Meet the Elites: Chad Pipkens

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James Overstreet

Chad Pipkens has proven himself skilled at finding fish, but there’s an inspiring back story that shows how the Elite angler was equally skillful at finding his way into professional fishing. 

Born and raised in Holt, Mich., Pipkens cut his teeth on Great Lakes perch and winter ice fishing, but he caught the bass bug as a teen when he started fishing local ponds with high school pals. He fished his first tournament at age 16 with a friend’s dad. Although they managed just one small bass, he knew he was hooked on the notion of matching wits with fish and fishermen. 

Not surprising since Pipkens also competed in soccer and ice hockey throughout his youth.

“I grew up playing sports competitively, I love the outdoors, I love speed and I love to play blackjack,” Pipkens said. “Everything I like to do is in a fishing tournament — the competition, beating nature, the thrill of the catch, the speed, a little bit of gambling. All of that boils down into a bass tournament.”

Interesting perspective, but boat show aisles are heavily trafficked by “someday” anglers perpetually pondering pro careers. What separates doers from dreamers is a plan of attack — typically a road paved with sacrifice and discipline.

Such was the course for one Chad Pipkens. 

In 2007, he earned his Bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University with a major in Mathematics and a minor in Physical Education. Teaching was his original career path, but as we’ll soon see, plans often change — and test one’s mettle. 

Make it happen

After college, Pipkens installed prison phone systems, substitute taught, refereed ice hockey games, worked in construction and landscaping, started a residential/commercial painting company and earned a financial services license (retirement planning, annuities, insurance).

In recent years, he has pared down his operations to focus on the painting work, along with rental properties, but Pipkens looks back on his building years as the necessary investment to the life he now enjoys.

That’s why, to him, excuse-making sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard.

“I used to work 40-hour weeks during the day and then I reffed hockey every single night,” he said. “I’d ref men’s leagues during the week and then on the weekends, I’d work college club games and high school tournaments and travel for tournaments as well. I use to be on the ice 40 hours a week, on top of working 40-50 hours a week.

“I hate when I hear ‘I finally had the time or I finally had the money (to become a pro),” Pipkens said. “Well, I didn’t have either; I made time and I made money and I did it by working 90 hours a week. I lived at home with my parents until I was 30 to get rid of (debts). You make the necessary sacrifices to get to that level. If you want it, you figure out a way to make it happen.”

For Pipkens, making it happen often meant nearly nonstop work weeks. 

“I’d get up at 6:30 to substitute teach for eight hours and make pennies or I’d work during the day with my paint company,” he said. “At night, I’d ref two hockey games at 10:30 and 11:40 p.m. and make good money doing that. On the weekends, I’d work Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

Formative years

Pipkens started fishing tournaments regularly during his senior year of high school, and a couple of years into his college pursuits, he fished a full season of Bass Fishing League events as a co-angler. Fortunately, he drew several local sticks who taught him the ways of lakes Erie and St. Clair. Expanding on this knowledge positioned Pipkens for a pivotal moment that helped launch his professional career.

Notably, Pipkens’ graduation plan involved moving to North Carolina to teach in a climate that offered him more year-round, open-water fishing opportunities. He had already accepted a job offer when fate dealt him a game-changing hand. 

“In 2007, I fished one FLW Tour event on the Detroit River as a co-angler and I met (Tour pro) Shad Schenk, so I helped him out there,” Pipkens recalls. “He had a really good event there (third place), and he said ‘If you’re serious about this fishing thing, I’d love to have you travel with me the next couple of years. I’ll take care of expenses, we can work together and you can still work when you’re back home.’ 

“I called the principal (in North Carolina) and told him my situation. He told me ‘Teaching will always be here for you, but you have to chase your dreams and do what you want to do with your life.’ That’s the year (2008) I started my painting company, and that’s when I started my path to professional fishing.”

Pipkens spent four years on the road with Schenk, and while he learned a lot about the national tournament scene, he recalls a particular lesson that gave him the nudge he needed to step on the gas and reach for the dream he’s now living. 

“He always said: ‘If you want it bad enough, it’s not a question of if, it’s just when. So many things have to line up,’” Pipkens said.

Coming together

In 2012, things did, indeed, line up: Pipkens boosted his financial picture by notching five top 10 finishes, with one victory in FLW competition, and earned his spot on the Bassmaster Elite Series by winning the 2012 Bassmaster Northern Opens points championship.

“So, not only was I ready for my spot on the Elite Series, but everything came together financially,” he said. “That was a pretty special year.”

Since then, Pipkens has claimed eight top 10s — four on the Elite Series and four in the Northern Opens, including a 2014 win on Lake St. Clair.

Given the amount of time he spends alone in tournament competition, he enjoys filling his free time by playing ice hockey and spending time with friends, either ice fishing, tailgating for Michigan State University and Detroit Lions games, or engaging in yard games like his favorite — cornhole (bean bag toss).

Does Chad Pipkens have a cornhole game plan? You can bet he does, but you’ll have to play him to find out.