Sound decisions - Major League Fishing

Sound decisions

October 31, 2000 • Rob Newell • Archives

Brett Ketchum’s world may be silent, but his fishing success is registering loud and clear

The sound of your boat number being called in the pre-dawn mist; the unmistakable slurp of a largemouth sucking down your topwater bait; the loudspeaker reporting the weight of your catch; these are the stirring sounds of tournament bass fishing. These are the sounds Brett Ketchum will never know.

That is because Ketchum is deaf. His world is silent. But silence does not bother him. Deafness does not bother him and neither do labels like “hearing impaired” or “hearing disabled.”

What bothers Ketchum is not catching fish. If he is not catching bass, well, then he has a problem. That is because the 33-year-old Arkansas resident has decided not to let an auditory dysfunction put the slightest twist in his hard line passion for competitive bass fishing. In fact, he views bass tournaments as both a challenge and a platform for encouraging others with hearing impairments.

Ketchum has been deaf since birth. His family, including his siblings and relatives, are deaf due to a hereditary hearing impairment. The inherited impediment, however, has not stopped the Ketchum family from enjoying the outdoors, especially when it comes to bass fishing. While his father and brothers like to wet a line, Ketchum insists that he is the only one in the clan who wants to take fishing to a professional level.

Ketchum’s competitive fishing desires were summoned in 1986 when his brother Ron started the Little Rock Bass Anglers of the Deaf (LRBAD). Young Ketchum wasted no time racking up four Angler of the Year titles in LRBAD. Ketchum is still active in LRBAD as the vice president, but has moved on to more challenging venues in competitive fishing.

“After doing well in LRBAD, I wanted the challenge of fishing in `hearing’ tournaments. So I joined a `hearing’ bass club, the Sherwood Bass Club,” reports Ketchum who uses the term “hearing” to describe people or organizations comprised of people who are not hearing impaired.

After competing in a “hearing” club, and even winning a Sherwood club tournament, Ketchum discovered something profound. “When I am fishing I do not think I am disabled because bass do not care if I am deaf. Bass only care about eating a lure, they do not know who is on the other end of the rod. When I won that Sherwood club tournament, I knew I could fish against hearing anglers.”

Ketchum’s new found confidence has led him to his first season on the Red Man Tournament Trail, the gold standard in weekend bass fishing competitions. He fishes as a boater in the Arkie Division and looks forward to the challenges of Red Man.

“I feel that Red Man is a good opportunity for me to fish with hearing anglers who have good fishing skills,” Ketchum says. “It allows me to experience hearing tournaments to see how I am progressing. Plus, Red Man events are fair tournaments.”

Among the more challenging aspects of Ketchum’s hearing disability at tournaments is the pre-tournament meeting. Robert Vannerson, the Arkie Division tournament director, who describes Ketchum as enthusiastic and very serious about his fishing, secured an interpreter to perform sign language for Ketchum at a recent Arkansas River Tournament. “I wanted Brett to be able to `hear’ a meeting just like everybody else. Rules, flight times, pairings, sponsors, I wanted him to have the full effect of what a Red Man Tournament is about,” Vannerson says.

“If there is not an interpreter, I have to get somebody to help me record flight times and find my partner,” Ketchum says. “Then I communicate with my partner with written notes and gestures.”

Don Dickerson, a co-angler from Texarkana, Texas, fished with Ketchum on Lake Dardanelle. “We had to write a few things down, but it was not a problem,” Dickerson recalls. “The pro/am format is good for Brett because we are not competing against each other. Most of the time you can communicate nonverbally, because you are both working toward the same goal. In that respect, his deafness is not a handicap”

Travis Venable was one of the first co-anglers to share a boat with Ketchum. “It was different, but his inability to hear did not hinder us at all,” Venable says. “We both caught fish and that is what matters.”

Venable says he and Ketchum communicated effectively with a note pad, writing down possible fishing locations. What impressed Venable most was Ketchum’s determination.

“I wrote down this place I wanted to fish, but it had a nasty log jam across it,” Venable relates. “When we got there, I thought he might be hesitant about crossing the jam in his boat. He never questioned or second-guessed me. He went right over the logjam with conviction. If he missed a fish he would get upset, if he caught one he would celebrate. When it comes to fishing, he is just like everybody else.”

Just like everybody else on the trail, Ketchum enjoys the thrill of competition as he proves his mettle as a tournament angler. “I know I have the knowledge and ability to compete with these guys,” says Ketchum, who placed 64th in the Arkie Division.

Like many Red Man contestants, Ketchum finds time to fish between work and family. He assembles cabinets for Raytheon aircraft in Little Rock. As a family man, he spends time with his wife, Traci, and two sons, Tanner who is 3 years old, and Braden who is 3 months old. His wife and children are also deaf. When asked about his boys, Ketchum proudly proclaims, “They will be fishermen, too.”

Ketchum says he fishes two or three times a month. He lists his favorite techniques as jerkbaits and Carolina rigs in the spring and a worm and Zara spook in the summer. His favorite fisheries are Lake Ouachita and the Arkansas River where he finished 47th and 37th respectively this season. Ketchum considers his strength flipping a tube on heavy line.

Considering that much of what a bass fisherman knows about his quarry is learned through hearing, Ketchum’s knowledge of bass behavior is a feat in itself. How a fish positions in cover on a particular body of water or how a fish reacts to a bait are the minuscule details of the sport that are passed around bass fishing circles in a conversational manner. With this in mind, how does a guy that cannot hear or speak learn about such advanced techniques as flipping a tube on heavy line?

Ketchum admits to having his head buried in bass fishing books and magazines whenever possible. He also learns a great deal watching television shows. He attends seminars and boat shows to receive first hand visual instruction from pros. “That is how I learned about the Carolina rig,” he recalls. “I saw David Ashcraft at a boat show, and he showed me how to rig it and fish it.”

The evolution of the Internet has also been a tremendous help to Ketchum’s learning. He uses cyberspace to stay abreast of tournaments and techniques on various fishing Web sites and e-zines.

“I tell you one thing,” claims George Hayes, a co-angler that fished with Ketchum on Lake Ouachita, “The guy knows what he is doing. He caught fish all day long. I admire him for his courage to come out here and compete. I would fish with him again any day.”

The most frustrating thing for Ketchum, however, is the weigh-in. “I cannot hear what the other anglers’ fish weigh. I have to get somebody to write it down for me.”

Vannerson is working to remedy that situation. “I want to get a visual weight display so everybody can see, rather than just hear, the weights,” he says. “That way Brett’s family can see his weight and enjoy the entire weigh-in.”

After a single season on the Red Man Tournament Trail, the ambitious Ketchum is already eying tougher competition. “I want to move up to the EverStart tournaments. And someday, I want to fish the FLW Tour,” he insists.

Then again, Ketchum has good reasons for such aspirations.

“I dream of becoming the first deaf professional angler,” he says. “I want to prove to all the world that deaf people can do great things. In bass fishing, we find fish with our mental ability and catch them with our skillful hands, not our ears.”