After nearly 30 years of competing in bass tournaments all across the country, I have to tell you that the road can get pretty old. Yeah, we may get to fish for a living, but the truth is, we live like gypsies — fast food, cheap hotels and way too much time away from home.
I tell people we're more like truck drivers than professional anglers and that fishing almost seems secondary to the travel and weekly grind.
The truth is, the life of a bass pro isn’t very glamorous. Besides fishing and competing, about the only other thing we have to relate to on the road is each other. And when you travel as much as we do, having a partner (or partners) to share time with is a major plus — kind of like a support group on wheels.
For years, I traveled with Joe Thomas, the former B.A.S.S. pro from Cincinnati, Ohio. Joe was great. He was extremely honest and dedicated — regimented, in fact. It was like he was in the military.
Joe was always one of the first on the water during practice, spending long hours in search of bass. Once his day was done, he would gas and charge his boat, eat a very basic meal, then hit the rack early, ready to do it all over again the following day.
Joe's also an excellent promoter, always catering to his sponsor's needs. His professional approach to the sport had a very positive impact on my career as well. After a decade of traveling and competing together, our work ethic became the same: Go early, stay late, fish hard!
Shortly after B.A.S.S. introduced the Elite Series, Joe's priorities changed. His television career was beginning to take off, and tournament fishing was less of a priority. He eventually left the B.A.S.S. tour to participate in some FLW events, which gave him time to focus more on television production. In time, Joe expanded his TV persona to include several shows, including "Stihl's Reel in the Outdoors," "Ultimate Match Fishing" and "Scent Lok's High Places."
Just last year, he retired from competition altogether.
When Joe left, I hooked up with longtime friends, Peter Thliveros and Kenyon Hill. Theirs was a much more relaxed routine, and the meal plan was always something to look forward to. (Pete and Kenyon know how to eat!)
There was always plenty of humor with those two. Neither of them take things too seriously, and they try to make fishing fun — even when there's a lot at stake.
But traveling with those two super-sized specimens, things got pretty crowded. Pete soon figured out an option, hooking me up with his friend Mark Tucker, a pro from Missouri. From that point on, the four of us planned our travel arrangements together.
Like Joe Thomas, Tucker is extremely regimented — always on the water before daylight and continually tweaking his equipment. In fact, no other angler on tour keeps his equipment any cleaner or better organized … with the possible exception of Charley Hartley, who's known as "Mr. Clean" and a maintenance freak.
We use to kid Tucker about working on his equipment too much. He'd visit the car wash several times at each tournament, then sit in his boat for hours working on tackle — rigging and re-rigging, making sure everything was prepped and tournament-ready.
Unfortunately, a few years ago, Mark decided to back off from the Elite Series to pursue the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens and other regional events closer to home. He's done well, too, winning a Central Open on Lake Lewisville and an FLW EverStart event at Lake of the Ozarks.
Mark was a good roommate. Like Joe, he kept me motivated.
Last year, Peter T also decided to leave the Elite Series, and that broke up what remained of our crew. Kenyon paired up with fellow Oklahoman Jared Miller, so I went without a roommate for a while.
Then one day, while packing to head home from a tournament, Zell Rowland and I ran into each other in the parking lot. We'd been friends for years, but until that point, never considered traveling together. He needed a roommate and so did I, so we decided to cut costs and make travel plans for the next few events.
Since that time, I've gotten to know Zell pretty well, and I like him a lot. He's a quality individual — funny, honest and good natured. He's also one of the most upbeat people you'll ever meet.
You've heard the saying "Some see the cup half empty, others half full"? Well, Zell sees it as overflowing!
I've never traveled with a competitor who believed he could win every tournament he enters, but Zell does. And though his performance doesn't always match his expectations, he still finds a way to remain confident and optimistic. And that's especially good for me since I'm one of those who sees the glass as half empty.
If there's a drawback to rooming with Zell, it's his snacking habits. Man, does that guy like sweets! There are so many candy bars, Moon Pies and snack cakes in our hotel room it looks more like a convenience store! And that's definitely not good for me.
We're halfway through the 2013 Elite season, and though this year's tour hasn't been too kind, one thing is certain. I don’t have to worry about who has my back. I know Zell does … and he knows I have his.
We're not alone either. Most of the anglers on tour travel in pairs or with a small crew. Gary Klein and Cliff Pace have teamed up, as have Gerald Swindle, Terry Scroggins and Britt Myers. Davy Hite, Scott Rook and Kevin VanDam frequently travel together also.
How does the saying go? There's safety in numbers.
Most of us stay in hotels, but there's a growing group of campers, too, like Randy Howell, Mike Iaconelli, Aaron Martens, Brent Chapman and Rick Clunn. Those guys would rather cook out and sleep under the stars.
Not me! My idea of camping out involves a warm bed and a remote control at the Holiday Inn Express!
Besides the guys I've mentioned, I also traveled with others, like retired bass pros Jim Bitter and Mike Wurm. I've learned a lot from all of the anglers I've traveled with. In fact, no competitor ever had a better support group than me.
Fact is, I probably would have quit a long time ago if not for these guys. Having them and others like them to rely on has made the grind much more tolerable. There's no question the tour is "home" to a grand cast of characters, and all of them bring something unique and special to the game. Without them, it would only be fishing.