Paul Mueller is ready for his close-up

As we approach the 20th anniversary of Bryan Kerchal’s tragic death, we will be deluged with stories and remembrances of the late Bassmaster Classic winner. By now, most of us who follow the sport religiously have heard the majority of them. A few new ones may emerge, and there are some that stay fresh despite numerous retellings and the passage of time.

One story that has always struck a nerve with me is the exchange between Kerchal and four-time Classic winner Rick Clunn on the last day of the 1994 championship. It occurred as they waited below the Greensboro Coliseum to weigh in.

Fishing writer Tim Tucker, who like Kerchal passed away too soon, reported in Bassmaster that as they sat there, the young pro said, “You know, the only fear I’ve had the last couple of days was that I may win this too soon.” Clunn, after the fact, opined that the statement showed “a depth to him that most people don’t have their whole lives – much less at his age.”

Sometimes just asking the question is enough. By questioning whether he was ready, Kerchal showed that he saw the big picture. When he died a few months later, everyone knew his victory had not come too soon.

An optimal time to win

Of course, in most cases it’s hard to say what constitutes the optimal time to win the Bassmaster Classic, or any other sporting championship for that matter. You take your glory when you can get it, whether you’re 18 or 80, because if you don’t seize the day you may never have another chance. Obviously, the “right time” means different things to different people. For some it might be the opportunity to get out from under a mountain of debt. For others it might mean the opportunity to transition a six-figure income into a seven-figure income. Either way, when they look back on it 10, 20 or 50 years later, few can say they made the most of their opportunities. For every Randy Howell, who’s broadened his media footprint and the reach of his message exponentially, there are a few Bob Hamiltons who did not. Most fall somewhere in between.

Looking down the Elite Series Angler of the Year (AOY) list, it’s pretty easy to identify a handful of guys at the top of the heap, who had they won the AOY this year would’ve made only a fraction of their potential impact. Look down the list and you should be able to identify them yourselves, guys who are pretty likely to win something big, but who can’t talk or market their way out of a paper bag. They should take their failure to win the title not as a pure disappointment, but rather as a shot across the bow, a warning to get their game in gear. No matter what career stage you’re at, there has to at least be a rough road map – if it doesn’t get you from A to Z, it should at least get you to F or G.

The Kerchal comparison

When I saw that B.A.S.S. Nation member Paul Mueller had requalified for the Classic, the Kerchal comparisons rang out, as they probably did for many of you. Both were young Connecticut anglers who improbably qualified twice through a route that is mathematically daunting. Kerchal finished last in his first Classic, leaving no place to go but up before he finally won. Mueller finished second last year, leaving only one place to go up. I don’t know if that gives him added confidence, a chip on his shoulder, an unbearable amount of pressure or all of the above. What I do know about Mueller is that for a guy who seems barely ready to shave, he seems remarkably poised and exceptionally marketable.

My first experience with Paul was in the immediate aftermath of the final day of last year’s Classic. He’d put together the biggest five fish limit in Classic history on Day 2 to emerge out of nowhere, only to fall a pound short of Randy Howell’s winning weight. Most guys would’ve seen it as their last best chance, and they would’ve been inconsolable. That’s not the interview assignment you want. Of course it was the interview assignment that I got. That’s pretty much par for the course in my writing career, where the history of winners has by and large been written by writers with more prestigious bylines than my own.

  • Guy loses an 8 pound lead because his boat breaks down on the way in? Send Pete to interview him.
  • Dog died last night and he’s missing the tournament to bury him? Send Pete to interview him.
  • Angler tried to boat flip a 10 in the waning seconds, only to watch it come off and swim away, and now the bank’s going to take his house? If his cell phone bill is still paid up, he can expect a call from Pete.

I’m used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s usually easy. Mueller, though, made it pain-free. As I interviewed him for the story, he seemed at peace with his second place finish, at peace with the decisions he’d made and at peace with his career going forward. Maybe he’d already shed the tears, kicked a garbage can and unleashed the expletives, but by the time I got to him he was Zen calm.

A year later, he’ll be back on the big stage, another shot at the Classic on the doorstep of his Elite Series career, and I needed to know: Is he ready? Where does his road map stand? We know he can catch fish, but if he wins, will he be ready to grow his stack of chips?

A bit of digging

I could’ve gone back to Mueller himself, but I’ve been fooled before. I’ve seen guys who I thought were polished make egregious mistakes when confronted with opportunity. They never built their map past the second or third stop. I needed to go to the guys who depend on Mueller to pay their bills – his sponsors. Fortunately, I’ve known two of them far longer than I’ve had any clue who Mueller is. I met both Gary Dobyns (of Dobyns Rods) and Matt Paino (of Optimum Swimbaits, among other companies) in 2007, and both shoot straight. If he wasn’t pulling his weight, or didn’t have a plan, I knew they’d tell me so.

“He can fish, that’s an absolute given,” Dobyns said. “But he’s asked himself what he can do to distinguish himself, and he’s done that by making videos. I’m pretty good at seeing the BS factor, so if he can gut hook me, he’s doing a really good job. It never fails – if he says he’s going to do 10 videos, I know he’s going to do 20.”

The sponsorship game is a notoriously math-averse art. You can pay someone to promote, but it’s tough to directly correlate that to sales. “Sponsors know who does what,” Dobyns said. “You’ll never be able to gauge exact sales, but Paul’s name is one of the few that keeps coming back to me.”

Paino agreed: “He’s one of the few who you can honestly attribute certain sales to.” How does he know that Mueller believes in the product and creates revenue? Long before Mueller was associated with the company, Paino started to receive requests from U.S. anglers for the 3-inch version of the Reins Bubbling Shaker (Japan’s Reins is one of the companies he brings stateside). There was just one problem. “I wasn’t even importing it,” he said. “He was making ice fishing videos with that lure and putting them on YouTube, and because of that I had guys from all over calling and emailing me asking for special baits and colors. Not just two or three guys – a lot of them. It shouldn’t surprise you but it does. Most people still think that if they put your logo on their shirts, that’s enough. The tendency is to be part of the pack, but Paul has separated himself.”

As much as seeing him as a profit center, both Dobyns and Paino are amazed by Mueller’s honesty and integrity, and they both claim that shines through. “His videos aren’t done to sell baits,” Paino said. “Guys can see the honesty when he demonstrates how, where and why to use the bait.”

Dobyns knows that Mueller has turned down bigger deals to remain with the companies that have taken him to this point.

“The loyalty factor is huge,” he said. “He’s so sincere, so straight-laced, so matter of fact. His word means everything to him and he doesn’t get rattled. He wants to be the complete package. I’m going to take care of Paul.”

“Loyalty has to go two ways,” Dobyns concluded. So do tournament careers. For the most part, there’s only up or down. Mueller has a long way to go to build a body of work, but it’s pretty clear that he’s working from a map, and he knows which end goes up.