A three-day fishing tournament on Lake Okeechobee ended Thursday after just a day. No one felt like fishing, anyway. They were too busy looking for a brother.
Rescuers spent Thursday night and all day Friday in the bitter cold and unforgiving waters of the big lake, searching for champion angler and military veteran Nik Kayler, who fell into the water sometime during the first day of the bass-fishing competition.
The 38-year-old from Apopka, north of Orlando, had survived the snipers of Baghdad in his military Black Hawk helicopter. On Friday, relatives and friends hoped he survived whatever happened to throw Kayler and fellow angler Bill Kisiah into the waves on the inaugural day of the Fishing League Worldwide’s Costa Series competition.
The two had launched Thursday morning, and “something happened,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Carol Lyn Parrish said Friday.
“Both of them were ejected in the water,” Parrish said. “He (Kisiah) was able to get back into the boat. He got the boat to Pahokee Marina.”
Parrish said Kisiah, 51, from Slidell, La., near New Orleans, was taken to Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade. He was in fair and stable condition, hospital spokeswoman Robin Kish said. Fishing league spokesman Joseph Opager said Friday that family members were with Kisiah.
The two fishermen — both of whom have competed in dozens of events — might have been heading toward South Bay to fish, Opager said in an interview from Minnesota.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said it provided boats and a helicopter for the search. The fishing league said Okeechobee police and the Coast Guard also helped.
It was uncertain if wintry temperatures in the area were a factor. A report on the tournament’s webpage indicated that anglers were having a tough time on the water.
Winds on the lake Thursday ranged from 11 to 17 mph, not enough to issue a small craft advisory, which are initiated when winds reach 24 mph. But Arlena Moses, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, said Thursday’s northerly winds could have made the lake more choppy toward the south end.
“You are getting a good fetch down the lake and with the winds pushing the water, on a lake that big it will be rougher than on the north end,” Moses said.
The fishing tournament was canceled to concentrate efforts on the search. Five hundred fishermen were competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes.
Each boat contained one professional – in this case it was Kisiah – and one “co-angler” – Kayler.
Pros fish from the front of the boat, Opager said, and a co-angler fishes from the back.
The main difference between pros and co-anglers is the entry fee and the prize. Pros pay $1,700 and compete for a top prize of $105,000. Co-anglers pay about $575 and compete for a top prize of a new boat, valued at about $27,000.
“Since we’ve canceled the tournament, we are going to pay out prizes based on the day one standings,” Opager said.
According to the fishing league’s web page, Kayler has been in the league tour for two years. He’s fished 61 events, finishing in the top 10 13 times and winning once. His tournament earnings total $16,774. The league’s page said Kisiah has fished 39 tournaments, has one top-10 finish and has earned $10,314.
Fishing League Worldwide says it’s the world’s largest tournament-fishing organization and its most lucrative bass-tournament circuit, operating some 200 tournaments a year.
A family member who did not want to be identified said Kayler is married with a daughter and has a military background that might help his efforts to survive the cold.
A 2003 New York Times article described Kayler, then 22, as part of the crew of a Black Hawk helicopter flying over Baghdad.
“It’s like shooting ducks for them,” Kayler, a military specialist, said of the vulnerability of his aircraft from snipers on the ground. “They could be hiding anywhere down there.”
At the Roland Martin Marina, manager Ramon Iglesias said he grabbed a ride with a local flight service and combed the lake Thursday night in the hours after the men were reported missing and before Kisiah was rescued. He said the plane did some more flyovers Friday morning until the Coast Guard asked the pilot to clear the space for authorities.
He said he could not recall a similar incident in his 13 years at the marina.
Iglesias said he did not know Kisiah, whom he said owned the boat, nor Kayler. But, he said, the fishing league holds numerous events over the year and that the competitors are “not so much buddies; they’re family.”
He said the anglers travel around the nation all year, competing for tournament wins.
“But these guys love each other,” he added.
John Tavano, from Sebring, was a “pro” during the tournament. He and Kayler, whom he’s known for a decade, were staying with friends at a home in Okeechobee. Tavano finished his Thursday fishing and texted Keyler around 4:45 p.m. to say dinner was ready.
“There was no reply,” he said Friday afternoon. “I called him on his cellphone and it went to voice mail. I started getting worried.”
Tavano took his own boat out Friday to aid in the search and “at the south end of the lake, the waves were really rough,” he said.
Tavano said he’s realistic about his friend’s chances on the big lake.
“Unfortunately, with 50-degree water, floating out there, hypothermia’s going to set in,” he said. “All we can do is pray.”
Staff photographer Allen Eyestone contributed to this story from Pahokee.