I’m writing this from the first Southern Open of 2016 at Toho, which is a good place to introduce this column because it’s where I started my professional fishing career. It was the first Open of 2011, same place, same time, and thinking about it brings back some pretty crazy memories.
A couple of years before that I was racing AMA professional motocross and supercross, but a nasty shoulder injury quickly ended my season. Suddenly facing a lot of recovery time, I bought a boat and started fishing local tournaments. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and within two years I was competing against guys who’d won Bassmaster Classics and who’d been fishing professionally since I was a little kid.
liked to flip, and I knew that Florida was a great place to apply that strength, so when I arrived at Toho I launched the boat and looked for the first likely spot to fish. It was right there at the ramp, so I never started up the big motor, just put the trolling motor down and didn’t pick it up until the end of the day. I knew there would be an abundance of vegetation to sort through but it became overwhelming pretty quick. There wasn’t enough time in the day to figure out what was good, and I flipped a lot of bad stuff before I got to anything productive.
Now, five years later, I’m hardly an expert, but when I arrived back here and got to the ramp I had to laugh a little bit about that experience. At least now I can tell which areas are likely to hold populations of fish. It narrows the search down a lot and helps boost my confidence when you can start calling your shots based on how the vegetation and areas look. It took a lot of time and work for me to get to this point though.
That’s been the story of my career – I went from buying my first boat in 2009 to competing against KVD in the 2012 Classic. I didn’t take the traditional route, which is to come up through local circuits, the federation, or gradually through other regional tournaments.
Why would I just jump into the Opens like that? It wasn't because I had a lot of money, I can promise you that. I justified paying my entry fee for my first Open by not purchasing propane for my house for almost two months. I literally froze my tail off to be able to chase my new competitive vision in my life. And fortunately it has worked out so far. After finishing 161st place in Florida I became addicted. I saved my money again for the second Bassmaster Southern Open to have one more crack at it and ended up winning that event. I fished six Opens that first year and made the Top 12 in three of them. I was able to qualify later that year for the Bassmaster Elite series through the Northern Opens.
I don’t know if that rapid ascent was a blessing or a curse. I sometimes wonder if it would have been better to have been a co-angler for a few years like Justin Lucas was. After that, at the very least I would’ve known not to just put the trolling motor down at the ramp. But I firmly believe there's never a perfect time in life to take a chance at anything. Opportunities come around whether you're ready or not and opportunity may only knock once.
While I qualified for the Elites quickly, I definitely took my lumps along the way. When you’re paying hefty entry fees and travel expenses, every mistake is magnified and costly. At the same time, when you have no choice but to improve or keep getting your butt kicked, it pushes you to learn faster. The hardest part of this sport is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Oddly enough, as my career has progressed and I’ve become more established, my fishing has suffered. I have a very specific plan to get my game where it needs to be this year. We will discuss my plans at a later time.
A big part of my efforts to get back on track involve my brother Hunter. We raced together for 10 years, and he got into fishing when I joined the Elite Series. I fully expect him to make the Elites in the next year or two, and while we share many of the same sponsors, he brings some additional talents to the table, like an exceptional ability to edit GoPro videos. You’ve probably seen some of his amazing work. Click here for an example.
The other critical member of my support team is my girlfriend Rose who has traveled with me for a year now. The old hotel routine got old really fast, so now we have an RV. It’s like taking our house on the road. Not only do we save money on food by cooking every night, but I believe it helps me focus on the game a little better by actually "living it." I’ll discuss some of the major advantages to the RV life in a later column.
I hope this gives you some idea of where I’m coming from and why my perspective may be different from those of many of my competitors. As my flat brimmed hat and my mailing address will attest (Ohio), I come from outside the normal professional angler’s background, but I still burn to improve every day like everyone else. I think that all anglers – from the newcomer, to the weekend warrior, to a multiple-time Classic champ – can relate to that need to turn discomfort into success.