The 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series season will mark my 17th year as a full-time professional angler. While it’s hard to think back to life before I hit the road, I did have a career before I made that leap. I worked in a variety of public safety and law enforcement positions, and while it seems like a lifetime ago, it still influences how I look at the world, people and situations that take place on the water.
I started my career in public safety at the age of 20 as a volunteer firefighter and EMT. At age 23 I joined the City of Carbondale (Illinois) Fire Department where I spent the next 13 years as a full-time firefighter and arson investigator. The job instilled in me an incredible amount of discipline which I believe has helped in my subsequent endeavors. It taught me what is truly important in life. Without getting into the gory details, I witnessed and was involved in a wide variety of life-altering situations that shaped my worldview. They involved everything from horrific accidents, to human stupidity, incidental damage and the wrath of Mother Nature.
I’ve seen things I wish I could forget. I’ve delivered news that no one should ever have to hear. On the flip side, I’ve also been able to prevent some catastrophes and deliver some great news, which fueled my passion for helping people.
Halfway through my career I was promoted to Captain with the fire department. I became involved with the city’s arson investigation unit and earned additional law enforcement certifications along the way. At that same time, I also became increasingly serious about competing in local and regional bass tournaments.
When I qualified to fish what was then the Bassmaster Tour in 2003, I had to make a tough decision: Should I leave the security of a career that I loved for another passion that had less certainty? I only had one sponsor, but I had the support of my wife Debbie and a three-year financial backup plan in case I struggled on the water. I made the leap, and while there have been some ups and downs, I haven’t looked back.
While I left behind the career in public safety, I didn’t discard that mindset. In fact, I bolstered it by becoming certified by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Merchant Marine. My background and training have provided me with certain advantages on the water. I tend to be very careful in potentially dangerous situations like violent storms and crowded lakes. I constantly analyze and adjust my actions to fit likely scenarios and conditions.
The biggest impact, though, is that I’ll never forget how quickly life can change because of unsafe decisions. My mindset is one that believes it’s been a good day when you get to go home at night.
That’s the motivation for this column. I realize that we have a wide variety of responsibilities as anglers that need to be at the front of our awareness at all times. We interact with the ecosystem, the environment and other boaters. In the heat of competition, we may sometimes not fully consider safety or the ramification of our actions, and that’s just flat dangerous.
During the 2020 season, I’m going to try to enlist my fellow professional anglers to help educate and discuss these critical issues. We’ll also address conservation issues in which I believe everyone should be doing their part to keep our fisheries healthy and thriving.
B.A.S.S. has always been a leader in promoting good conservation practices and safety on the water. They have provided me with an opportunity to work closely with their conservation efforts. I’m passionate about these issues and want to do my part. Sometimes the issues are clear, and other times they’re a little bit murky, but we need to start a dialogue.
Everybody needs to do their part.