Meet the Elites: Chris Zaldain

Born and raised in San Jose, Calif., Chris Zaldain is what you’d call a self-taught bass fanatic. He spent a lot of time with his dad trout fishing along the Colorado River, but it was his years of devotion to The Bassmasters TV show that piqued his interest and attracted him to tournament fishing.

Youth hockey initially fueled Zaldain’s competitive fire, and it would be several years before he’d “take the plunge” as a Bassmaster Elite Series pro. The road to that point was one of diligent preparation punctuated by a willingness to seize an opportunity.

“I was a technician at a Silicon Valley semiconductor company where we produced chips for cellphones and wireless devices,” Zaldain said. “There’s always a job in the tech world, so I was making good money to save up for what I really wanted to do — become a professional bass fisherman.

“I was going to junior college and starting a degree in Criminal Justice, and in 2005 I won a bass boat as an amateur in a Bassmaster Open. Once I received that boat it was, ‘Let’s go fishing and not finish school.’ That was my ticket out of the backseat, so I can say I worked my way up to the front of the boat.”

Zaldain would spend the next two years studying the ins and outs of serious tournament competition. He’d work four 12-hour shifts and then take three days learning how to flip on the California Delta or fish swimbaits on Clear Lake.

Comfortable with his skills, Zaldain competed in the FLW Series Western events for four years and qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup in each season. Despite his success, he felt he needed to push himself toward a higher goal.

“I knew if I really wanted to make a career out of this, I had this feeling in my heart that the Bassmaster Elite Series was the stage I wanted to build a career on,” Zaldain said. “In 2011, I decided to travel from California and fish the Bassmaster Opens (as a pro). I didn’t have a running mate; it was just me.

“I was holding a 12-hour-a-day job back home, and I traveled from California to Missouri and back, California to Oklahoma and back and California to Texas and back. I finished first in points so I was Angler of the Year, and that’s what qualified me for the Elite Series in 2012. I set the goal and crushed it in one year.”

Since his rookie season, Zaldain has notched 10 top-10 Elite finishes, including a win at the 2015 Toyota Angler of the Year Championship at Sturgeon Bay.

Notably, competitive fishing led Zaldain to his wife, Trait — a native Texan named for country/western icon George Strait. After earning a Political Science degree from Southern Methodist University, Trait worked in the Dallas finance scene and moved some pretty big numbers. Although that fast-paced environment eventually lost its appeal, she garnered business insights that have proven helpful in managing sponsorships for herself and her husband — who proudly points out that his wife has her own line of Wright & McGill rods.

“When she decided that life was too stressful, she saw that there was a career opportunity in fishing, so she decided to pursue it,” Zaldain said. “She borrowed her dad’s boat to fish the Opens as a pro in 2012, and I met her at one of the Opens on Table Rock. I saw her determination and introduced myself and the rest is history.

“She now travels with me on the Elite Series and the Opens. It’s kind of unique; we have two trucks and boats. It’s two anglers, two personalities, but we make it work and it works out great.”

Drawn by their love for the dessert lakes along the Colorado River, the Zaldains spent about two years in Nevada, before planting their roots in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in early 2018. Trait’s family lives nearby, but this move also served a career objective.

“This is closer to the Elite events we have throughout the year and it’s just easier travel-wise; you get to spend more time at home between events,” he said.

Leaving his sparkling western lakes for silty Texas waters has presented a significantly different environment, but there is a welcomed trade-off.

“Growing up in California and reading Bassmaster Magazine, I saw these pictures of standing timber and that’s just not something we have out west,” he said. “Standing timber is the most picturesque type of bass cover, but we never had that growing up. But it’s on every lake in (this area), so I traded the deep, clear, rocky lakes for silted, stained lakes with standing timber.”

The culture’s pretty different, too — a lot more Republicans than Democrats. But politics aside, Zaldain said he appreciates the significantly higher emphasis placed on protecting and preserving the black bass resource.

“It seems that everyone is a hunter or an angler here, whereas in California, towing a bass boat down a six-lane freeway, you get these looks like, ‘What is that thing?’” Zaldain said. “In California, it always seems like a political war over water rights and the outdoorsmen come in second to other purposes.

“Texas Parks and Wildlife does a great job of conserving the fisheries and their Sharelunker Program (recognizes and rewards anglers for catching and releasing bass of 13 pounds or more) is one way that they continue to provide the anglers a future in bass fishing by creating lunker size fish.”

All those big fish are, no doubt offering Zaldain plenty of opportunities to continue honing his already impressive skill set.