Gary and Cheryl Sullivan fished in plenty of club bass tournaments in north Texas back in the 1990s with their infant son nestled in the bottom of their boat.
So when Bassmaster Elite Series pro Randy Sullivan says he was “born fishing,” he’s pretty much on target.
The 26-year-old Sullivan grew up in the tiny town of Woodson, Texas, out where U.S. 183 and Texas Farm to Market Road 209 meet midway between Abilene and Wichita Falls. There wasn’t much to do in the area except fish, Woodson said, so wetting a line was a family pastime for the Sullivans as long as he can remember.
“That’s what I’ve always loved to do,” he said. “Any vacation we took, anything with the family, we were always fishing.”
And bass fishing, in particular, has been such a mainstay in his life that Sullivan doesn’t remember much about the first rod he rigged or the first bass he caught.
Sullivan remembers the first tournament he won fishing alone quite well, however.
“I had been fishing with my dad in the Breckenridge (Texas) Bass Club,’ he said. “Then when I was 15, I entered an open tournament the Knights of Columbus put on over at Hubbard Creek. My mom drove me to the ramp because I couldn’t legally drive myself there.
“There were about 25 boats entered, and I wound up winning,” Sullivan said.
And to a 15-year-old kid, a $1,000 first prize can do a lot to ramp up the desire to be a professional angler. He beefed up his arsenal of rods and tackle with the cash and continued to refine his skills. Sullivan already had excellent technique at a young age, but by that point, competitors were beginning to take notice of his intuition on the water as well.
“The fish were starting to come up to spawn that day,” he said. “I threw a square bill and nobody else was really throwing that. I just used what I thought would work.
“I can remember weighing-in, and the older guys are looking at me (sizing me up). I thought, ‘I could be pretty good at this.’”
Sullivan was a multi-sport athlete in high school, but bass fishing had already become his primary source of competition. He began traveling to tournaments throughout Texas, and when he attended college at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, he and his friend Hubbell Allen started the bass fishing club there. In four tournaments they entered, he and Allen won two, finished second in another and were Top 20 in an FLW college championship event.
After graduating in 2014, he entered his first Bassmaster Open a year later. The Bass Pro Shops Central Open No. 1 on Ross Barnett Reservoir in Mississippi was a tough lesson for the young Sullivan, though. His lower unit broke on Day 1 of the Open, and he lost all his weight. He wasn’t productive at all on Day 2, and he wound up finishing 186th with only 1 pound, 14 ounces caught and counted.
He bounced back impressively, however, with a top-10 finish on Oklahoma’s Fort Gibson Lake in the second Central Open of the season. He finished 26th on the third and final Open that year on Table Rock Lake in Missouri.
“The best thing that terrible finish at Ross Barnett did for me was it took the pressure off,” Sullivan said. “I knew I couldn’t do much worse, so I just went out and fished.”
The finish made him confident, but he slipped again to start the 2016 Central Opens; finishing 80th on the Arkansas River in Oklahoma and 129th on the Red River in northern Louisiana. He closed with a 17th place showing on the Atchafalaya Delta later that year in south Louisiana, but the ups and downs of tournament fishing were wearing on Sullivan, who said he is “super competitive.”
“I told myself that 2017 was going to be the last year I was going to do this,” he said. “I was learning a lot, but I had to take the pressure off and say, ‘If it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, oh well.'”
Positive things did happen to start the 2017 Central Opens. Sullivan finished sixth in tournaments on both Table Rock and the Sabine River, and though he finished 75th in the season-ending Open at Grand Lake in Oklahoma, he qualified for the 2018 Elite Series.
Sullivan finished in the top 50 in four of the eight Elite Series events held in 2018. His best showings came on a varied selection of fisheries, too. He placed 20th at Lake Oahe in South Dakota, 44th at the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York and 49th on both Kentucky Lake and the Sabine River that splits Louisiana and Texas.
Sullivan earned a $10,000 check at each of those stops and finished sixth of nine anglers tracked in the 2018 Rookie of the Year standings. He said he learned a lot on the road with the Elites in 2018 and is certain that experience will do nothing but help him in 2019.
“Being a part of the Elite Series last year (gives me a built-in advantage),” he said. “I’m not going to be scared. I won’t get flustered. I know that people tell themselves the same things all the time, but you have to push out the negative thoughts."
Sullivan said he refuses to have expectations when it comes to the 2019 Elite Series. He doesn’t want to give limits to his possibilities, nor does he want the undue stress “possibilities” can unwittingly establish.
“I don’t shoot for anything,” he admitted. “I’m just gonna’ go out and have fun and do what I do best. That’s the best thing I can do, really. I’m already hyper competitive, so I can’t overthink. If I’m having fun, I’ll be doing a whole lot better.”