Fishing in Shaky Weather Nearly Cost Angler His Life

When Andy Buss launches his bass boat on big water this year, you can bet he’s going to be a little more watchful of the weather.

That’s what a near-death experience will do to you.

He’ll remember September 19, 2015, the day when he and partner Josh Stalcup shrugged off Lake Erie’s shaky weather forecasts and darkening clouds to focus on catching fish.

Buss, of North Liberty, Ind., and Stalcup, of Mishawaka, were practicing that day for a Bassmaster Northern Open bass tournament at Sandusky Bay.

“There were strong winds forecast, but it wasn’t too bad when we launched, so we ran to Pelee Island 20- some miles out,” Buss recalls. “My plan was to head back to Sandusky when the wind came up.”

They fished around Pelee for a couple of hours with minimal success and then ran to a rocky shoal about five miles northeast of the island. Once they started fishing, Buss noticed rain clouds coming out of the west, but figured a little rain wouldn’t hurt. The waves were only 2 to 3 feet high—nothing he hadn’t battled before in his 20-foot bass rig.

And then the storm hit like a hurricane. A wall of torrential rain battered them unmercifully and those 3- footers turned to 8-footers.

“We had to try to get back to Pelee,” Buss said. “I knew we were in trouble.”

The waves, which grew in size and power, began cresting close together. That’s never good when you’re in a bass boat.

“When the boat got in one trough, another came in on top of us,” he says. “They were coming from all directions; it was like we were in a dishwasher.”

That’s when the automatic bilge pump stopped functioning. The manual pump worked, but couldn’t keep up. The boat was taking on a lot of water, so Stalcup grabbed a wastebasket and began bailing.

“The sound was deafening from the violent winds, the pelting, wind-driven rain and the waves crashing around us,” Buss said. “When I looked at the boat gunnel, I saw the water line was creeping up on us. The back of the boat was going down.”

The transom area was full of water; half of the 250-hp Mercury was submerged. Then, it sputtered and quit.

Buss jumped to the bow and lowered the foot-controlled electric motor as waves pummeled him.

“I knew if we fell in we would die,” Buss said. “We were wearing life jackets, but they couldn’t save a man in what we were facing.”

Buss checked his cellphone and saw one small bar. He called his wife and got her voicemail. He hung up and then dialed 911 and got the Canadian Coast Guard, whom he gave his GPS coordinates. They said someone would be there in 30 minutes.

He continued to push forward, a few feet at a time, when his wife called back.

He broke the news to her.

“Honey, I’m in a bad situation,” he said. “I’m caught in a horrible storm, the engine is dead and we’re sinking.”

His wife began to cry. Buss felt the tears welling in his eyes as he told his wife to hug their three young children and tell them he loved them.

“Babe, I have to get off here and try to control this boat. I-I love you,” he stammered.

Buss truly believed that would be the last conversation he would have with his wife. His only hope was to stay on the trolling motor and crawl over the waves one by one.

“Remarkably, the submerged trolling motor batteries never failed me,” he said. “Suddenly, the waves began to diminish and we started making some ground. When I saw the outline of Pelee Island on the horizon, I knew we had a chance.”

Then, they heard a noise above. A Coast Guard helicopter whistled overhead and a 47-foot lifeboat was spotted speeding toward them—they were going to make it.

The Coast Guard towed them to the island, where local residents took them in for the night.

“The Pelee people were great and the Coast Guard didn’t charge me a cent,” he said. “The Coast Guard guys were very professional and didn’t lecture me, although I continually apologized for our stupidity.”

The next day, he paid a charter boat captain $600 to tow him back to Sandusky. Aside from a blown engine and a bad bilge pump, the boat was unscathed.

Buss and Stalcup, however, will forever remain grateful to have survived the frightening experience.

“We were very fortunate,” Buss says. “It would have been easy to give up, but thinking that my kids were going to be without their dad motivated me to stay on that electric motor until all hopes were lost.

“For some reason, God spared us. I thanked Him for reminding me how important my family is to me. I am done taking them for granted.”

Louie Stout is a Hall of Fame journalist and longtime “Bassmaster” Senior Writer who has covered Indiana and Michigan outdoors for more than 40 years. He’s co-authored three books with Kevin VanDam and is the outdoors columnist for the South Bend Tribune.