Ronald “Rocky” Ward can’t decide which he loves more: fishing or working at Corvallis’ Wilson Motors.
“I don’t know too many guys who can get up in the morning and still say they love doing what they do every day,” Ward said. “Without a hook you can’t catch a fish. Without a part you can’t repair a car. And I can’t imagine not doing both.”
But two years ago, the Lebanon native got some news that signaled his time with both of his loves was coming to an end — he developed arthritis.
Ward had 45 years in the auto industry under his belt and in his younger years he’d made several appearances at major fishing tournaments. Last October, Ward took time away from work for the inaugural Wild West Bass Trail championship at Lake Mead.
He came home a champion.
“Being able to compete at 61 years old is incredible. But winning a championship? It’s kind of a fairy tale come to life,” he said.
With an event total of 16.64 points for eight bass, Ward won the title of co-angler champion and earned the grand prize of $24,500 and a new boat — a Ranger 188 with an Evanrude E-Tec 115 engine. Co-anglers are amateur fisherman who fish and compete alongside professionals for separate prizes. At Lake Mead, Ward competed against amateur fishers on nearly 100 boats.
“I was just happy to be there,” he said. “You always want to be competitive but I just don’t think about the championships. I just want to go fishing.”
Ward said he developed his love of fishing and his love for working in the auto industry as a kid in Lebanon, going back and forth from fishing on the banks of the Santiam River to the pits of the Willamette Speedway.
“I don’t remember a time I didn’t have a fishing pole in my hand,” Ward said. “I’d always go fishing with my dad (Paul “Blacky” Ward) and we’d always be competitive. I have an addictive personality and so fishing just became an addiction.”
Ward said he never considered bass fishing competitively until 20 years ago, when a friend took him out on a boat and let him try a rubber worm.
“As fisherman, you can make 1,000 casts a day. But on that first cast, I hooked a huge bass,” he said. “I really think that bass hooked me.”
Over the next several years, Ward became more and more competitive, earning places on five state teams of the Oregon Bass Federation to compete in the Southwest Division. In 2007, Ward won the division, earning a chance to compete for The Bass Federation National Championship. He placed 33rd.
“After I did that, I kind of gave up,” Ward said, adding that he sold his boats and focused on work. “My friends kept trying to get me back in it and so I’d still fish with them. I could never walk away completely.”
Ward said the key to any success is never giving up.
“One of the best rushes there is in the world is setting a hook on a fish, because you never know what’s on the other end of the line,” he said. “I guess that’s my thinking of life in general, you got to keep going, because you never know what’s going to happen when you walk out your door.”
After being diagnosed with arthritis, Ward knew he wasn’t going to let the last few years of his fishing career pass him by.
“My hands are going and I’ve got to try to do this before I can’t,” Ward said. “I want to give this all I’ve got and see what happens.”
Ward soon joined Wild West Bass Trail and competed in three Pro-Am tournaments, all without a boat. To earn a place at Lake Mead, Ward needed to finish in the top 50. He finished in the top 25.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I got to Lake Mead. On my first day, I had a great haul and if I was on the pro side I would’ve been in the top three. It was just incredible,” he said. “On my last day, I didn’t do that great and so I wasn’t expecting much. When they told me I won, I couldn’t believe it. I just wanted to do something I loved and be competitive. Now I’ve got trophies and a boat.”
But Ward isn’t walking away this time, in fact, he’s trying to defend his title. In January, he fished at Lake Shasta, Calif. for the first Wild West Bass Trail Pro-Am tournament of the year. He finished 19th out of 130 competitors.
“After winning the boat I knew I couldn’t just win and walk away. Now I need two decent finishes to make the championship again,” he said. “I need to lay it on the line at least one more time. You never know what could happen.”