Three decades on the trail

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — The blue-and-gold patch on David Slonaker’s shirt is embroidered with the words “Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.” It’s a throwback to earlier times when the full name of B.A.S.S. was used to market the fledgling organization.

Yet the embroidered shield worn by Slonaker isn’t a throwback. Ask him about it and he’ll produce a B.A.S.S. membership card. His reads “Member Since 1974.” That’s when Slonaker signed up for B.A.S.S., when it was barely two years old. Since then, he’s shown his loyalty in more ways than one.

The tournament bug bit not long after the first Bassmaster Magazine arrived in the mailbox. Slonaker bought a 15-foot Skeeter boat with a 50-horsepower outboard, hitched the rig to his car, and drove from Ohio to Florida for his first B.A.S.S. event.

That was in 1975. You won’t read Slonaker’s name in early articles recounting great finishes during early years of the Bassmaster Tournament Trail. Like many B.A.S.S. members, he worked a full-time job to support his tournament hobby. In fact, the likes of Bill Dance and Roland Martin were in the minority when compared to the majority of the working class supporting the payouts.

“Back then Ray Scott said anybody with $250 was a pro,” Slonaker said, laughing about the cost of the early 1970s-era entry fees. “But it was great camaraderie. And I learned something new every day on the water. It’s the same then as today.”

Slonaker, 62, is now retired from the United States Postal Service. He’s fishing as a co-angler in the Bass Pro Shops Northern Open events. Next year he plans to return, although he’s slowed the pace since the early years.

During his tournament heyday all five weeks of vacation time were devoted to tournaments. By the late 1980s Slonaker came close but fell short of making the big jump. He missed the Bassmaster Classic cut by a couple of pounds. Passion nearly turned to obsession. It reached the point that five weeks wasn’t enough time to satisfy his desire to compete.

“I started calling in sick and eventually it caught up with me,” he admitted. “I got fired from my job, although I got it back two months later. But needless to say, there wasn’t any more sick leave taken for tournament fishing.”

Slonaker’s good deeds outweigh his employment miscue. He started the Mid-Ohio Bassmasters, the first club affiliated with the Ohio B.A.S.S. Federation Nation. He went on to mentor young anglers, including a young teenager by the name of Charlie Hartley.

“Charlie’s mother would launch him in a Tracker aluminum boat into our local reservoir,” recounted Slonaker. “We met and I helped him out along the way. I’m really proud to see him successful today.”

Hartley, of course, is a Bassmaster Elite Series pro and one of the most cordial anglers on the tour. Slonaker mentored other youths, including students at a local junior high school in Columbus.

“I taught fishing to a group of students enrolled under disciplinary probation,” said Slonaker. “I taught them for 55 minutes each week and it was really rewarding.”

Slonaker rewarded the students with bus trips to a local lake for a fishing outing, complete with donated tackle. The volunteer work continued for two years. Then one day he received a rogue phone call summoning him to the superintendent’s office of the Columbus school system.

“I walked and the principal of the school and a teacher presented me with a plaque in appreciation for my work,” he said. “I was shocked to learn there was a waiting list to get into my class. It was truly rewarding.”

Slonaker’s 1970s-era B.A.S.S. patch fits his fishing style. Inside his tacklebox is a spinnerbait given to him by Charlie Campbell when the two anglers were paired for a tournament in Missouri. Campbell, a tournament trail pioneer, is known for his skills with a topwater Heddon Zara Spook. It’s a little known fact that Campbell also invented deep-water techniques with blade baits.

The nostalgic Slonaker also takes trips down memory lane through the pages of Bassmaster. Every issue he’s received since joining in 1974 is preserved in Tupperware storage containers.

“I like going back through those old issues recalling the lures and boats,” he said. “It’ll never grow old. I just love this sport so much.”

That said, look for Slonaker next season at the Open events. He’ll be the guy wearing the shirt with a patch reading “Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.”