Local Tournament Pros: The Overlooked Anglers of Bass Fishing

By Shaye Baker

As tournament anglers begin to experience success locally, thoughts of grandeur start to enter their minds. They begin to wonder if there’s a chance they can do it for a living. As that seed is planted, it’s nourished and watered. From the time that seed springs forth a single leaf from the ground, it’s pruned and cultivated. The ground around it aerated and the weeds plucked away. Then suddenly, an elephant’s foot blocks out the sun and comes crashing down to stomp the seedling into oblivion and bury it six inches in the ground.

The young mind has one very beautiful and crippling characteristic: naivety. As a kid catching a bass, you don’t take into consideration the millions of dollars a national touring pro will spend over the course of his life, the thousands of nights he’ll spend away from home, the countless hours of sleep lost worrying about catching bass to pay the bills. You just want to catch a bass and get paid to do it.

But what if there was another way? What if you could make $50,000 a year fishing while only spending $5,000 and sleeping in your own bed? Sounds like a pretty sweet gig. That’s the reality for a select few “local pros”.

A few anglers are able to do this in several states across the country, but just take Alabama for example. Guys like Russ Lane, Jamie Horton and Dustin Connell dominated locally before making the move to the national pro fishing circuits. But there are also anglers like Chris Rutland and Coby Carden who elected to stay in Alabama and try to continue to dominate locally; and dominate, they did.

Carden and Rutland are both certainly of the caliber necessary to contend for the $100,000 prizes the Bassmaster Elites, FLW Tour and MLF Bass Pro Tour award along their trails. But a select few, like the aforementioned anglers, are actually able to gross $100,000 some years right here at home while spending a fraction of what the national guys fork up each year.

I recently spent the day on the water with Michael Smith, a young angler from Alabama whose presence has been felt locally over the last few years, to discuss what it takes to become a local pro.

(1 of 8)CALIBER

First off, you have to be a hammer. As previously mentioned, Smith has proven his prowess on the local level and that skill level is obviously of utmost importance. Though a blind hog will root up an acorn every once in a while, you’re not going to win locally or on the road often if you’re not very, very good. Some would say it’s even harder to win consistently on the local level than it is to win on the road.

For the traveling band, the anglers step onto a new playing field every week. Granted there’s always someone on the national circuit that’s a local for the week. But to further prove my point, a local winning a national level event is one of the rarest occurrences in professional fishing. Until Boyd Duckett won the Bassmaster Classic in 2007, no angler had won the Classic in their home state since its inception 37 years earlier.

Fishing against the same guys who frequent the same waters week in and week out minimizes the advantage of local knowledge and levels the playing field. So to be a local pro, you have to be very, very good.

(2 of 8)THE DECISION

Originally from Florida, Smith cut his teeth fishing across the southeast with considerable success early on and found himself dreaming the same dreams that fill the minds of most young anglers.

“All I ever really wanted to do was fish, but I didn’t really know if I was good enough to do that for a living or not,” Smith said. “I was blessed to get to go to college and earn my electrical engineering degree. While I was in college, I started doing well enough that I realized, if this is what I want to do, I can probably do it. I don’t think I would’ve gone out there and been the next KVD or anything, but I thought if I wanted to, I could at least pay the bills.

“The problem was, by the time I got out of college and got my first big-boy job, it was a pretty sweet gig. I go to work, sit in an office, make good money, have great retirement and great benefits. All that stuff you don’t think about when you’re 12 years old reading Bassmaster.

“That in combination with meeting my wife, who already had a little girl from being married before, who basically thinks I’m her dad, and now having a little one of our own, being gone 300 days a year to fish professionally just doesn’t look as attractive as it used to.”

So a decision had to be made. But as astute as Robert Frost was, it seems he overlooked the third option in Smith’s case. When the two paths diverged in the woods, Smith didn’t solely take the one heavily trodden or rarely walked, but rather split the difference and kept one foot in each trail.

(3 of 8)A BIG BREAK

Sponsors are a critical part of the game if you want to make fishing a profitable venture. Though entry fees and traveling expenses at the local level are far cheaper, many of the other costs associated with competitive fishing at any level are the same across the board.

Boats and the equipment that completes top-of-the-line rigs these days can top $100,000, especially when you add a tow vehicle to round out the total tournament package. Add to that the gas bill, occasional hotel stay and the cost of rods, reels, line and other tackle and it’s hard to see how anyone can make money without a little help winning a couple grand here and there around the house.

However, sponsorships and partnerships are all too often the main focus of up-and-coming anglers and not put into the context of what they actually are. If you pursue sponsors, you’ll rarely ever acquire them. When your focus is success on the water, sponsorships become a byproduct of that success. If you want to show up on a company’s radar, you don’t send them a DM on Instagram. You need a big break.

“I won the America Bass Anglers National Championship in 2011 on the co-angler side,” Smith said. “That was the first year I ever fished anything other than club tournaments and Federation Nation events. I won 2 of the 5 regular season events that year too. So I made like $61,000 when I was a 20-year-old co-angler.

“That opened a ton of doors for me. Basically after that season, the ABA put me on their pro-staff and have been my title sponsor ever since. Every year, they pay all my entry fees to all of their events. That’s like $1,300 or $1,400 a year in entry fees. Then on top of that, all the relationships they have opened a lot of doors. Basically, after they sponsored me I was able to get on with Triton and Mercury and a few other companies. I added probably 80% of the sponsors I have now after winning that tournament.”

In 2012, while finishing up his degree, Smith elected to fish as a co-angler again. Among other high finishes for the year, he capped the season off by finishing runner-up in the 2012 ABA National Championship and in just two years had amassed nearly $100,000 with a fishing rod in the back of someone else’s boat.

(4 of 8)RUN WITH THE RIGHT CROWD

Quality local anglers have a to tendency find their way into the same boat. Take the group of Alabama anglers mentioned at the beginning of this article for instance. Before Russ Lane made the move to the Elite Series, he won a lot of money fishing team tournaments with Chris Rutland. Before Jamie Horton made the same move, he and Coby Carden won more than their fair share fishing together. After both Carden’s and Rutland’s counterparts had moved on, they became permanent fixtures in one another’s boats.

This phenomenon has two derivatives: Iron sharpens iron and its better to win together than to beat each other up. The same was the case for Smith, who grew up fishing against and eventually with, Bassmaster Elite Series and FLW Tour champion Drew Benton.

“Drew and I were super good buddies growing up and are still good friends,” Smith said. “We got started fishing around the house against each other and then started fishing together after beating up on each other for a few years. Those were the good ole days. We had a ton of success before he moved on and I started doing my own thing.

“He took his path which has worked out really well for him and I took mine. He’s fishing professionally at the highest level and having lots of success, I chose not to go that route but I’m having a lot of success at the local and regional level and I think we’re both really happy.

“We fish just alike. I’m not saying I would have done as good as he has or, who knows, I may have even done better. But he’s definitely making a living doing nothing but fishing and seeing him do that has proven to me that if that’s really what I would have wanted to do, then at least in my mind I believe I could have had a similar career to what he has had.”

(5 of 8)A GOOD JOB

Not only does having a good job make the decision to leave it and pursue professional fishing that much harder, but a good job is also a prerequisite for being able to compete at the local level. More importantly, a lenient job.

Time on the water is an absolute must when it comes to becoming a dominant angler at any level. Many of the anglers who rise to the top at the local level either own their own business or work a flexible schedule that accommodates that need for time on the water.

Smith’s work allows him enough vacation each year to spend week days practicing for the bigger local events. His job is also fairly structured where he’s able to punch out right at 3:30 most days and get time in on the water in the evenings, even on days when he does work.

(6 of 8)CONTINGENCY AWARDS

The majority of the money won by Smith and other local pros doesn’t come from the tournament organizations and entry fees, but rather contingency and loyalty programs. You can make an extra buck or two by using just about anything these days. The overall purse can quickly grow if you’re in the right boat, pulled by the right truck, pushed by the right motor, looking at the right graph… you get the idea.

By using their products and registering for their programs, Smith is eligible for contingency awards offered by Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Toyota, Leer and T-H Marine.

“The ABA Opens pay better than anything else locally and even in those, if I win and get the guaranteed $5,000 for first, I’ll win another $8,000 or so in contingency awards alone,” Smith said. “And if the winner of the event isn’t eligible for the contingency programs, most of these companies will still payout a highest finisher award.

“Like with Triton Gold, even if I don’t win, if I’m the highest finisher in a Triton I still get $500. There are a lot of times I’m able to take advantage of that just by finishing pretty high and not even winning.”

(7 of 8)LOCATION

Obviously location is important if you want to be a local pro. There are a lot of fisheries around the country and all are definitely not created equally when it comes to the local tournament scene. You need a home base that not only boasts a good local tournament scene but also sees a fair number of regional events come to its shores each year.

Although Lake Eufaula is an hour-and-a-half form Michael’s home, it’s certainly the closest and what would be considered his home waters at this point. Having a home body of water that hosts big tournaments is critical to being a local pro.

In addition to local pot tournaments most weekends throughout the spring, summer and fall, Eufuala has hosted two ABAs, a BFL, the American Fishing Tour National Championship and the Ray Scott National Championship. With Smith’s contingency eligibilities, there where hundreds of thousands of dollars up for grabs in those five tournaments in first-place prizes alone.

(8 of 8)THIS IS YOUR BLUEPRINT

Obviously, becoming a local pro is easier said than done, and not necessarily any easier a task to accomplish than becoming a national touring pro. But this article does layout the blueprint. Few have ever made real money locally without all these crucial components. Most of this stuff is also critical to starting a national touring pro career.

So if you’re a kid looking out into the stars, dreaming about fishing for money. Print this out, nail it to your wall and get to work. Dreams are important fuel for the fire, but gas poured on the ground won’t burn for long. You’re going to need to collect a lot of firewood. It’s time to put in work.

2019 in the rearview

Now that the 2019 Bassmaster Elite season has concluded I thought I might take time to give you my point of view.

Certainly entering into this season there were questions from some. Many anglers had moved on to another circuit, and we wish them well. I can tell you from inside B.A.S.S. headquarters there, were not many questions. Thanks to Bruce Akin and Chase Anderson, we were moving forward and working hard every day to make 2019 a great year. That included the tournament and events team, marketing, Bassmaster.com, editorial and the JM crew in Little Rock. A lot of kudos goes to all of these folks.

But a ton of credit goes to the 75 anglers who entered the Elite Series with questions, I’m sure. They did a great job throughout the year on Bassmaster LIVE, in front of the huge crowds, on our website and in print. Those anglers had a job to do for their personal brand too.

And I will tell you they brought bag after bag of heavy fish to the scales. My back and arms were tired and ached just like they have in all of the previous Elite seasons. Well done, guys.

Probably more than anything though a big thanks goes to our wonderful tournament site hosts, local volunteers and most importantly the B.A.S.S. fans. Fans came out by the thousands to experience the Bassmaster Elite Series.

Some of the familiar names were not there, replaced by many names they did not know initially. But none of that seemed to matter. What did matter was seeing first-class competition at the highest level, seeing big fish and interacting with our great sponsors and vendors at the various locations.

With 2019 in the rearview mirror it is on to 2020 and a great schedule. If we visit your your neck of the woods, please come on out and enjoy the fun.

And I would be remiss to not mention our Bassmaster Marshal program. For 2020 we are reducing the cost. For less than $100 you can share at least two days in the boat with an Elite Series professional. Details to come on Bassmaster.com. You’ll be able to sign up on the website beginning Dec. 1.

Have a great fall and good fishing.

Major League Fishing To Acquire Fishing League Worldwide

October 10, 2019, 5:00 A.M. EST (Tulsa, Okla.) Major League Fishing (MLF) announced today that it has reached an agreement to acquire Fishing League Worldwide (FLW), the world’s largest tournament-fishing organization. The Letter of Intent (LOI) sets in motion the most significant brand merger in competitive bass fishing history, linking a tour and original, award-winning programming featuring the top professional anglers in the world to an extensive grassroots organization that serves tens of thousands of competitive anglers from high school and college to weekenders and tour pros.

“We’re thrilled about welcoming FLW to the MLF team,” said Jim Wilburn, President and CEO of Major League Fishing. “FLW shares our commitment to creating tournaments and opportunities centered on the success of the angler. Through this acquisition, we are better positioned to support anglers and sponsors at all levels.”

“Our business plan always included reaching all levels of grassroots fishing,” said Boyd Duckett, MLF co-founder and President of the Professional Bass Tour Anglers’ Association (PBTAA). “FLW does it best with the Tour and grassroots tournaments; their reputation in competitive bass fishing is remarkable and their culture has always been pro-angler, which makes this the perfect opportunity for both organizations. We couldn’t be more excited about FLW: their team, anglers, and sponsors.”

“This announcement marks a thrilling new chapter in FLW’s history as we join Major League Fishing and begin a new era in the sport of competitive bass fishing,” said FLW President of Operations Kathy Fennel. “As part of the Major League Fishing team, we look forward to enhancing and expanding tournament offerings to our anglers and fans. Our teams have a very similar mission and vision – to support anglers at all levels, provide the industry with unmatched opportunities, and grow the sport. The complementary strengths of our organizations make this a win for the entire sport.”

Established in 2011, MLF began as a television product and has grown into a sports league with the launch of the Bass Pro Tour in January of 2019. MLF is a partnership between the PBTAA and Outdoor Sportsman Group (OSG), a division of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment.

“As MLF continues to grow, we’re committed to find the right opportunities to extend the Outdoor Sportsman Group properties,” Outdoor Sportsman Group President and CEO, Jim Liberatore said. “Through this acquisition, MLF can leverage our extensive media reach and award-winning content production to promote competitive bass fishing at all levels.”

Each year FLW offers thousands of anglers of all skill levels across the globe the opportunity to compete for millions of dollars in prize money in five tournament circuits. Under the leadership of Irwin Jacobs, FLW expanded the top level of competition to include the industry’s first seven-figure purse.

“It has been our mission since my father, Irwin Jacobs, purchased FLW in 1996 to bring the highest quality of tournaments to anglers, sponsors and fans around the world,” said Trish Blake, FLW President of Marketing. “By joining forces with Major League Fishing, the sport of professional tournament fishing will be taken to new heights for anglers across the world at all levels.”

Major League Fishing and Fishing League Worldwide anticipate an acquisition close date of October 31, 2019.

For more information about this acquisition, visit MajorLeagueFishing.com/FLW.

About FLW
FLW is the world’s largest tournament-fishing organization, providing anglers of all skill levels the opportunity to compete in more than 290 bass-fishing tournaments across five circuits. Headquartered in Benton, Kentucky, FLW and their partners offer a High School Fishing and College Fishing Series, the Bass Fishing League (BFL) series for grassroots anglers, the Costa FLW Series for aspiring professionals and the FLW Tour, which showcases some of the top anglers in the world. For more information visit FLWFishing.com and follow FLW on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

About Major League Fishing

Founded in 2011, Major League Fishing (MLF) brings the high-intensity sport of competitive bass fishing into America’s living rooms on Outdoor Channel, Discovery, CBS, CBS Sports Network, World Fishing Network, Sportsman Channel and on-demand on MyOutdoorTV (MOTV). New for 2019, the Bass Pro Tour consists of eight events and a championship streamed live on www.MajorLeagueFishing.com and MOTV. MLF uses the entertaining and conservation-friendly catch, weigh and immediate-release format where every scoreable bass counts and the winner is the angler with the highest cumulative weight.

For more information on the league and anglers, visit www.MajorLeagueFishing.com and follow MLF on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

For more in-depth coverage, see Game & Fish magazine, the official publication of MLF.

Lessons learned from fly fishing

Jerry McKinnis has been telling me about a place in Wyoming where he fly fishes and has wanted me to experience it.

I put him off several times, mainly because I would have to use a fly rod and deal with tiny lines and hooks, something I never really understood or appreciated.

I used to fly fish for bass as a youngster. I would ride my bike to a lake behind our subdivision and fish for bass before I left for school. My mom worked at the school, would honk the horn signaling it was time to go to school. She’d bring me a change of clothes because I’d be wet and muddy from wading into the creek.

That was the last time I had a fly rod in my hand, probably 60 years ago.

Trout fishing in Wyoming would be an entirely different experience and something I never could comprehend.

Well, Jerry’s friend Angie pitched the idea to my wife Melissa, who grew up fly fishing and loves the outdoors. She was thrilled with the notion, and obviously, that meant we were going.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I knew this was a beautiful place, and it was. I also respect all types of anglers, but have always thought of fly fishermen as purists with strange practices and ethics.

For example, I was given chest waders to wear the first day for fishing a stream that appeared very shallow and probably only 20 feet across.

When I asked why I needed waders, I was told it was “because you need to look good when fly fishing.”

I’ve always been a 20-pound-plus line guy, so I had to ask for help tying on tiny flies because I couldn’t even feel the 4-pound line between my fingers.

Nor could I grasp the concept of those tiny flies and hooks. We were fishing for 10-pound plus rainbows; I wouldn’t even think of trying to catch a big bass on those hooks.

Remarkably, my childhood memories came back to me when I started working the fly rod. It amazed me that I still retained the ability to do that. Oddly enough, I found myself placing the line between my lips as I stripped line and worked the fly. Experienced fly fishermen finger the line and allow it to fall beneath them, but I was holding it in my mouth, just as I did as a youngster.

I quickly learned to do it the right way.

I also had to learn to not set the hook; I broke off a fish or two and lost a few before I got the hang of it.

I discovered that bass fishermen really don’t “fight” big fish; we use heavy tackle and get them in as quickly as possible. When playing a big rainbow on 4-pound line, you better fight it on its terms and let the rod do as it’s designed to do.

That became apparent when I hooked a 10-pound rainbow. My arms ached within the first few minutes. That doesn’t happen in bass fishing.

When that fish turned and swam past me, my entire attitude about fly fishing changed. My respect elevated for the sport and the fish. Suddenly, I went from wanting to catch that fish to making sure I didn’t hurt it.

It was that epiphany when I gained an appreciation for fly fishing. My jokes about sissy baits, rods and hooks, and their detailed passion for specific nymphs and larvae, ended.

I now understand.

Fishermen are much like society. We have these circles — like bass fishing or trout fishing — we live in. We have our own languages and understanding of our respective sports. Sadly, if you are not within one of those circles you can’t really appreciate what drives that passion.

Melissa understood it. I was mesmerized as I watched her work the rod masterfully as she finessed a fly through the current.

She was not only good, but she loved doing it; I felt guilty that I have given her so few opportunities.

Those few days fly fishing in Wyoming not only gave me tremendous respect and admiration for the sport, but it left me looking forward to getting back in a pair of waders.