Ohio native Matt Vermilyea developed a strong competitive fire at an early age.
But for the longest time, that fire burned brightest as he circled a dirt track at high speeds on the back of a motorcycle.
“I had a real passion for racing motocross,” Vermilyea said. “I pursued that for quite a few years. Eventually, I had one bad accident that tore up my right knee, and I couldn’t kick start the motorcycle anymore. So I knew it was time for a change.”
That’s when he started fishing tournaments — and the same competitive fire that helped him burn up the motocross circuit has now helped him qualify for the 2016 Bassmaster Elite Series.
After finishing fourth in the points for the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Opens last year, Vermilyea joins this year’s Elite Series as a 46-year-old rookie.
“When I sold my motorcycles, I bought a little aluminum boat, and my father-in-law and I started fishing all over northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan,” Vermilyea said. “On one of our trips, we met some guys from a small club who had just finished a tournament.
“They invited us to fish their next tournament, and that was it for me. I loved it.”
Vermilyea said the club is so small it doesn’t even have an official name. It usually draws 10 to 15 boats per tournament, and the team that finishes last always chooses the next venue.
It was hardly a big-money venture for him. But he says by the second year he fished with the club, his stated goal was to make it to the sport’s highest level.
The route he chose to qualify for the Elite Series was the Northern Opens — and he established himself quickly as a true contender with a 10th-place finish in the season’s first event on the James River in Virginia. He followed that with a 24th-place showing on New York’s Oneida Lake and then cemented his Elite Series invitation with a 45th-place finish on Lake Erie in his home state of Ohio.
His years of success — from those local tournaments back home all the way to the Opens — make him believe he can compete with the best anglers in the world.
“It has not soaked in 100 percent because I’ve been in business mode of trying to get things in order so that I can compete productively,” said Vermilyea, who left his job of 15 years as an auto mechanic to pursue a full-time career in fishing.
“The financial side of this business is tough, and I knew it would be before I got into it. But with the right financial backing, I believe I can compete with anyone.”
Vermilyea’s website already sports a long list of sponsors, including Power-Pole, Bluewater LED and Lew’s. But he’s looking for more to help combat the financial hardships that come with being an Elite Series rookie.
“I’m deeply passionate about bass fishing, but it’s a difficult situation for a rookie,” Vermilyea said. “The most important part of establishing a pro fishing career is surviving that first year. I believe I can make a career out of this with the right support.”
Vermilyea considers himself a finesse fisherman. He quickly responds “drop shotting” when asked about his favorite technique, and he lists ZMan Streakz, Zoom Flukes and Roboworms as his favorite lures.
“I’ve never been huge into crankbaits and power fishing,” Vermilyea said. “I’m definitely more of a finesse guy. I like to go low and slow.”
At the same time, he understands the need for versatility on a tour that crisscrosses the country for seven months.
“When I feel like I need to drop the finesse tactics, I have no problem doing that if that’s what it’s going to take,” Vermilyea said. “If the bites are coming kind of quick or a little more aggressive, it tells me a change might be needed. You can’t be stubborn in this business.”
Though he said he doesn’t pattern his fishing style after any particular angler, he looks up to guys like Aaron Martens, Michael Iaconelli and Kevin VanDam — mostly for the way they conduct themselves in the competitive environment.
Vermilyea is both nervous and excited about competing against the greats of the sport.
“I’m the type of person who believes things happen for a reason,” Vermilyea said. “I’m not going to overthink things and say I need to have a certain finish in the first two or three tournaments. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself.
“I’m 46 years old, and I know this opportunity is only going to come along once. I just want to make the most of it.”