Spokane teen shuns cancer to reel in bass fishing title
The bald head and red “sunburn” on his neck were the only indications that Chase Heaton had been facing a more formidable foe than the lurking largemouth bass.
On April 12, he was casting his heart out for a chance to compete in the Junior World Championships of bass fishing.
But this regional qualifier was just two days after his most recent radiation treatment in an 18-month up-and-down battle against Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After an all-night drive from Spokane with his dad and a day of pre-fishing on California’s fabled Clear Lake, Heaton was bobbing on a boat trying to outfish the other top-qualifying junior bass anglers in the West.
“I felt surprisingly strong,” said Heaton, 19, a graduate of University High School.
“All last summer Chase was going through chemotherapy and other treatments,” said his father, Regan Heaton. “He had a stem cell transplant in Seattle. His immune system was too weak to think about college.
“Then, on March 1, a scan found the cancer was back.”
During the early stages of his cancer, he’d already mustered the strength to win his third state junior championship. That qualified Heaton to represent Washington on April 12 in the 2013 B.A.S.S. Nation Junior Bassmaster Western Divisional in California.
But the most recent round of radiation treatments ended just two days before the event, which was 830 miles away.
“I was concerned,” his dad said. “I asked him how he was feeling, and he said, ‘I’m not missing it.’ ”
Chase recalled the day in a telephone interview last week as he sat a short drive from home – where else but in the seat of a bass boat on Liberty Lake?
“My throat was a little sore from the radiation, but I had all the right medications and overall I felt good.” he said. “Radiation was a piece of cake after all the other treatments I’d had. Going fishing was the best medicine I could have at that point.”
Heaton had read plenty about the regional venue, a hot spot in tournament bass circuits.
“It was awesome to get away from home and fish in a lake like Clear Lake, where the average tournament fish is around 3 1/2 pounds. I couldn’t think of any place in the world I’d rather be than right there.”
Having only one day of pre-fishing may have been an advantage, he said. “A cold front came in and changed everything so I’m glad I wasn’t too set.”
He’d planned on fishing big swim baits in the 2- to 3-foot shallows until he realized the fish had moved to deeper water.
“I transitioned out; was drop-shotting in 10 to 12 feet, very similar to what I’d be doing up here in Washington: fishing deep and being patient. I was very comfortable with it.”
Indeed, by the end of the day, Heaton had topped the field of 11 state qualifiers in the 15-18 age division with five bass totaling 15 pounds.
“I’ve got to find the right words for it,” an emotional Heaton told a B.A.S.S. reporter after the weigh-in. “It’s a dream come true. It’s a way to help repay the people who have believed in me for so long. There’s nothing more I can ask for.”
As the champion, he’ll represent the West Region in the 2013 Bassmaster Junior World Championship, Oct. 26, near Russellville, Ark.
“I was 18 when I qualified for the Junior Division, but I’m 19 now, and I’ll be 20 by the time I go to the Worlds,” said Heaton, a member of the Inland Empire Bass Club.
“He had to learn on his own because his dad isn’t a bass fisherman,” Regan Heaton admitted. “We have a place on the Pend Oreille River where he’s fished since he was little, but he was about 14 when he got the bug to be a bass fisherman.
“He saved his money and bought his first little bass boat when he was 15.
“He joined the Inland Empire club and everything I know about bass fishing I learned from Chase.”
The path from Spokane to Arkansas is a little murky.
He continues to work at the Warehouse Sports in Northtown Mall, earning money to pay his expenses to the Worlds.
He plans to fish in local tournaments this summer to stay sharp for his big shot in the spotlight.
On Wednesday, he’ll start another round of chemotherapy.
He’ll learn how his contest with cancer is going in June.
But right now, he has his sights firmly set on October.