Toe to toe with Michael Neal

I want to take this column off the water for a few minutes. Yes, a lot of professional fishing is about tournaments, no doubt. But there is another aspect of a professional fishing career that is a critical part of the job: public speaking and doing seminars.

This past show season I had the pleasure of working a show at Fin Feather Fur Outfitters in Ohio with one of the up and coming pros in our sport: Michael Neal from Dayton, Tenn.

Michael has proven himself to be a bright, young star on the FLW Tour and the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens. But like I said, pro fishing isn’t just about tournament performance.

This particular weekend was Neal’s first sports show seminar away from home. It was the first time he had flown to a sports show to do seminars in front of people that were a long way away from Dayton. And let’s just say it was baptism by fire for the young pro.

I had never met Michael before, but the first thing that impressed me was he didn’t come to Ohio thinking he knew everything about seminar speaking just because he had watched three tank demos on YouTube. He told me about his concerns on being a rookie speaker. I could tell he was pretty nervous. I know exactly how he felt. I had been in his same shoes many, many years ago: getting on an airplane to fly far away to speak in front of whole lot of people I didn’t know. Trust me the fear of public speaking can be terrifying. Most pros have no problem with the idea of competing against a 100 of the best bass catchers in the world, but ask them to speak in front of a 100 people and it’s like they got hit with a taser.

Michael asked if he could sit in on my seminar to watch and learn. That right there told me he was a student of the game and most of all he was not going to the let the fear of public speaking override him.

After watching my presentation, I asked if I could watch his. I think this terrified him even more. He told me the idea of having me there made him even more nervous – that he would be embarrassed by how green he was.

I watched anyway, and I have to say that Michael did a fine job. He engaged people, he was genuine in his delivery and people embraced him. For his first seminar, I’d have to give him an A+.

The problem, however, was that Michael’s first sports show seminar weekend by airplane was far from over. His real test was just around the corner.

You see, when we got back to the airport that Saturday night to fly out, we had a small issue: Our flights were cancelled due to a wonderful winter storm that was wreaking havoc on the Midwest.

The seminar speaking was one thing. Being stuck in a strange airport and not knowing when you were going to get out is another thing all together. I forgot to mention that Michael’s first day of practice for an FLW event started the very next morning. He was already spent from traveling and slaying the dragon of public speaking and now he was going to lose a significant amount of critical practice time stuck in an airport.

“What are we going to do G?” he asked me. I could tell he was in total unfamiliar territory now and his anxiety was building. “What do we do now? Where do we go for the night?”

I think Neal thought that when you are a famous professional angler stuck in an airport you just snap your fingers and a limo – or at the very least an Uber – pulls up curbside and takes you to a hotel where they always have a room reserved under the name Gerald Swindle.

Michael was about to find out there was no such a thing as “famous bass pro status” in the world of cancelled flights.

So I told him the truth: We’re going to go over to that bench in front of the Burger King here in the airport and lay down and try to get a few hours of sleep before morning.

At that very moment I could see Michael was thinking: This is not the way a professional fishing career is supposed to be. This part wasn’t in the brochure.

I told him in this game you have to roll with the punches because the only constant is the unexpected. There is a reason for everything. Maybe he wasn’t meant to be on the water the first day of practice. Maybe he would find the winning school of fish the second day of practice because of the travel delay. Maybe on his next flight he would end up sitting next to the president of Catchemup Lures who is looking for a young up-and-coming angler to do a title deal with.

That’s the way my personal slogan of PMA (positive mental attitude) works in life. One of the PMA principles is that today’s bad news leads to tomorrow’s good news. You have to believe that today’s bad unexpected will lead you to tomorrow’s good unexpected. 

As we lay there on that airport bench toe to toe, I thought about this rather unique situation. The veteran pro at one end of the bench and the well groomed rookie on the other. The younger guy wants to learn from the older guy, but at the same time, the older guys wants to see what the younger guy has in the tank, to put him through real world paces off the water for a gut check.

When we rolled off our bench the next morning the first words out of Michael’s mouth were, “Well G, I slept every way but good, how about you?”

I had to laugh because I couldn’t have said it better myself. At that point he had earned my respect.

As we strolled down the concourse and were about to part ways, a young couple came up wanting an autograph and pictures. They were on a honeymoon trip and were big enough fans to pick me out in an airport.

After they left, Michael looked at me and said, “They had no idea you just slept on a bench in the airport did they?”

Nope, because sleeping toe to toe in the airport is not in the brochure.