While returning home from long stints on the Bassmaster Elite Series trail, Preston Clark still stops and chats with Federation Nation buddies whenever he sees them on the road.
"I miss a lot of the guys," said the Palatka, Fla., pro. "I made some great friendships and had a lot of good times with them. These guys have a special place in my heart.
"When I see them on the road and they are coming back from their tournaments and I am coming home from mine, we will pull over and talk to each other. I appreciate every one of them."
Knowing that fellow Floridians Shaw Grigsby, Peter Thliveros and Bernie Schultz honed their skills in Federation Nation competition before they turned pro, Clark decided to take the same route to become a professional angler. In 2002, Ed Fry, a local marine dealer, asked Clark to join his club, Big River Bassmasters. Clark joined, then competed in enough events to make the state championship.
"I really didn't know what to expect [at the state championship]," admitted Clark. "I pulled into this tournament at Okeechobee and there were 350 guys in it. It was a little bigger than I expected."
Despite competing in such a large field in his rookie year, Clark fared well in the tournament and nearly qualified for the state team.
The next year Clark fished the full Federation Nation schedule. "That was the one full year that I decided I was going to see how good I was before I moved up to the Bassmaster Opens," recalled Clark. "A lot of good fishermen are in the Federation Nation, and when I was fishing it, Chris Lane and Bobby Lane were in it at the same time. So, the competition was stiff and it was really a good measuring stick to see where I was as far as being able to move up."
Clark won Florida's Angler of the Year award in 2003, which he ranks as his biggest Federation Nation achievement. "I had won a lot of team tournaments with my dad and Terry Scroggins and a couple of other partners," he said. "But that individual accomplishment is what I am most proud of."
His one full year in the Federation Nation was a learning experience for Clark. "I learned a lot of different techniques from traveling to different bodies of water and not staying on my home lake all the time," the Florida pro said. When he competed in West Florida, he learned about fishing a weightless trick worm, which also proved to be a deadly technique when he returned home to the St. Johns River.
Clark competed in a few Federation Nation tournaments in 2004 and 2005, but he devoted most of his time to his goal of becoming a full-time pro. His pro highlights include winning the 2006 Bassmaster Elite Series Santee-Cooper Showdown with an all-time four-day catch record of 115 pounds, 15 ounces, as well as qualifying for the 2005 and 2006 Bassmaster Classics. Clark gained worldwide notoriety in the 2006 Bassmaster Classic for catching the biggest bass ever caught in a Classic (11 pounds, 10 ounces), but he had already developed a reputation for catching big fish during his Federation Nation days.
"I've been that way my whole life," he said. "I've always had a knack for finding big fish and catching them."
While fully committed to the pro ranks now, Clark is still a member of the North Florida Bassmasters and is willing to help his club with CastingKids and other events. "I always put them at the top of my list if there is anything I can do for them," he said.
Speaking to junior clubs is Clark's most enjoyable way to stay involved in the Federation Nation. Clark remembers growing up around tournament fishing when his dad competed in Bassmaster events and he got a chance to meet pros such as Jimmy Houston.
"It's great that I am now in that position," said Clark. "I know how important it was to me and how much I learned from them, so I enjoy working with the young men and women now."