Before Wisconsin’s Pat Schlapper signed up to fish the 2020 Bassmaster Eastern Opens, he was living the American dream. He had a secure job he enjoyed at Scheels All Sports, buying and selling fishing tackle and other outdoor products.
Schlapper began working for the company part time while attaining a bachelor of education degree. After graduating from college, he went to work for Scheels full time.
Sixteen years later he was set for life. He had a home, a lovely wife, a black lab, a nice income and a retirement plan that would allow him to retire at 60.
So why, at age 37, did he decided to give up this secure existence and pursue the risky fantasy of becoming a Bassmaster Elite Series pro?
“When you’re growing up, everybody tells you to live your dream,” Schlapper said. “Then you graduate from college and everybody tells you to get a job, get married and make as much money as you can so you can retire. Before I knew it, I was caught up in that.”
A number of things made Schlapper reflect on the path he following. One of his friends suffered a bad car accident. Several of his bones were broken, some so severely that it would take years for him to make a full recovery. Another reality alarm was the day a co-worker died of a seizure while at work.
“He was only 38 years old with a wife and kids,” Schlapper said. “I had seen him the day before it happened. It was a true shock to me and a lot of other people who knew him.”
These and other incidents drove home to Schlapper just how short and fragile life truly is.
He began to revisit visions he’d had while growing up of becoming a professional bass angler. His earliest fishing experiences were casting for walleye and pike with his father, Donn, and grandpa, Ray, who passed several years ago.
Around age 13 he began fishing for bass with his friend Josh Peck. One of their fathers would drop them off at one of several nearby lakes in Northwest Wisconsin where they would cast from his father’s 18-foot Smoker Craft aluminum boat.
Peck’s brother in law, Kevin Bartsch, is the person Schlapper credits with teaching him how to fish for bass.
“He was a very good angler,” Schlapper said. “I was fortunate to have someone like him to get me started.”
Bartsch was eight years older than Schlapper. Cancer took his life in 2016. Schlapper keeps a photo of him in his truck.
When Schlapper was 14 his bass fanaticism encouraged his father to start fishing local team tournaments with him. In 2006 he became a charter member of the B.A.S.S. Nation affiliated Chippewa Valley Bass Attack Club. It is now one of the largest bass clubs in Wisconsin, Schlapper stated.
While working at Scheels, Schlapper continued to compete in club and local tournaments and to do well. He won Wisconsin’s B.A.S.S. Nation state championship on Wisconsin’s Chippewa Flowage, which is one of his favorite bodies of water. This qualified him to fish the Northern Regional at Minnesota’s Lake Vermillion, which he also won.
That victory earned him an invitation to fish the 2020 TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship at Pickwick Lake in November of 2020. He dominated the event with a three-day total of 51 pounds, 10 ounces. It was more than 7 pounds heavier than the second-place angler weighed in.
The victory made Schlapper’s Elite Series fantasy a life changing reality. His prize included $20,000 cash, an invite to fish the 2021 Elite Series and $16,000 in paid entry fees to those events. B.A.S.S. will also loan Schlapper a wrapped “Nation’s Best” bass boat to use while fishing the Elite Series.
Schlapper also finished third in the Eastern Opens Angler of the Year standings for 2020. Since he finished the year fourth or better in the AOY standings, he double qualified for the 2021 Elites.
“I always felt I could compete at a higher level because of my success in Wisconsin and Minnesota,” Schlapper said. “But I thought I was too far into my career at Scheels to give it up and try for the Elites.”
Before making the breaking bass decision to chase his Elite Series dream, Schlapper talked to his father and his future wife, Brittany, and asked them what he should do. Both of them told him to go for it or he would regret not doing so for the rest of his life.
Over the next two years he worked on an exit strategy that would allow him to have the funds needed to compete in the Bassmaster Opens. Scheels agreed to let him work there part time, which has been extremely helpful.
“Scheels is one of the best companies anybody could work for,” Schlapper said. “After my last full-time day there, the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. So far, this has been the least stressful and happiest year of my life. This is this how I want to live until I retire.”
His goal is simply to be happy and to do well enough in the Elites that his wife can travel to the tournaments with him.
Schlapper’s 2020 sponsors included The Boat Center, Bear Paw Landing and Markquart Motors.