More than fishing: Team Phillips conquers Expo stage
By Greg McCain
A recent Friday was a normal school day for young Wyatt Phillips. He endured the routine, anticipating the weekend ahead as he got off the school bus. Once the weekend was complete, the following Monday was similar, another school day in the life of a 10-year-old.
The interlude in between, however, was anything but ordinary for Wyatt and his family. Wyatt teamed with his father, ACC Crappie Stix pro staffer Jonathan Phillips, and competed in the Mr. Crappie Invitational Classic on Logan Martin Lake in east-central Alabama. The Sept. 22-24 tournament was held in conjunction with Wally Marshall’s Crappie Expo 2023, housed at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Complex.
The tournament featured some of the biggest names in crappie fishing from across the country. Few made more of an impression than Wyatt. When the final bag was weighed on the Sunday of the three-day event, Wyatt and Jonathan claimed third place overall and won big fish, leaving Birmingham with $18,000 in winnings, $15,000 for third place and $3,000 for big fish.
Wyatt acquitted himself well on stage under the bright lights and cameras of the final-day weigh-in at the BJCC. He and Jonathan were sitting in second place going into the final day and were the next-to-last team to weigh in. While their final-day bag fell a bit short, Wyatt exhibited the qualities of a champion, not only embracing the excitement of the moment but also applauding the efforts of the winning team.
“I had to fight back emotions,” Jonathan said. “When you start talking, all the emotions start coming out. It’s such a big stage to have a 10-year-old on. I feel like we made history. It just doesn’t normally happen like that.”
Wyatt actually missed the first day of competition, attending school on Friday. The Phillips family prioritizes education, and Jonathan and his wife, Alicia, deemed that Wyatt should go to school as normal. That scenario left Jonathan to fish solo on the opening day of the tournament.
“That Friday was pretty normal except for being super excited about the weekend,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt made the trip from Wetumpka to the Lincoln’s Landing launch area after school with his grandfather and arrived in time for the first-day weigh-in. He got to experience the excitement of the occasion, as Jonathan bagged a limit that put him in first place ahead of the loaded field. Included in his seven-fish limit was a 2.04 crappie that eventually proved to be the largest of the tournament.
“He actually got to watch everything at the weigh-in, which was really cool,” Jonathan said. “He was like, ‘You did pretty good. You can’t do any better than you did.’ I said, ‘You’re right. There’s no other place to go up.’ He was super excited and nervous about it, like he had been in the boat with me.”
The excitement of the opening round served only to foreshadow the events of the next two days for Wyatt and Jonathan. Wyatt, who started serious tournament fishing earlier this year with his father, experienced his first blast-off, a few moments that he said were fun but made him a bit nervous until he got accustomed to boats running side by side for a short stretch down the lake.
The blast off was not the only thing new for the Phillips team. Also in the boat were a cameraman and a marshall with Wyatt interacting with everyone on board while Jonathan focused on the fishing. Their second-day total was good enough for second place going into the final day.
Asked at the second-day weigh-in at Lincoln’s Landing how many fish he caught, Wyatt quipped, “Every one of them …. in the net.” Wyatt said.
Later Wyatt added, “It was a really special moment being out there fishing with him. I’ve never fished anything this big.”
Setting the stage for the drama of Day 3, the second day of fishing was not complete until late Saturday night for Jonathan and Wyatt. The top three teams were subject to a polygraph test, and when the first team testing had not returned for over an hour, Jonathan knew a long day would be extended.
Jonathan said that “we didn’t get back to the lake house until really late. We had a boat that was unorganized and needed some attention. Needless to say, we didn’t get a lot of sleep, but Wyatt handled it well.”
Despite the build-up to the final day of fishing and a weigh-in before the Expo crowd in Birmingham, Jonathan said Day 3 was easier in terms of fishing.
“Yes, we want to win,” he said, “but really Day 3 is easy. Nothing to lose. We’ve already earned a pretty good check, and we’ll probably get big fish. So there were no real nerves. With only 10 boats (advancing to the final round), the blastoff was less stressful. Even so, it was a tough day of fishing.
“Big fish after big fish would come out and look at it and wouldn’t bite,” Jonathan said. “Some of them had the first-place trophy hanging on their back. They just wouldn’t bite.”
The stress of watching those big crappie shun his baits only added to the tension ahead at the weigh-in. The 10 teams took the 45-minute trip back to Birmingham with an escort, the teams weighing in reverse order of their standings once they arrived.
The final day total of 10.16 for the Phillips fell short of the team sitting in the leaderboard hotseat, and the final team, Chase Petty and Kevin Wylie, dropped the winning bag on the scales a few moments later.
Jonathan and Wyatt remained on stage as the winning team weighed, a range of emotions crossing their faces. A dominant image through it all was the broad smile that covered Wyatt’s face.
When the final weight dropped, Wyatt applauded the winners. When the official announcement came that they had won third place and big fish for the event, Wyatt high-fived his father and then hoisted the third-place trophy for all to see. Wyatt called it the most exciting moment of the weekend.
“Most people would say it’s not going to help my chances of winning a major championship to have my kid come along with me, but I see it differently,” Jonathan said. “This is going to pay dividends in the future, and it doesn’t even have to be in fishing. Investing in your child is something that is positive. I know this is something that can help him in a job interview down the road and in leadership, being able to stand in front of a crowd and have confidence and have people believe in you as you speak. Some people think it’s just about fishing. It’s much more than that.”
Jonathan said the final moments of the weigh-in were as close to being as emotional as he gets. Steeled by his job as a Montgomery firefighter, he has experienced occasions far more difficult than a tournament weigh-in.
“I’ve been through a lot with my job,” Jonathan said. “If you ever pull a tear out of me, you might want to take off running. They are not easy to get.
“For me to get emotional at all, it has to be something really special. I didn’t want to break down on that stage. I wanted to keep everything happy and it’s supposed to be happy. I had so many text from friends who said their wives were breaking down crying. It was really something special to be on that stage with Wyatt.”
As the event came to a close, Jonathan thought back to his formative days. He said his life had almost come full circle from the times he spent with his father, David Phillips, along the Alabama River near Montgomery. David and Jonathan’s mother, Cindy, along with Jonathan’s wife, Alicia, sat in the front row at the weigh-in and got to share in the moment.
“My dad took me fishing when I was a kid,” Jonathan said. “I don’t think ever in his wildest dreams did he ever think when we would go catch a half dozen or dozen crappie on a cane pole and a cork what kind of animal that was going to turn in to.
“That’s why I’m doing it. Investing in your kids, you don’t know what you’re going to get out of it. They might turn out all right, but at least give them a chance.”
Alicia, no stranger to the tournament stage as Jonathan’s tournament partner until recent years, said she experienced a whirlwind of emotions as she watched.
“I was so excited and trying to put myself in Wyatt’s place, wondering what he was thinking and also feeling his excitement,” Alicia said. “Just getting to see his facial expressions and hear him talking, wondering what he was going to say, I was really proud. He handled himself well on stage. I was proud of him.”
The Mr. Crappie Classic probably will not be the last successful tournament for Team Phillips. Regardless of the setting, they will be found building for the future and competing in the right way, even if it means missing another tournament day to attend school.
“You don’t raise your kid to be a professional fisherman,” Jonathan said. “If I were, I probably would have let him fish Friday. I want him to get an education. If you handle this stuff the right way, I think it makes you a better person. Fishing is just a small part of it.”
For more about fishing with the Phillips family, follow Team Phillips Guide Service or Jonathan’s personal page on Facebook. Among his sponsors are ACC Crappie Stix, Stoddard’s Bait and Tackle of Wetumpka, AL, ATX Lures, Fearless Jigs, and Delta Jigs.