Vail’s dusty backroads provide scant setting for a fishing tournament. But faced with an emergency, a firefighter must divert.

Less than halfway to Patagonia Lake, Shan Pettit abandoned the gas station sunglasses he bought after leaving his trusty polarized pair on his countertop back in Oro Valley last Saturday.

The 31-year-old Rural/Metro employee found himself short on means to sight fish in the olive waters set to host 23 boats later that evening for a healthy cash prize.

In sympathy and hungering the win, event co-organizer Ri Nay detoured his SUV to borrow a pair for his partner.

Two hours later, with retinas shielded, the first-time partnership of longtime tournament fishermen trolled around canyon walls, peering at fishbeds brushed gray from aquatic loitering.

“A lot of guys don’t do their homework,” Pettit said. “But I’m ready now. I’m fired up.”

Nay’s 200-horsepower, 19-foot bass boat, one of a few performing reconnaissance beforehand, boasted an arsenal of rods, lures and electronics — plus 20 pieces of grilled chicken and rice.

But for over six hours, neither ate anything beyond beef jerky and Gatorade, as they flipped lures, chasing that Holy Grail of Arizona tournament fishing: largemouth bass.

Nearing afternoon’s end, lazy kids gazed from the marina bridge at a tangled, eager flock of contestant boats that spanned from showroom sleek to merely floatable.

“That’s the great thing. You get all shapes and sizes and everyone just has a great time,” Pettit said. “Really, it’s all about camaraderie.”

The mostly two-man teams forked over $100 each to Nay and fellow organizer Patrick Spencer a half-hour earlier, hoping for a bite of the payout. Each boat carried a three-fish limit, the winner determined by overall weight.

Spencer ribbed Nay for a purported habit of overselling his fishing tales. Still, the pair agreed on occasions where final weigh-ins had tipped 20 pounds during the decade-old event.  

“This is a tough lake to fish,” said Spencer, a local civil engineer with an affinity for $300 poles. “You’ve really got to put your time into it.”

At zero hour, Nay perched on the deck of his boat and called out boaters’ numbers, wishing them luck. Pettit, cordially brazen, remained stoic behind his borrowed sunglasses, before they followed everyone out.

The pair casted against Ash Canyon’s walls for a stretch, hopeful voices bouncing off rock. Nay exhaled loudly under the weight of errant bluegill strikes — small panfish Pettit dubbed “hyenas,” for their lure-stealing talents.

Nay, part owner of a local HVAC business, assumed the wrinkled scowl only an empty fisherman’s net brings — same the world over, worn on trawlers and shore.

After losing two jigs in 30 minutes, Nay stood slack for a second, then fixed his ballcap repetitively, before the firefighter minded him not to tilt.

Pettit’s quiet energy claimed Nay’s counterpoint. After racing dirtbikes as a youth, the 13-year smoke-eater recently recovered from a broken back earned while stunting a four-wheeler.

No surprise that he embraced fishing’s competitive side, Pettit had a fishing lure tattooed around his right bicep.

But as the winds gusted to 30 knots, the bass remained distant, unimpressed.

Buried in the wall of hissing grasses, bullfrogs belched an insistent roar, like an amphibian motocross rally — revving, throttling — until nature popped the clutch and Pettit’s rod curled over with a largemouth strike.

“We broke the ice! Let’s go,” Pettit half-shouted.

“Yes, sir!” Nay replied.

The boat vibrated with first-catch energy, two hours of empty casts justified in seconds. A small bass, 1.5 pounds by Pettit’s estimate, kicked the fishermen into another gear.

Pettit disgorged the hook and passed the twisting green-and-silver creature to Nay, who plopped it into the boat’s aerated live well.

Fifteen minutes later, the fishing gods tickled Nay’s rod with a sapling-like bass barely touching the 12-inch limit before joining its friend in the tank. The minnow amped Nay into belief that life existed under the black ripples — just before Pettit hoisted a sizeable largemouth off a dark rubber worm.

“That’s the kind we need, right there,” Pettit said. “Now you’ll see everyone boatguard us.”

Perhaps in the distance, anglers had trained binoculars on the pair’s sudden burst of activity. A cluster of running lights began to close the distance like fireflies against the sunset, validating Pettit’s insight.

“You see how fast you can fill a boat’s limit?” Nay asked. “You’re not catching anything, then it’s like, ‘Boom, Boom, Boom!’”

As if by jinx, dusk dissolved into dark — along with the action.

Under the glow of instrument panels and stars, hours drifted past, one empty cast netting another. Choppy water treated no one well. Boat crews switched on blacklights, luminescent lines imitating calculus curves.

“Terrible, terrible, terrible,” Nay sighed.

Then, Nay’s line glowed laser-straight one final time in 17 feet of water as he brought in a final bass. The catch was bittersweet, as Pettit complimented his partner before Nay discovered the first catch died in the well, its gills wedged between a small divider.

A fitting omen, Nay fired the motor and headed to port just before midnight, their limit having culled itself.

Pocket-jamming anglers milled around the marina shack, poker-faced and fueling Nay’s and Pettit’s optimism.

Pickups squealed tires on the wet boat ramp as Spencer and his partner, Marana prep footballer Clay Parsons, related their common fate of a missed limit.

For the seven lucky teams that fattened their weight totals toward the November championship a digital scale measured soon-to-be-released fish.

Dan Wellhouse and Chris Love — a “lucky” duo hailing from Tucson and Gilbert — cashed out with $1,215, netting 10.07 pounds of bass. Nay and Pettit placed third, with 5.41 pounds, nabbing $260 to cushion the long ride home.

“Everyone’s just a cast away from sticking the big one,” Pettit said. “You never give up in this sport.”

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