A rookie’s education

All of the anglers who ever won a Bassmaster Elite Series event or a Bassmaster Angler of the Year title all had one thing in common: They were once rookies feeling their way through a profession that’s different than what most aspiring pros expect.

I used to see it every year when I did rookie profiles for Bassmaster.com. Before the season, I’d talk to this bright-eyed young kid who seemed to have the world by the tail. Then when the season was over — or perhaps even sooner — I’d talk to that same kid again, and he’d look and sound like he’d aged 20 years.

Pursuing a life as a pro angler is as noble a dream as I can think of. But the guys who do best are the ones who go in with their eyes wide open. The ones who understand that even a job you love is still very much a job.

This sport can humble you in a hurry — and we saw evidence of it in the first two events of the 2022 season.

Japanese rookie Masayuki Matsushita placed third at the season-opener on the St. Johns River, earning a solid check for $30,000. Then a week later, just down the road at the Harris Chain of Lakes, he tumbled to 83rd place.

Then there was Hawaiian rookie Matty Wong — a charismatic former aspiring actor turned bass pro who qualified for the Elite Series by winning the 2021 B.A.S.S. Nation Championship.

Wong spent some time in the Top 10 at the St. Johns River before finishing a more-than-respectable 21st. Then he got the Harris Chain humility reminder as well, when he finished 92nd — two spots up from dead last — in the season’s second tournament.

A dose of humility from week to week is nothing new in pro bass fishing — and it’s certainly not reserved for the rookies. Veteran Virginia pro John Crews won the St. Johns event, collecting his first $100,000 paycheck in a decade, and then joked about falling all the way to 76th place at the Harris Chain.

There’s a lesson in Crews’ behavior for all of the rookies on tour — and all the ones in years to come.

In this sport, you have to roll with the punches. Realize last week means nothing, this week means little and next week means everything.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how hard it is to qualify for the Elite Series through the Opens. I’ve agreed with every word of it.

But don’t think for a second that’s the toughest part.

The really hard part for the rookies comes right now when they’re forced to do battle with all of the guys who have a head start on them — in some cases by 15 to 20 years. The older guys are not only ahead when it comes to experience in big events on the water, they have a Rolodex filled with sponsors and potential sponsors that every rookie should envy.

I’ve often wondered what should be the goal for a rookie season. Obviously, Falcon Rods Bassmaster Rookie of the Year is a good one, but there can only be one of those.

I think a berth in the Classic, even if you’re one of the final qualifiers, is a total victory for an angler walking the path of a rookie.

But the biggest thing is simply not to let the sport get inside your head.

The Elite Series season is a nine-leg race, and a pro fishing career is a full-length marathon.