When I became a touring professional angler, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what my life would be like — lots of driving, lots of fishing, fast food, laundromats and more driving. One of the things I didn't anticipate was the relationships that would develop out of circumstances I could never imagine.
In January 2003, I was at a campsite getting ready for a Bassmaster Tour event on the Harris Chain in Florida. Fishing was tough, but what I remember most about that tournament was meeting Lee and Carol Flint. They're New Yorkers who winter in Central Florida, and we struck up a conversation one day at that campground that started a friendship that still exists.
The Flints are big fans of the sport, but more importantly they're great people. They never miss an event in Florida or New York, so I'm looking forward to seeing them when we're fishing at Cayuga next week. Sometimes they even show up at weigh-ins with a sign that reads, "Go E2" or something like that. They're also big supporters of Matt Reed, Randy Howell and some of the other pros they've met at the campgrounds through the years.
It's wonderful to have those kinds of connections, especially when you travel as much as we do. To pull into a town hundreds or thousands of miles from family and home knowing you're going to see friends is a big deal, and the Flints are part of that for me. Some of the other fishermen think they're my grandparents, and that's fine because they're part of my "road family."
Luckily, the Tournament Trail makes lots of stops in Florida and New York, so I get to see the Flints every year. We also exchange Christmas cards, and I'm hoping to take them to dinner when I see them next.
Technology and the Tournament Trail have brought me connections that would have been impossible just a few years ago. One of the first that comes to mind is a man named James David Wells. He's from Jackson, Mississippi, but is serving his country as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in Iraq.
James David is a bass fisherman, and he follows the Bassmaster Elite Series. I've traded a few emails with him and one day received a package in the mail from Iraq. Inside was an American flag and certificate explaining that it had been flown on his helicopter in support of Operation New Dawn. I was blown away by the gesture.
Now I don't know James David very well — we've never met face to face — but I guarantee that I am a much bigger fan of him than he could ever be of me. And one day, when he's back home in Jackson, we're going fishing. I can't wait to take him.
I have lots more stories about amazing people I've met on the road. I met Mike Williams — one of the groomsmen in my wedding — at a Toledo Bend tournament years ago. We've been close friends ever since. In New York, a family invited me over for a dinner of fresh Maine lobster. In fact, I can't think of a single tournament stop where I haven't met at least one person who made the trip better in some way.
Relationships like the ones I have with Lee and Carol Flint and James David Wells are only possible because of our sport and the kinds of people who care about it. To have their support means a great deal to me, and I think about that a lot.
It's humbling, and it makes the tough days a lot easier.