournaments, Bradley would find himself without a ride on the water, culminating in a period of intense Florida bank fishing with Augie, where a recent move from Atmore to Kissimmee was giving Bradley a serious itch to be back out on the water.

To really give professional bass fishing a go, he knew he’d have to make some changes: After almost a decade without one, he knew he’d have to find another boat.

It came in the form of the aluminum porpoise.

“That little jewel,” Bradley calls it. “Augie and I did a couple of paint jobs in condos to buy it. We painted them at night and saved up enough money to finally buy it for about $2,500. I put a 24-volt trolling motor on it, and added one little Lowrance electronic. It was a piece, but it was enough to get us out on the water again.”

The porpoise carried Bradley to a fifth-place finish at a 2012 BFL on Lake Toho. It carried him to Lake Seminole, up the Flint River, over a pile of submerged rocks and right back into the waiting disapproval of Rebecca on that Wednesday night at Toho.

“She asked me why everything was wet,” Bradley recalls. “So I had to tell her about the hull. I told her that we were going to get it welded up, but she told me I had to get rid of it.”

 

The Particle Board Palace

The Particle Board Palace

What Rebecca Dortch didn’t tell her husband that night was that she was about to stick with him through a world of sacrifice, all in the name of his dream.

Less than a year after his top-five BFL finish at Toho, Bradley returned to the place where it all began. Back in Atmore, he purchased a single-wide trailer, propped it up on a piece of property that J.C. had once owned, and waited six months for his wife and daughter, Presley, who was 8 at the time, to move from a comfortable life in Kissimmee back to southern Alabama.

“It [the trailer] was the only way to make enough and save enough to fish the Costas and the Bassmaster Opens,” Bradley remembers. “I called it the Particle Board Palace.”

For the next several years, the Dortch family made a home in the Palace, while Bradley doubled his efforts in the construction business. He’d work for months straight at times, six or seven days a week, 12-hour shifts, always saving for fishing. Bradley wired and re-wired oil refineries, steel mills, plants and factories. At one point, he ran wiring for four months in an Iowa factory fertilizer operation because the work paid enough to cover his Costa FLW Series entry fees.

But winning is tough. Entering a tournament is no guarantee of success, and by the time entry fees were due for the 2016 Costa FLW Series event on Santee Cooper, Bradley was out of scratch.

“I blew it in the first few tournaments,” he says. “I didn’t finish very well, and I wasn’t going to be able to pay the fees at Santee.”

That’s when Rebecca, who’d kept the real estate business going on her own, stepped in.

“She paid the entry fee without me knowing. One day, she told me the tournament was coming up in a few weeks, and I had better get my stuff packed,” Bradley recalls.

So he went. He drove to South Carolina and finished fourth. A few months later, he took first at the 2016 Costa FLW Series event at Wheeler. A few months after that, Bradley hoisted his first FLW Tour trophy on Florida’s Harris Chain – not far from where he, Augie and Rebecca had toiled away on the aluminum porpoise a few short years ago.

The Particle Board Palace? It was lost in the shuffle – Rebecca’s end of the bargain for him joining the FLW Tour. Bradley reckons it deserves at least a picture in their new house; maybe, beside his sleek new bass boat.

“People laughed at me. People told me I was crazy, but I guess the moral of the story,” he says, “is just keep fishing. Somehow, some way, keep fishing.”

Bradley Dortch