The right kind of rookie

My rookie season on the Elite Series is over, and I finished lucky 13th overall. That put me third in the Rookie of the Year race, behind my friends Jacob Powroznik and Justin Lucas, but every time I think about what that means I have to laugh a little. After all, none of us were truly rookies. We’d all spent considerable time on the FLW Tour.

I’m not taking anything away from Jacob’s award. By the letter of the rules he deserved it, but anyone who thinks that he’s a novice to the sport hasn’t been paying attention. He’s been one of the best anglers in the world for a while. If you’ve been making a living primarily from fishing it’s hard to call yourself a “rookie” with a straight face.

In fact, if you go down the Rookie of the Year standings, you have to go pretty far down before you see the name of a rookie who I’d call a true rookie. There in fifth place, sandwiched between longtime pro Chad Morgenthaler and multiple tour event winner Brett Hite, sits 26-year-old Brandon Lester.

Brandon qualified for the Elites by finishing as the points leader of the Bassmaster Southern Opens in 2013. That was just his second year fishing in the Opens.  He also got experience by fishing at the collegiate level at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

I don’t know Brandon very well yet. I went saltwater fishing with him and J Todd Tucker one time, and we worked the Expo together in Escanaba for our mutual sponsor Costa Del Mar. Just because we haven’t interacted much doesn’t mean I haven’t noticed him, though. You might be surprised to learn how much the Elite Series pros take note of one another. We may seem like we’re focused solely on our own performance, but we’re acutely aware of how everyone else fishes and how they conduct themselves. That’s why I’ve been so impressed with Brandon. He seems to do things the right way.

First off, from a fishing perspective, he got the job done. Heading into the second half of the season, he really needed some quality finishes in the remaining events to make the Classic. His season could’ve gone either way – bomb, and you’re “just another rookie,” or do well and defy the odds. He took the latter course, finishing 37th at Dardanelle, 39th at the Delaware River, 17th at Cayuga and ninth in Escanaba. Those are four very different bodies of water and that progression indicates that he’s a skilled and versatile angler. When he had to catch them, he did. Believe me, when the pressure is on, that’s the toughest time to make things happen and he had his two best Elite finishes to close out the year, including catching 24-plus the first day in Michigan to claim second place.

Just as important as the weights that he caught, Brandon seemed to do things the right way. In the years that I’ve been involved at the tour level, I’ve seen some changes in the way the sport is played. Increasing numbers of anglers, both young ones and veterans, seem to have a win at all costs attitude. I’ll probably write more about that later, but it’s no longer a given that young anglers coming up will learn to do things the right way. If you’re a rookie, that’s particularly bad, because not only aren’t you taught the proper ethical standards, but if anything sometimes the older pros will try to take advantage of you. I saw it this year at Cayuga, where someone who should have known better came in on Jacob Powroznik when they shouldn’t have done so.

Right now, next year’s crop of rookies are deciding whether to make the leap to the Elite level. Some of them know what they’re in for, like Jacob and Brett Hite and I did when we put down our deposits. Others will have a steeper learning curve. It will no longer be possible to practice for weeks at a time, like some of them did for the Opens. Now they’ll have 2 1/2 days to figure things out. I waited until the third time that I qualified for the Elites before I jumped over. That was the right decision for me. Some guys, like David Kilgore, have had the opportunity to do so and have repeatedly elected not to do it. Others have come too soon and flamed out quickly. My only advice to anyone who has the opportunity to fish at this level is to really try to objectively evaluate whether they’re ready, and then if they make the decision to go to the Elite Series to try to do things the right way. If you come in thinking you’re going to take over the sport in a year, and you’re willing to cut ethical corners to get there, in the end karma is probably going to take over and hold you back. Be sure you do things the right way from start to finish.