Monroe catching fans as only high-profile black fisherman

COLUMBIANA, Ala. — Ishama "Ish" Monroe never was one to follow the pack. When his friends were hanging out after school, he was at the lake.

 When it was time to get a college degree and a 9-to-5 job? Sorry, Ish had gone fishin'.

 "I always had to be different," Monroe said. "I didn't follow the trends. I had my own path."

 That path has taken him to a level of professional bass fishing no other black angler has reached, a lucrative career in the Bassmaster Elite Series.

 The 32-year-old Monroe won two top-level bass tournaments last year — no black person had ever won one — and is hoping for an even bigger breakthrough in the Bassmaster Classic next weekend on Lay Lake, south of Birmingham.

 It's his fourth time competing in bass fishing's equivalent of the Super Bowl. The only other black competitor who fished in the event was Mississippi amateur Alfred Williams, who was 10th in 1983.

 So what is a black Californian, whose style is decidedly more hip-hop than country, doing at a bass tournament?

 Fishing, of course. And fitting in, but not necessarily conforming. Monroe favors baggy pants and shorts, not faded blue jeans, and sometimes shows up at tournaments with his hat turned sideways or backward. He even travels Ish-style.

 "You look at the normal bass fisherman out there, he doesn't have 24-inch rims on his truck and 20-inch rims on his boat trailer," said Monroe, fresh from a recent day of practice. "It's just being me and being different."

 His father, Gregory Simpson, would pick him up from school in San Francisco and take him fishing. In fact, Monroe was heading to the lake or pond with his family from age 2 at his grandparents' farm in Michigan, and says he knew by 11 that he wanted to fish professionally.

 He spent two years at a California junior college focusing mainly on marketing and public speaking while working jobs loading UPS trucks and selling cars to feed himself — and his fishing career.

 "Fishing was always something I had to myself," Monroe said. "While all my friends were out there following the girls and trying to get cars, I'm trying to figure out how I can get a boat so I can go fishing more."

 Monroe, who started competing professionally at 18, had $264,930 in winnings last year, pushing his career Bassmaster earnings close to $500,000. And that's not counting his numerous sponsorship deals.

 It's a long way from the days when his family — his parents never married, but both helped raise him — was counting on food stamps. Or the days when the power was cut off because they couldn't pay the bills.

 Monroe has more going for him than just a nickname that conveniently rhymes with fish. In a sport that provides recreation for some 45 million people nationwide, he's as comfortable talking about marketing and money as he is about casting and catching.

 He certainly stands out, especially in bass fishing's biggest draw. Some 9.5 million viewers tuned in for at least some of ESPN's coverage of last year's Classic.

 "I think a lot of new fans, even though they don't know him, are more drawn to him just because he's different," said angler Mike Iaconelli, a close friend and frequent roommate at tournaments. "It's growing and becoming more mainstream and by showing that diversity of athletes, you bring in a diversity of fans. He's doing a great job of that. It's awesome."

 The sport still has a long way to go, though several black anglers are competing in the lower-level FLW Tour. Confederate flags line docks along Lay Lake in rural Alabama. Monroe remains the only black to reach the sport's top level of pro competition.

 The kind of feedback he gets from fans on his Web site, www.ishmonroe.com , shows he is making an impression.

 "It's so nice to see some ethnic diversity finally coming into play," reads a post from "beastmaster," who describes himself as a black fisherman. "Ish, you're an inspiration to us all."

 Monroe said he still draws double-takes from some fans at tournaments, but seldom experiences the kind of racism that plagued his travels early in his career.

 "The one thing that I don't get is what I call DWBs, which is Driving While Black," Monroe said. "The first year I got pulled over for at least five 'routine checks,' is what they call them.

 "Now, when I get pulled over, the cop wants to talk about fishing and asks for an autograph."

 He has mixed feelings when asked about his role in helping lure more blacks to the sport.

 "Yes, because it's kind of like I'm obligated to in a way," Monroe said. "No, because I don't see color. The only color I've seen is green, and that's the green bass and the green money.

 "I don't want people to know me as the black pro angler. I want them to know me as the pro angler who catches 'em, and who's a great guy. He's different, but he's cool."

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