Over the past few days, Andy Montgomery, Keith Combs, Craig Schuff and Nate Wellman committed to their first season in the Bassmaster Elite Series. They will be part of the Elite Series rookie class of 2011, yet all are competitors seasoned by Bassmaster trails and other major tournament circuits. Montgomery of Blacksburg, S.C., is 28.
He qualified through the 2010 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Opens. Finishing the season No. 2 in points, he also qualified for the 2011 Bassmaster Classic. Combs, 35, and Schuff, 49, qualified through the 2010 Central Opens. No. 1 in points, Combs of Del Rio, Texas, also earned a Classic berth. Schuff of Watauga, Texas, ended the season third in points after leading the race all season. Wellman, 27, from Newaygo, Mich., qualified through the Northern Opens by being third in points at the end of the season.
Only the top seven in each of the three Opens divisions received automatic Elite Series invitations. B.A.S.S. will announce the complete 2011 Elite Series field as soon as it is set.
Nate Wellman opted into the 2011 Bassmaster Elite Series last week, but he made up his mind to be a top pro when he was 9 years old.
His early career choice was more than a kid's when-I-grow-up wish; Wellman clearly remembers the incident more as an epiphany. "I was watching TV (The Bassmasters) and I saw Roland Martin after he won a Bassmaster event," Wellman related. "He was thanking his sponsors and talking about how he (fished) for a living. I remember distinctly on that Saturday morning telling my dad, 'You mean you can fish every day and make a living?
Sign me up; I'm in.'" Now almost 28 (his birthday is Dec. 10), Wellman qualified for the sport's most prestigious tour by finishing third in points in the 2010 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open circuit. He'd been close all season to making it into the qualifying top seven — 13th in points after one event, 10th after two — but he didn't break through until the third and final tournament of the Northern Open season.
There, he scored his first career win (in wire-to-wire fashion at that), pushing him into qualifying position. "I was just hoping to cash a check to make the Elite Series," he said. "I figured just a solid, top-30 final-day cut would have sealed the deal. It worked out even better than I'd hoped." Wellman has been competing for the past five years in various FLW trails, as well as in Bassmaster Opens off and on since 2006. He estimated that in the past year alone, he has traveled to 16 different states for competitions.
Wellman's first angling love is bass fishing, but he can handle just about any species. He's a fly fishing guide to salmon and steelhead anglers on the Muskegon River, which his home in Newaygo, Mich., overlooks (he grew up nearby, in a small town outside Grand Rapids, Mich.). He has fished all the Great Lakes and scores of freshwater rivers and lakes. He likes to ice fish.
He also likes a taste of salt now and then, and he figures he's sampled the coastal waters along much of the eastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico. "I've dedicated my life to fishing," he said. "I fish more than most people should be allowed to." Right now he's busy launching his Elite Series career. He's finalizing his boat wrap, which will highlight his main sponsor, Trailer Equipment Inc., a Grand Rapids dealership and leasing business owned by his father. Power-Pole is another one of his sponsors.
Wellman said he's working on other deals. One of his first acts as an Elite Series pro was to hire a good friend, Dave Vanens, to be his helper on the road. Wellman figures it's an investment: If someone can field the time-eating travel details and other stressors, all his energy can be spent on his fishing. "Hopefully, that will show in my finishes," said Wellman, adding that Vanens likely will compete as a co-angler in some of the Bassmaster Open tournaments that Wellman has heaped on top of his eight-event Elite Series schedule.
Vanens also can take over an occasional venue-to-venue drive so that Wellman can fly home for a few days between tournaments to be with his girlfriend and his two kids — a daughter, age 9, and a son, 4. Wellman said he will begin to scout the 2011 Elite Series fisheries in January.
He plans to hit the first two Elite Series fisheries, both in Florida, following his appearance in the 2011 Southern Open on Lake Tohopekaliga out of Kissimmee, Fla. That's where he will have the perfect chance to finally meet Roland Martin, who has signed up for the Southern Open circuit.
"Roland gave me the idea to be a pro, and I'm forever indebted to him for that," Wellman said. Martin is just one of Wellman's influences. Another is Kevin VanDam. Wellman said he has not met VanDam, although he's followed his fellow Michigander for years and attended several of the six-time AOY's seminars. "Most of my life, I've rooted for VanDam to do really well," Wellman said. "Now I can't root for him so much. I'm kind of like, 'Oh, no, what just happened here?' — a little bit. But I always wanted to fish against him, so it's a dream come true."
He looks up to other Elite Series anglers, too. "A lot of them, in fact," he said. "I've always had a great deal of respect for all of them. They're the guys who take the gamble to fish for a living." Is the Elite Series a gamble for him? "It's a risk I've wanted to take my whole life, and I've planned on it my whole life, so it doesn't feel like a huge risk," he said. "Sure, there's a lot on the line. But I couldn't do anything else. I just couldn't."
This is the week many tournament anglers have been waiting for. Beginning today, B.A.S.S. Life members, B.A.S.S. Federation Nation members and subscribers to B.A.S.S. Insider can register as pros or co-anglers for the complete, three-event 2011 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open season.
On Friday at 9 a.m. ET, any B.A.S.S. member will be eligible to register for Central Open events as a pro or as a co-angler. Like anglers in other priority groups, they must sign up for all three tournaments. In a game-changing move, B.A.S.S. announced last month that the winner of each of the three 2011 Bassmaster Central Open events will qualify for the 2012 Bassmaster Classic. (The change also applied in the Southern and Northern Open divisions.)
The three Central Open events are: Feb. 24-26 on Lake Lewisville out of Lewisville, Texas; April 28-30 on Table Rock Lake out of Branson, Mo.; and Sept. 8-10 on the Arkansas River out of Muskogee, Okla. Anglers who do not wish to enter all three tournaments of a division must wait until Dec. 14. Beginning on that Tuesday, B.A.S.S. members can register for any remaining spots of any single tournament of an Open division, be it Southern, Northern or Central.
The tournament registration number is 1-877-BASS USA. Click here for a chart with registration dates and event location and date details.