Drew Cook and the rise of the T-shirt guys

Bassmaster Elite Series rookie Drew Cook is one of the surprises for the 2019 season.

If you’ve fished local or regional bass tournaments for any period of time, you know that each circuit develops into its own ecosystem – complete with cliques, anglers to beat and a pecking order. You’ll know your competition by their jerseys and their boats, all glitter and logos, and there are rarely any surprises. 

And then one day “T-shirt guy” shows up. 

Ninety percent of the field may have weighed in, and as they’re getting their tournament jerseys ready to pose with their trophies, they’ve already spent the prize money on more baits.

T-shirt guy’s not having any of that. He slaps 20 pounds on the scale, takes over the top spot by a substantial margin and leaves everyone else wondering what just happened.

They’ve never seen him before. Didn’t notice him at blast-off, or if they did they assumed he was just donating an entry fee.

He might vanish into the ether, or come back and become a regular, but at that moment it’s a shock to everyone. The apple cart has been upset. Thank you very much for playing, have a safe ride home.

With four events in the books, for some veteran pros who expected to clean up, the 2019 Bassmaster Elite Series season has been a recurring series of T-shirt guys worthy of the movie Groundhog Day. Every time out there’s some new dude who you disregarded claiming mega-attention with a monster bag. I follow this stuff as closely as just about anyone on earth, and I’m not ashamed to admit that several times I’ve had to check and recheck the standings to make sure that we weren’t being punked.

As far as I can tell, 24-year-old Florida rookie Drew Cook may be the archetype of this model. I’d never heard of him prior to the season, and I found myself looking him up after he finished fourth at Hartwell to rise to first in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race.

Was it comedian Dane Cook? 

Or perhaps comedian and former game show host Drew Carey?

But three straight checks to start his Elite Series career were not a laughing matter.

I called him up recently and had to choose my words carefully: “Dude, please don’t take this the wrong way, but who are you?”

Unlike baseball, our sport typically does not have Roy Hobbs type “Naturals” or legends like George Plimpton’s Sidd Finch. We expect our heroes to earn their position, eating peanut butter sandwiches on the way up, sleeping in their trucks and slogging through the Opens for a few years before making “The Show.” And we expect them to come from the traditional hotbeds where the fishing is varied – Arkansas, Alabama, Texas. When one shows up from an outlying place like Idaho, as Brandon Palaniuk did less than a decade ago, we judge them extra carefully from the start.

Who would expect a Florida pro like Cook to come out of the gate this hot? I mean, guys down there basically glue a flipping stick in their hand at the beginning of the year and then remove it for Christmas. They might throw a spinnerbait a few times on odd-numbered Fridays, and a Devil’s Horse for a week in the spring, but if they’re not around matted grass they get a bad case of the jitters. I called Cook to ask where he’d developed his chops. 

“I live on a lake in Florida, but it’s not a ‘Florida lake,’” he explained. “It doesn’t have grass, it has ledges, like a mini-Kentucky Lake. I’m a few minutes away from the Apalachicola River, so we have river fishing too. And it’s just 20 minutes to Seminole, one of the best grass lakes in the world.” 

He also used the stepping stone of college fishing to sharpen his skills, and by the time he’d graduated from Florida State he was ready to conquer the Opens. It was a good decision and a good game plan, because a year later he’s graduated to the majors and quickly gained a spot at the top of the starting rotation.

Despite the strong start – 18th, 12th, fourth and 39th place finishes – he still finds himself not only fourth in the AOY race, but also second in the Rookie of the Year race, behind fellow wunderkind Patrick Walters. The latter angler has been something of a thorn in Cook’s side, not only leading him this year, but also narrowly beating him to win last year’s Central Open on the Red River. Cook says that the two are close and respectful, and he bears no ill will.

“We fished against each other in college, and then in the Opens, and we traveled together some,” he explained. “It’s pretty cool that we are first and second [in ROY] duking it out. A lot of the new guys fished in college – me, Patrick, Garrett Paquette and Tyler Rivet – and now we’re all here.”