Perseverance has paid off for Oklahoma's Joel Baker, who made the Bassmaster Elite Series in his second attempt to turn pro.
Baker remembers the first tournament he ever fished was with his friend Clay Pilkington in a buddy event at Oolagah Lake when he was 18 years old. “Basically it was in my backyard,” he recalled. “I caught one-3 pounder, and I was just really excited.”
He recalls entering the 11-boat tournament with the idea that luck determined the winner. “I thought you just started fishing as hard as you could anywhere and whoever got lucky and fell upon some fish was going to win,” said Baker.
After the tournament, Baker’s dad explained to him that there was actually some strategy involved in finding the fish and developing a technique to catch them. He credits his dad with helping him develop as a tournament competitor and providing him with a boat in his early tournament years.
The teen angler learned the importance of strategy during his next tournament, which he planned on fishing with his cousin at Kaw Lake. “When we got there, though, we found out he was too young to fish it,” Baker said. “The guys who were there said the guy who had won the tournament the last couple of years didn’t have a partner, so they asked him if I could fish with him.”
The two-time tournament winner agreed to take on Baker as a partner, and they teamed up to win the event and $1,800. “Ever since then I was hooked,” said Baker, who couldn’t remember the name of the angler.
After competing for a while in the Angler’s Choice circuit in Texas as a co-angler, Baker fished Bass Fishing League (BFL) events from 1995 to 2009. He qualified for five regional tournaments and made the BFL All-American in 2009.
During the late 1990s, Baker competed in the Central Pro-Am circuit and had success against some stiff competition. “That was the circuit where I learned you really have to bring it,” Baker said. “When we would go to Missouri and I would have to fish against (former Bassmaster Classic qualifier) Jim Eakins and (five-time BFL winner) Terry Thomas on their home lake at Table Rock, that is where I learned it is not a game anymore.”
In 1998, Baker finished fifth in a Central Pro-Am event at Truman Lake and took second place in the Central Pro-Am championship at Grand Lake. “I realized I had some skills then,” he said. “As my successes piled up, I realized that I was decent and that I could compete with anybody.”
Competing in the Rayovac FLW Series starting in 2000 was the next challenge for Baker. He qualified for one Rayovac championship while fishing off and on in the Midwest and Central divisions of the circuit until 2009.
The Talala, Okla., plumber took his first shot at becoming a pro when he entered the FLW Tour in 2001. He had a solid rookie year and qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup, but Baker struggled the next two years and when his stepson died in a car wreck he decided to quit the circuit in 2003. “I couldn’t really concentrate on what I needed to do,” said Baker.
While trying to build up his plumbing business, Baker continued to compete in local tournaments and Bassmaster Weekend Series events. Baker’s second chance to turn pro materialized when an old tournament partner, Dustin Lester, asked Baker to fish the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Opens and room with him for a year. Baker accepted and started competing in the Opens in 2012. He earned his call to the Elites by finishing fourth in the 2013 Central Opens point standings.
The 55-year-old Baker lists slow rolling spinnerbaits in deep water, flipping soft plastics in willow trees and Carolina rigging as his favorite tournament tactics. He favors fishing stained shallow water and should get plenty of opportunities with Elite Series events set for Toledo Bend, Lake Dardanelle and the Delaware River.