Elite rookies: Stephen Longobardi

Connecticut angler Stephen Longobardi describes himself as a “risk-taker from a family of risk-takers.”

So despite hearing about the potential perils of tackling the Bassmaster Elite Series too early in his career, he never hesitated when he learned earlier this year that he had qualified through the Southern Opens.

He’s in for 2015 — and he’ll be fishing with no fear.

“I understand it’s a big step,” said Longobardi from his home state recently where he was still wishing he could be on the lake though temperatures were in the teens.

“I understand I’ll be fishing against the best in the world. Do I think I am one of the best in the world? Not now. But I believe that I can be.”

The 27-year-old’s journey to the Elite Series was more of a sprint than a marathon.

He fished two Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens as a co-angler in 2012, notching a third-place finish at the Northern Open on New York’s Cayuga Lake in August.

That inspired him to fish the pro side of the Northern and Southern Opens in 2013 and 2014.

“I learned from a lot of great fishermen when I was on the co-angler side,” Longobardi said. “Even on days when I wasn’t catching any fish, I was learning. That’s the thing about this sport. If you look back at your day and you didn’t learn anything, you went backward. Success is learning.”

Of course, there were days when he did some teaching as well.

“I put some whoopings on some people from the back of the boat,” Longobardi said, laughing. “I’m not ashamed to say it.”

That’s confidence, not arrogance.

Longobardi is quick to acknowledge that he’s seen his share of adversity on the professional trail, and he’s had to learn to deal mentally and emotionally with failures and near misses.

During his first full season on the pro side in 2013, he finished 185th, 23rd and 96th in three Southern Open events and 122nd, 81st and 77th in three Northerns. He took what he learned into the 2014 season and immediately set himself up to make the Elite Series cut, finishing 25th in the Southern Open on Lake Toho in January and 38th  in the next event on Smith Lake in March.

From there, he struggled in two Northern Opens while waiting for a chance to vault himself into the Elite Series field during the final Southern Open on Lake Norman in October.

For a moment during that final event, he thought he’d missed his shot.

“I lost a giant spot — the first fish I had broken off all year — that would have easily put me in the Elite Series,” Longobardi said. “I thought, ‘That was it. That was my deal-sealer.’

“But I regrouped by reminding myself of all the positive things that have happened — and with two minutes left, I hooked my limit fish.”

It proved to be just enough as Longobardi finished 10th in the Southern Open standings.

Now, along with being excited about traveling the country as an Elite Series pro, he’s dealing with the same stresses that all young budding pros face.

He says he has four “great friends” who have their ears to the ground helping him identify potential sponsors, and he spends time on the computer every day aiding with that search himself. He also has the full support of his parents, Cindy and Stephen Longobardi; his grandparents, Richard and Jennifer Latkowski, and his girlfriend of more than a year, Carolyn Yaccarino.

He’s currently working with his father as project manager of a building maintenance operation, and he plans to still work every hour he can even when the tournament season begins.

“I know my life is going to get busier and busier as I pick up sponsors and start doing shows,” Longobardi said. “But I’ll be working with my dad until I’m getting paid by sponsors and getting my expenses covered, and I’m certainly not there yet.”

Maybe not. But his marketability seems obvious.

The nickname “SAFO,” which is short for “Stick a Fat One,” has stuck with him since he used it as his AOL Instant Messenger screen name during his freshman year at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. It fits his boisterous personality perfectly.

He describes himself as a power fisherman who loves the “0-to-100 mph adrenaline rush” he gets when a bass hammers a deep-diving crankbait. But he’s also skilled with a Texas rig, shaky heads, drop shot rigs and every angler’s favorite, topwater.

“My ultimate thrill would be to catch a great white shark on a topwater lure,” Longobardi joked. “Can you imagine that? I’d like that to be my first TV show.”

But Jaws can wait.

For now, he’s focused on the Elite Series and a lofty set of goals for the 2015 season.

“I understand I haven’t won a tournament yet,” Longobardi said. “I haven’t stayed at any one level long enough to really dominate. But I’m setting my sights high. I’d like to make the Angler of the Year Championship and qualify for the Classic. I’ve never been there, and I really want to go.

“Whatever happens, I’m already living a dream.”