Charter captain Brandon Nelson refuses to be defined by the life-changing moment when he learned he had stage-four cancer and was not likely to live long without immediate and intensive treatment. Even that was no guarantee.
“I just froze in disbelief,” he said. “I was in my car when my doctor called and said, ‘There’s no other way to say this, and it’s not something I would normally tell you over the phone, but time is of the essence so … you have some sort of blood cancer and there are large tumors in your chest. You need to get a CT scan right now so we can start treating this thing ASAP.’
“For months I had felt like something wasn’t quite right,” said Nelson, “but hearing him say, ‘Something is a lot not right,’ put me in total shock. I just sat there, trying to process everything he had said.”
Within minutes, however, Nelson weighed what his life might – or might not – become, and he knew what he had to do. He just hoped it wasn’t too late.
Nelson grew up on the Pacific waters near San Diego, California. His father always owned boats, he said, and young Brandon often accompanied him on fishing excursions. He didn’t know it then, but his future was being determined.
“Every job I’ve had since I was 19 involved driving a boat,” he said. “I drove water taxis in college and did some work on fishing boats. After college I worked for a big tour-boat company that did ferry rides and dinner cruises on boats up to 140 feet.
“Once I started fishing, I fell in love with it. Since then, it’s all I’ve wanted to do.”
Nelson parlayed his on-water experiences and an MBA into a promising position with Seakeeper Boats.
“I was their West Coast demo captain for about a year and a half,” he said. “I took their boats to fishing shows and boat shows, and managed their West Coast operations. Then COVID hit, and their entire West Coast operation – all of us – got laid off.”
That painful sucker punch was followed by a near-knockout blow – the devastating call from Nelson’s doctor. Further testing determined Nelson’s cancer was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which affects the lymphatic system. The four tumors in his chest ranged from “the size of a peach to one the size of a small football,” his doctor told him.
“It seemed crazy to me that something that size could grow inside me for god knows how long yet have no effect until I eventually started feeling some small side effects (difficulty sleeping at night),” he said. “But from that moment on, I had a mindset that we needed to do whatever we could to get past this. As much as it was going to suck, I was going to do everything necessary to beat it – if that was possible.”
Nelson focused on staying upbeat and levelheaded, opting not to imagine a worst-case scenario.
“But in the days and weeks to come,” he said, “there definitely were times I’d wake up in the middle of the night with tears running down my face and wondering, ‘I’m only 26. Am I about to die? How is this possible?’ ”
Nelson started chemotherapy immediately – four to six hours each visit, one visit every two weeks. He had heard the horror stories about chemotherapy, and he braced for the worst.
“But actually, my chemo experience was about as ‘pleasant’ as it could have been, when I compare what I’d heard to what I experienced,” he said. “I had all the typical side effects – losing all my hair, uncomfortable nausea and fatigue for days on end – but it was manageable.”
And it was working.
“We did two rounds of chemo right off the bat, and the first scan showed the main tumor had shrunk by more than half,” Nelson said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is crazy, but it’s working so we need to stay on it. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.’
“Keeping my mind occupied with tasks and objectives kept me from getting depressed and thinking about dying. I believe that everyone gets dealt a different hand in life, but it’s how we deal with it that defines our lives and who we are.”
In July 2020, after six months of hardcore chemotherapy and all that goes with it – during early COVID-19 no less – Nelson was pronounced cancer-free.
He fished early the next morning with family and friends for bluefin tuna.
Then he partnered with his father and launched the Lucky B Sportfishing Company; Nelson had earned the nickname “Lucky B” years before due to remarkably consistent success on the water.
“To go from thinking I’m dying, and getting no sleep for months on end and having tumors in my chest cavity, then realizing that I’m healthy now and free to live my life was pretty amazing,” he said.
Brandon Nelson 2.0: Healthy, Motivated and Determined
Reaching cancer-free status had a powerful impact on Nelson’s emotional and mental well-being, and it mapped out his future.
“I was left with a sense of rebirth,” he said, “and my biggest takeaway was getting an entirely new perspective on life. That sounds cliché, but I went from not knowing if I was going to live to being given this amazing opportunity to do whatever I wanted. I know I’m fortunate, and I’m grateful.
“In 2020, I fished (as a charter captain) the entire season with no hair and weighing just 100 pounds. I would fish a couple days, then take a couple days off to recover. Fishing is what kept me going.”
Not long after Nelson opened his charter company, Sportfishing TV contacted the “skinny, hot-shot captain on the West Coast” and arranged to shoot an SFTV episode about fishing for bluefin tuna, with Nelson at the helm.
“We ended up running all the way from San Diego to Cortez Bank (about 100 miles west of San Diego),” said Nelson, “and we caught three big bluefins over 100 pounds each.”
Fishing with Nelson that day was Jim Hendricks, West Coast editor for Bonnier publications whose magazines include Boating and Sport Fishing. When the third tuna – which later tipped the scales at 240 pounds – hit Nelson’s rod, Hendricks said he wasn’t sure how that fight was going to turn out; the fish outweighed Nelson by 140 pounds.
“He was still recovering from cancer and chemo,” said Hendricks. “He didn’t look frail, but you could tell he wasn’t back to full strength. We offered to help him reel in the big bluefin, but he quickly said he could handle it. And he did.”
Today, Lucky B Sportfishing in San Diego runs charters on a 36-foot Yellowfin center-console powered by triple Mercury L6 300hp Verado outboards and a speedy 32-foot Yellowfin rigged with twin Mercury L6 350hp Verado engines. Nelson is scheduled to open a second Lucky B Sportfishing operation this fall in the Florida Keys, again relying on Mercury engines on Yellowfin boats.
“I’ve put 4,000 hours on two different sets of Mercury engines and never had a down day,” he said.
“They perform well, and we’re obviously happy that we never miss trips.”
In San Diego, Lucky B offers inshore and offshore experiences, and its crews are adept at locating a number of highly sought-after species, including bluefin tuna, albacore, calico bass, halibut, yellowfin, white seabass, rockfish, lingcod, barracuda, dorado and more.
Seemingly no one acquainted with pre-cancer Nelson was surprised by the strength and vision of post-cancer Nelson.
“I’ve known Brandon since he was 10 years old,” said Ali Hussainy, CEO of BD Outdoors. “He was always a good kid, and he’s become an incredible person who is smart, motivated and hardworking.
“Cancer changed him in a lot of ways, but I think more than anything it gave him a sense of purpose. He’s one of the best charter captains out there. He wants to be on the water every day, and he always wants to learn more. When young would-be captains ask me how to get into the charter business, the first thing I do is try to talk them out of it; this is a tough business that’s expensive to get started in. But Brandon is different. He’s meant to do this, and there was no way he wasn’t going to succeed.”
See more about Brandon Nelson and the Lucky B Sportfishing Company at Luckybsportfishing.com.