Seeking Elite status

Janet Parker aims to become first female to qualify for Bassmaster Elite Series.

BRANSON, Mo. — Tomorrow will be the most important day of Janet Parker’s life as a bass pro.

If she does well on Thursday, the first day of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open’s season finale, she’ll be well on her way to being the first woman to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series.

To qualify is one thing. To turn Elite is another. Parker has already declared her intention to compete in the sport’s top tier of competition, against the sport’s best. If she gets the chance.

What she needs is enough poundage Thursday from Table Rock Lake to stay in the top five in Central Open points; right now she sits in the No. 2 spot. Alternately, she’d have to be brilliant on Friday, Day Two, to make up for a poor Day One. And hope that others at the top of the points list don’t fare as well. For when it shakes out on Saturday, only the top five in points will receive automatic invitations to join the Elite Series.

Parker means to be one of them.

She’s invested 10 days of practice on Table Rock over the past few weeks. She has spots, she has patterns, she has an arsenal of lures.

She has confidence. Wednesday, the eve of competition, she described her state of mind in an unusual way.

“I’m feeling froggy,” she said.

That’s a term she picked up when she raced motor bikes about eight years ago. It means, she explained, up to the challenge, optimistic, ready to jump.

The wild card for her is Table Rock’s rapidly changing conditions. Less than a week ago, the area was enjoying Indian Summer. Table Rock water was in the mid-70s. But the weather turned late Monday. Ice-cold rain covered the area Monday night and Tuesday morning. The water temperature dropped to the low 60s. The air temp was barely above freezing on Wednesday morning, Parker’s final practice session. (She usually takes Wednesday to organize her tackle, run errands and get her mind set for competition.)

“The shad are behaving differently than what I saw earlier,” she said Wednesday. Like any pro, she stays tuned to what bass are eating to better predict how she can find and catch them.

Like most of the field, she expects tough fishing on Thursday. “But I’m just going fishing,” she said. “I’ve done everything I can do up to this point, and now I’m just going to go fishing.”

At Wednesday’s pairing and briefing, she drew boat No. 48 in a field of 134 pros. Her co-angler is from Utah, so she won’t have any input from a local sharing her boat — not that she’d wished for that, or even wanted to ask.

She said she’d be at the ramp at 5:15 Thursday morning. First boats go out at 7:15 a.m., so at No. 48, she’ll have time to do what needs done. Being early means no chances taken. Not in this tournament.

When the tournament is over Saturday, she’ll either have in her hand the coveted invitation, or she won’t. She will write history as the first woman in the upper echelon of the sport, or she won’t.

No, Oct. 20, 2011, is a date she won’t soon forget.

Who is Janet Parker?

On the road 42 to 46 weeks of the year, Janet Parker lives in the homes of others. Unseen others. She books the rental online or by phone and rarely meets the owner.

“As much as I travel, I have to be careful, be safe. I don’t want to be even seen in a motel parking lot, working on my boat, or walking to and from a room. I look for a condo or rental house everywhere I go that’s far from where others might be staying,” she said. “Besides, I don’t like to hear the ‘dock talk.’ ”

An Oklahoma native, Parker owns a home in Little Elm, Texas, on the shores of Lake Lewisville. Perhaps it isn’t logical for her to maintain a home, but she has a reason.

“Because it’s a place I can call mine, all mine.” She’s definite about that.

She has competed in the Central Opens for two years now, but it’s public appearances, media interviews and her “day job” that keep her on the road. She is a vice president for a company that offers corporate fishing retreats. Much of the legwork for a booking is by cell phone, then she’s on site to coordinate each event.

In between are appearances at boat shows, stores, conferences, and other events. She and her Aaron’s-wrapped Ranger boat are in up to six NASCAR race parades a year. She often leads the parade at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway, especially in events sponsored by Aaron’s.

That’s why her boat is nicknamed the “Dream Machine,” as in the NASCAR “Dream Machine,” the Aaron’s car driven by Michael Waltrip and David Reutimann.

The Aaron’s sponsorship came to her. It happened early in her career, when she first competed as a pro in the Women’s Bassmaster Tour. Aaron’s received her resume, liked what they saw, and has sponsored her for years. She has several other major sponsors, including Ranger Boats, Evinrude and Dobyns Rods.

The portable tackle garage

On the kitchen counter of Parker’s rental unit for the Table Rock tournament: jigheads, hardbaits, skirts, Super Glue, worm weights, packs of worms, spools of line. These pieces of tackle are separated only by inches from a bag of bad-for-you donuts, a box of good-for-you-cereal, energy bars. Pushed up beside a Stradic reel box are a fistful of nail files and a travel pack of Advil.

The dining table has chairs for four, eating room for none, for this too is covered with tackle. All five shelves of a dining room baker’s rack are neatly stacked with reels, spools of line, and other tackle. One shelf is stacked with her signature ball caps, white with the logo she designed, a simple intertwining of her initials, “JP.”

This is nothing compared to the back porch. From here is a second-story view of the Ozark Mountains in October, but most visible are the stacks and stacks of labeled boxes made of ghost-colored plastic. Inside is a tackle store’s worth of plastic baits. Hard baits. Line. Terminal tackle. Boxed reels. In another corner, propped against the porch rail and a barbecue grill, are scores of rods.

A pink extension cord snakes from the porch outlet, down the hill and to the street. This is the feeding tube for the Dream Machine’s batteries.

Parker likes to tinker with lures, change them up, modify them in ways no one else does. She has a big bag of tricks. She’s made it a science. She’ll appear at the dock Thursday morning with every lure she intends to use that day tied on, ready to go, but out of sight. She is careful not to share secrets.

Stray kittens

Wherever Janet Parker goes, stray animals seem to find her, she says. In Branson, she befriended a hungry but friendly kitten. She even found it a home. Another kitten appeared a few days later, thin and wet. She fed that one, too. She said she’s allergic to cat fur. One touch of a cat hair to her eyes and they will swell shut.

She’s careful to wash her hands a lot around cats.

Dogs don’t produce the same reaction, though, and she owns two. One, a border collie, travels with her sometimes, depending on if she can find a pet-friendly place to rent.

Her parents sometimes drive from Oklahoma to support her during tournaments.

But mostly she’s alone, traveling from town to town, event to event. She said her parents didn’t take her on trips when she was young, so she didn’t get her love of the road from them.

“I think maybe I like to travel because I didn’t go far from home when I was growing up,” she said.

As a teen, her summers were spent working at her mother’s canoe rental business on the lower Illinois and Arkansas River, near her home. When she graduated from high school, she decided to see more of the world. The job she landed was an airline attendant for Eastern Airlines. She was assigned to New York City routes, and moved to Astoria, N.Y.

That lasted about 6 months. The job was a lot less glamorous than she imaged. She rarely got to see a destination city. The in-flight work was so exhausting, and the hours so taxing, she craved sleep, not tours of a city.

“That showed me quickly the value of an education, and where I’d be without one,” she said.

She decided to go into medicine. At the time, a bachelor’s program was available to become a physician’s assistant, and Parker decided to try it. She finished her studies in 1997, and started out with a job in Oklahoma. She then secured a job in Utah. She worked in both a family practice and in obstetrics. During the latter, she delivered 28 babies.

“Those 28 days still stand as the best 28 days of my life,” she said. “Delivering a baby — there’s something magical about it.”

She left her PA career for “personal reasons.” Still loving children — she has none of her own — she decided to become a teacher. She went back to school and earned a biology degree with a chemistry minor, and a second degree in liberal arts. After obtaining a teaching certificate, she taught science to seventh- and eighth-graders in the Dallas area.

“The kids were great, the parents were not,” she said. She lasted three years before the stress got to her. Her symptoms mimicked those of ALS, (Lou Gehrig's Disease), and she consequently was diagnosed with the fatal disease. It was a turning point.

“I decided that if I only had a few years left, I was going to use them doing something I really loved. That was professional bass fishing,” she said.

She’d been fishing all her life. A woman named Viola Lassiter, whom Parker describes as “an honorary God-grandmother” took her bank fishing as a young kid. They used minnows and caught mostly crappie and bass.

By about age 12, she was fishing often with her “Grandpa Jack Spencer” on the lower Arkansas River. It was mainly trolling, she remembers.

“He would take me out fishing whenever I wanted to go. That was my first introduction to reaction baits.”

Later, as a teacher, she turned back to fishing as a stress-reliever. One day, fishing from the bank at her Lake Lewisville home, a man in a bass boat came so close to her bobbers, she became angry. But, having been taught how to handle people when she worked in the canoe rental business, she was cordial to him.

The conversation led to him offering to take her out and teach her how to operate a baitcasting reel. They’ve been friends ever since.

“Later, he said to me, ‘Don’t you ever get in a boat again with a stranger again.’ It’s not a smart thing to do.”

Meanwhile, her symptoms were correctly diagnosed to be stress. But she stuck with her plan to fish professionally.

Her first boat after her “ride with a stranger” was an aluminum flat-bottom rig. But her first bass boat, a Triton, was purchased as soon as she decided to compete in a new Bassmaster circuit she’d heard about, the Women’s Bassmaster Tour. That was in 2005, when the WBT brought its preview event to Lewisville.

Parker competed every year until the circuit shut down after the 2009 season. The WBT had served her well as an incubator. She had won an event on the Ouachita River out of Monroe, La., and done well in several others. She felt ready to join the Bassmaster Opens, and did so for the 2010 season.

By the final 2010 event, she saw a difference in her fishing. That was on Texas’ Lake Texoma, and she finished 26th. In 2011, she was sixth on her home lake, Lewisville, then 10th on the Arkansas River out of Muskogee, Okla.

The third and final event of the season happens Thursday-Saturday on Table Rock. The bass fishing world is watching. She figures she needs to finish at least 50th or better to secure the Elite spot.

She’s ready to be Elite.