What I learned as a Marshal

Skip Walden served as a Bassmaster Marshal for Russ Lane, Morizo Shimizu, Brandon Palaniuk, Boyd Duckett, Fred Roumbanis and Kevin VanDam. This is his story. See his photos here.

Over the years, I have interviewed top anglers like The Bass Professor Doug Hannon and Bassmaster Elite Series pro Shaw Grigsby. It has been a while since I attempted writing anything beyond blogs, but I took this opportunity to write about my experience as a Marshal on the Bassmaster Elite Series and the 2014 Bassmaster Classic.

I love fishing. I have fished tournaments for a long time. I was 8 or 9 the first time I fished a tournament, a father/son B.A.S.S. club event. Paul Elias, who was still fishing at the club level, was even in the tournament! I didn’t catch a bass that day but I did catch two very large catfish on Douglas Lake. In 2004, I was fishing a tournament on Laurel Lake in Kentucky. The steering went out on my engine as we were blasting off and I flipped a 20-foot Ranger boat.

Fear of that wreck put me out of fishing for three years, but I slowly got back into it and started following the major tournament trails again. I realized something real quick. In those three years, I had lost a lot of knowledge of the sport. You would be surprised how much equipment, lakes change and — ultimately — fishing changes.

Shortly before I wrecked I had covered the Bassmaster MegaBucks tournament on Douglas for Chevrolet Outdoors. It took about 14 pounds a day to win that one. When I came back to fishing, it was taking 25-plus-pound sacks to win on Douglas.

Clearly things had changed. I decided I would hold off fishing tournaments again until I got some of the wheels back under me and thought I could be competitive again.

I need to improve my ability to catch larger fish. Numbers are nice, but today it’s about size. The days of the 15-pound local tournament wins are about gone. Newer tactics and skills are required to be competitive. On my ride with Kevin VanDam, I asked him, “Do you ever feel the need to retool what you do to be competitive with the younger talent such as Brandon Palaniuk?”

Kevin’s answer was something to the effect that the younger generation is really the older generation to adapt to be competitive. I saw the advertisement for Marshals for the 2012 season in Bassmaster magazine, and one of the tournaments was on Douglas. I thought, what better way to learn something than to see a real live pro fish a lake I’ve fished regularly for the last 35 years and see what he does differently that I do?” For the then-$100 entry fee, I couldn’t help but get my money’s worth.

I really enjoyed the ride on Day 2 with Russ Lane that year, and I learned a trick off of him that I applied to the weekly Tuesday nighter I fish here at home on Laurel Lake and promptly won $300 with it. That single demonstration made me want to Marshal again.

Looking at the schedule for 2013, I didn’t see a lake I’d fished before. However, I saw one I was interested in. I have fished Wedowee in Alabama twice a year since it was built. West Point Lake is just across the line in Georgia, and I also think about going there if I’m not doing well on Wedowee. I thought it would be good to get a ride on West Point to learn some things about that lake just in case I actually pulled the trigger and swapped lakes. I also signed up for the Alabama River tournament because it was equal distance driving to my home.

At West Point, I got to ride with Brandon Palaniuk on Day 1. I got to witness a completely different approach to fishing than I have ever been around. Brandon fishes like an elk hunting guide, which he is in the off-season. He doesn’t pull into a place to fish. He pulls in to catch a fish that he knows is there.

The first spot he pulled into he said, “There’s a 6-pounder here, and that’s why we are here.”

I really learned a new approach to the game. Like an elk hunting guide who sees a nice 6x6 walk by and his client gets excited and the guide says, “Wait a minute. There’s a bigger one here. Be patient; the Mac Daddy will be along shortly.” I don’t know that “patient” describes Brandon, but I do know if he pulls in to catch a 6-pounder and only catches a couple of 2-pounders, he’s off to another location.

Then came Day 2 on West Point, where I drew Morizo Shimizu. I had reservations from the start of drawing one of the foreign competitors. From a practicality standpoint, I figured the language barrier would be extremely tough for me. As Cliff Crochet told me, “That Alabamian in your voice is way too thick. I can’t understand.” When a Cajun has trouble understanding you, one has to figure a person who doesn’t speak English as a first language would definitely have a challenge.

As a Marshal, you need to communicate with the pro about things like the length of the run he is making if it’s cold, where he wants you to sit in the boat, what he thinks the fish weighs to input into BASSTrakk and when and where to meet in the morning. Japanese photographer Seigo Saito helped out quite a bit, especially on the phone and at the ramp. It was humorous listening to Morizo trying to get my name right. “Skeeeeeeeeepppp,” he kept saying, making three syllables out of a four-letter name.

It was a lot of fun riding with him. I learned a few things, including that the Japanese guys have baits others don’t have. Morizo had the neatest frog I’ve seen. It appeared to be very well-made, and the coloration of it was superior to any I have seen. I asked what brand it was. “Made in Japan,” Morizo said. “No can buy American, Japanese only.” Still, it was a cool-looking bait.

The Alabama River at Montgomery was a super trip. In three days, I got to ride with Boyd Duckett, Fred Roumbanis and Kevin VanDam.

I’m telling you right now, when your phone rings and the caller ID says Kevin VanDam, regardless of how many times you told yourself, “I’m not going to get awestruck by these famous pros,” you will. Heck, I admit it. I spent the next hour on the phone, calling two of my regular partners, the bait shop, my wife, mom and dad, and a couple guys I fish with in the club. “There’s 100 marshals here and I’m riding with the guy they all want to ride with,” I thought.

I’ve heard other pros say it for a long time about VanDam: “He’s different.” I’m not sure how else to describe a day on the water with who most consider to be the master of the sport.

He’s not different than the rest of us in some ways. He spilled some dip and dye on his seat, fell over a seat chasing a bass that jumped out of the livewell and bruised his ribs, and he stepped on a rod and broke it. That would be par for the day for most of us, except that somewhere in the middle, he caught between 60 and 70 fish. Truly, I’m not sure how many he caught. I ran out of fingers in the first hour or so. He had four in the boat before I got the first one entered in BASSTrakk. By around 11:30, I had worn BASSTrakk down to a nub entering fish in it.

When the 2014 schedule came out, there were two lakes on it that I have very little experience on but really want to fish — Guntersville and Chickamauga.

I have been a hunter’s education instructor for eight years. In the ethics section of the class, we discuss how outdoorsmen’s desires change over time. We always tell parents to let the young hunter kill his or her first deer — not necessarily a trophy. They are there to begin their journey learning to be an outdoorsman. Once young hunters have a few under their belt, then they can increase the difficulty of the game.

Our desires change over time. In the beginning, I signed up as a Marshal because I wanted to see how a pro fishes a body of water that I also fish. Then, I signed up to see a lake that I haven’t been on in a way that would hopefully get me started when I do get a chance to fish that body of water. Now, I’m looking at what I might be interested in for the 2015 season.

The 2013 tournament on the St. Lawrence River produced some huge strings of smallmouth. The pros were catching these fish in 100-plus feet of water. That has me intrigued. Was the boat sitting in 100 feet of water and the fish suspended 30 feet down, or were they really dropping a worm down 100 feet and catching a bass in water that deep?

Years ago, when I interviewed Doug Hannon on the radio, my nonboater and I had finished first and second in a summer tournament on Douglas the night before. We caught all of our fish on bluff walls in 30 to 40 feet of water. The first words Doug said were, “If you are fishing for bass deeper than 8 feet, you are wasting your time.”

For a few minutes I was at a loss for words to enter that debate. Now we’ve got Brandon Palaniuk video gaming bass in 100 feet of water. I would never fish the St. Lawrence, but I would really like to see that kind of fishing done in person. That might be my next trip. We’ll have to see when next year’s schedule comes out.

Riding as a Marshal has taught me a lot, some of which I wondered about for a long time and some of which I never had an idea of. You will learn tactics, areas of the lakes you fish, and things about people trying to make a living out of something most of us do for fun and recreation.

If you are serious about bass fishing and willing to apply yourself to a volunteer job like this, I guarantee it will help you become a better fisherman.