New faces, going places

Rick Clunn won't be there. Neither will Larry Nixon or Denny Brauer or Woo Daves. When fans at this year's CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch in New Orleans take their seats for the opening weigh-in, a long list of the country's most recognizable professional anglers will be watching the world championship from the stands.

But Tommy Stiles will stand up on the platform before thousands of cheering fans and hold up a couple of bass for the world to see. So will Matt Reed and Tom Hamlin and Mike Gough. And so will Michael Johnson, Jason Quinn, Jay Kendrick and a handful of other anglers whose names might elicit a shrug of the shoulders and a resounding "who?" from a large portion of the Classic spectators.

New anglers are a regular part of every season on the professional bass fishing circuit. Some shoot straight to the top through skill, luck and hard work. Others spend years without coming close to making the cut. But today's new faces are an eclectic mix of young and old, anglers who desperately want to make a long-term career as a professional angler, and anglers who see tournament fishing at the highest level as nothing more than a great way to spend time on the water and perhaps make some supplemental income.

Jason Quinn, a 31-year-old fishing phenomenon from Lake Wylie, S.C., is one of those working toward a long-term career as a professional angler.

After only five years on the pro circuits, the pieces are finally falling into place. He will already be fishing his second Classic and he's picked up a number of sponsors along the way. Quinn is perhaps the most recognizable new angler, thanks to a rather unique look that includes large hoop earrings, a ponytail and a razor-cut goatee, features that you'll never see on Woo Daves or Denny Brauer. Despite his … um, unusual style, he's been widely accepted by the more traditional crowd.

"I've had the earrings since I was 16 and I've worn them throughout the five years I've fished professional tournaments. Nobody has given me a hard time because of the way I look," he says.

The rest of the new faces are anglers who represent a typical cross section of the professional bass fishing scene, guys who might not stand out in a crowd the way Quinn does, but fishermen who have proved that they have the skill to compete against the best anglers in the country.

As Florida angler Mike Gough says, he's just thrilled to be a part of the Classic, no matter how many people don't ask him for his autograph. The Gainesville, Fla., auto repair shop owner has been fishing tournaments since 1980, but this is the first season he devoted his undivided attention to the tournament trail. He qualified through the CITGO Bassmaster Central Division presented by Busch, after two strong Open finishes, including a fifth at the Red River and an eighth at Sam Rayburn.

"I'm from Florida, so I focused on the Central Division because it had more water suitable to my style of fishing. I'm a shallow water and grass fisherman," he says. "I'm looking forward to fishing in this year's Classic because the Louisiana Delta is pretty much suited for the way I fish."

Gough, a participant in an estimated 600 local, regional and national tournaments since he started fishing at the competitive level, is somewhat of an anomaly among recent rookie Classic contenders. At 56, he's unlike so many other younger anglers who enter the pro scene with a hell-bent determination to make professional fishing a lifelong career. He's picked up a few sponsors along the way, but Gough figures he'll have to have a strong finish in order to garner the attention of major sponsors who tend to focus on younger anglers when they offer contracts. If he doesn't do well in this Classic, Gough plans to keep on doing what he's been doing for the past 18 years.

Like Gough, Tom Hamlin of Macon, Ga., is somewhat older than the typical "new" guy on the tournament scene. He's 47 and works full time as a manufacturer's representative for several companies that sell hunting equipment, a job that keeps him from pursuing a career in the fishing industry.

"I never really had a desire to turn pro, because it conflicts with my current job, which I really love. I'm not worried about sponsors, either, because I just couldn't devote the time necessary to do sponsor work," he says. "My goal was to make the Classic, and if I qualify for the Tour next season I'll just keep doing what I've always done. I just enjoy the whole tournament atmosphere."

Tommy Stiles, a general contractor who builds dry kilns for furniture plants, is similar to Gough by the mere fact that he has a full-time job and never really intended to make a living by means of professional fishing. He qualified through the Tour while running his construction business between practice days and tournaments.

"We've built in 17 states, and there have been many occasions where I've gone straight from a tournament to the job site without going home. I've got a wife, a 3-year-old daughter and one on the way, so being away from home fishing and for my construction business can be real tough," says Stiles, who resides in McMinnville, Tenn.

This was his third season on the Tour, but the first time he made it to the Big Show. At 34, Stiles has a relatively long time to decide whether he wants to ease out of the construction business and go full-time pro, but in the meantime, he says he's going to keep juggling both jobs.

"I just keep surprising myself. When I started fishing the Bassmaster Opens, I was just fishing for fun. I just love to fish and compete with other anglers. Then I qualified for the Tour, and doggone, I made it to the Classic! Who knows what I'll end up doing next.

"My goal was to make the Classic, and now that I've made it, my next goal is to win it," he muses.

Despite the thrill of simply qualifying for the biggest tournament in the fishing world, all of the new anglers are going to be fishing to win.

Gough has never fished the Louisiana Delta. Neither has Jason Quinn or Tom Hamlin. But all of them have just as good a chance as the veteran pros and the Classic qualifiers from Louisiana. Professional bass anglers have a way of adjusting to their new surroundings and figuring out the fish.

"The location of the Classic is probably the worst type of water for my style of fishing," says Hamlin, a self-professed deepwater angler, "but I've fished tidal waters before and done well. I'm going to be competitive. I'm taking it serious and I'll be fishing to win."

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