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Born without limbs, Alabama man excels in professional fishing

'I fish the same as everyone else. It just looks a little different.'
‘I fish the same as everyone else. It just looks a little different.’

By John N. Felsher

A veteran of more than 200 tournaments, the professional bass angler stopped his boat, shut down the powerful outboard and flipped his trolling motor into the water. Eyeing the wooded shoreline, he selected a preferred lure, tied it to his line and tossed it next to some cover on the bank.

As the angler worked the lure back toward the boat, a bass slammed the temptation. Reacting to the bite, the pro set the hook, fought the fish, landed it and then released it to fight again.

Nothing about that scenario stands out as particularly noteworthy. Millions of bass anglers across the nation do the same thing each week. Friends of bass pro Clay Dyer wouldn’t even notice these actions because he does them so often.

However, to anyone who does not know Clay, just getting into the boat would seem nothing less than remarkable for a man born with no legs, no left arm and only a piece of an arm on his right side.

“I was born with no legs past the hips, half an arm on my right side and no arm past my shoulder joint on my left side,” Clay explains. “I didn’t lose my limbs to an accident or a disease. I never had limbs so I don’t know what I’d do if I had them. God blessed me with the strength to fight through every adversity and obstacle that I face each day. I count it as a blessing to live this way.”

Born in 1978, Clay grew up in Hamilton, Ala. As a child, he frequently visited his grandfather’s farm pond to catch catfish. An avid sportsman and fierce competitor, he played baseball, basketball and even played football as a linebacker and fullback at the junior varsity level and some varsity in high school.

“I was always really active in sports,” Clay recalled. “The coaches knew my family as I was growing up. They knew better than to tell me that I couldn’t do something because whatever I set my mind to do, I accomplished. When I went out for football, some people thought it was a joke. After proving them wrong two or three times, they never told me ‘no’ ever again. I was low to the ground, so when I went to block someone, nobody could get by me without crawling.”

Although a fullback typically blocks for faster running backs, Dyer did carry the ball a few times and even scored some touchdowns. Low to the ground, he could scoot under other players and pick up a couple yards before anyone even knew he held the football.

“When carrying the ball, I pinned it between my jaw, neck and arm,” Clay says. “I have a lot of strength in my arm. My longest run was about five yards. I was not the guy who was going to run it 99 yards down the field. I was the guy who took the ball when it was fourth down and two. For my size, I was really quick and it was hard to tackle me. I just loved being able to play and doing what I could to help my team win.”

Although he enjoyed playing organized sports, he knew he could never make it as a professional athlete in football, baseball or basketball. Instead, he started concentrating on a competitive sport in which he could excel – professional fishing! He started fishing for fun at about age five on his grandfather’s farm and began competing in tournaments when he turned 15.

Clay Dyer uses the bottom of his hip joint to run his trolling motor. He unhooks fish by putting pliers in his mouth and lying on his boat deck.
Dyer uses the bottom of his hip joint to run his trolling motor. He unhooks fish by putting pliers in his mouth and lying on his boat deck.

“When I started to get into my teens, I realized that if I hurt my one good half an arm, that might affect me for the rest of my life,” Clay says. “Obviously, I’m not going to dunk a basketball without a trampoline, so I knew I wasn’t going to play in the NBA or NFL. I had always loved the outdoors, even as a small child. I watched professional fishing tournaments on television. Fishing gave me an avenue where I knew that I could get to the top level as a professional in a sport without risking hurting myself. I always dreamed of becoming a professional angler and believed that I could take it to the top level.”

As a teen, Clay started fishing local bass club tournaments. As a freshman in high school, he wanted to enter the Alabama Bass Angler Sportsman Society Federation, one of 51 state and international federations that make up the amateur arm of the Bass Federation, Inc. His parents signed the waiver so he could compete as a minor.

He started competing in state and regional tournaments to increase his skill, winning more than 20 events in his career. His two biggest bass to date weighed nearly 10 pounds. Gaining success at the local and regional level, the 20-year-old angler in 1998 began competing in the Forrest L. Wood EverStart Series, a tournament trail for emerging professionals.

“My parents, grandparents and brother have always been very supportive of what I do,” Clay says. “I was able to qualify for a couple state championships. It escalated from there. When FLW came out with the EverStart series, I started fishing on the regional level and kept fishing higher and higher levels each year.”

In 2006, Dyer began fishing the FLW Tour, the highest professional level of the FLW family of events. In 2011, Dyer began fishing the B.A.S.S. Opens. He hopes to soon jump to the B.A.S.S. Elite Series, the highest professional level in B.A.S.S., and eventually compete in a Bassmaster Classic.

“In the first year of the Professional Anglers Association tournament series, I fished the Texas Shootout on Lake Fork,” Clay says. “They invited 60 FLW pros and 60 B.A.S.S. pros to compete. I had the honor to be invited as one of the 60 from FLW. After the second day, only the top five anglers fished the final day. I was in fifth place until the very last guy to weigh in knocked me down by two ounces. I didn’t make the final cut, but I got my first national check. After that, I knew that I could compete at that level.”

On the tournament trail or just fishing for fun, Dyer doesn’t use anything unavailable to other competitors. He drives his own truck, modified for his physical requirements, and drives his own boat. He operates all the equipment on his boat and uses standard fishing tackle just like anyone else.

“I fish the same as everyone else,” Clay explains. “It just looks a little different. I’ve always prided myself on doing whatever anyone else does. I don’t want anyone to say I had to modify my equipment to fish. The only thing different about my boat is I have a platform that’s at the same height as the front deck. I can step out of the driver’s seat onto the platform and get to the front deck without climbing up and down or crawl around in the bottom of the boat.”

He ties his own knots with his tongue and unhooks fish by putting pliers in his mouth and lying on his boat deck. When casting, he places the butt of his rod between his jawbone and collarbone, then swings it sideways. He reels fish in by compressing the end of his arm against the reel handle.

“Most anglers work the trolling motor with their feet, but I can’t do that,” Clay says. “The bottom of my hip is round. When I run the trolling motor, I use the bottom of my hip joint. I have essentially one big toe down there. I use that to mash the switch to operate the trolling motor. I added a larger switch so I can find it more easily without looking down.”

Staying on a national tournament trail requires considerable travel for any competitor. After finishing one tournament, anglers may immediately drive hundreds of miles to the next venue. Many top pros spend 250 to 300 days a year traveling to events, practicing for tournaments, competing, meeting sponsor obligations or working with the media to promote their sponsors.

Tyler Cole of Double Springs, Ala. often accompanies Clay on trips to share the driving. He also assists Clay by helping him get into and out of the boat or provide whatever other help he needs. Where allowed, Cole sometimes fishes with Dyer, either as a co-angler or team partner.

“I met Clay in my senior year of high school,” Cole remembers. “I was dating a girl whose mother used to babysit Clay and his brother. She knew I liked to fish and introduced me to Clay. When I’m fishing with Clay as a co-angler, I can’t do much to help him. I can net the fish, but that’s about all. Clay is a very big inspiration for a lot of people. He’s an awesome guy.”

Staying on a tournament trail also requires significant financial resources. Spending a year on a tournament trail may cost between $60,000 to $100,000 for fuel on boats and tow vehicles, lodging, food, entry fees, maintenance and other expenses. Most anglers rely heavily on sponsors. Dyer lists Strike King Lures, Ranger Boats, Mercury Outboards and the Outdoor Recreation Company of America among his major backers.

“I’ve been extremely blessed to have some great companies behind me,” Clay says. “Strike King has been with me from the start. Ranger Boats and Mercury Outboards have been with me a long time. I signed with O.R.C.A in late 2012. Without these companies helping me, I would not be able to do what I do. I really appreciate what they do for me that allows me to live my dream.”

When not fishing, Clay inspires others with frequent public appearances, making about 60 motivational speeches for corporations, churches, charitable organizations and other groups each year.

“Many people come up to me and say, ‘I don’t have this,’ or ‘I can’t do this.’ If I can, you can,” Clay says. “I don’t focus on the resources I’m missing. I focus on what I do have – that’s a heart, mind and soul. I don’t let not having arms and legs define me as a person. Everything I’ve ever wanted to do, I’ve been able to do. Some things are obviously easier for other people to do and take me longer, but I haven’t found anything yet that I couldn’t do.”

To invite Clay to speak, contact him through his website at http://claydyer.net.