“Many men go fishing their whole lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after” – Henry David Thoreau
The clock strikes 4am and the obnoxious siren of my iPhone alarm wakes me abruptly. I contemplate rolling back over after getting next to no sleep due to sorting through possible scenarios on the water. I shrug off the tired stupor and jump in the shower for no reason other than to temporarily wake me up to pack the truck with my Co-Angler gear. I begin to feel the anxiety of competition and quicken my pace, throwing on my Culprit jersey and khaki shorts. Contacts in…wallet…cell phone…room key, the list etched into my brain like an engraving tool to wood. Wake Madison and Loren…grab the rods and tackle…grab my smoothie and breakfast biscuit, I believe that is everything. I place the ramp address into the GPS and away we go.
Getting to the ramp, I give the boater a call, grab my gear and head down to the ramp. My boater is waiting for me and greets me with a smile and a helping hand as we exchange a friendly welcome. I add trailers and soft plastics to my pre-laced rods and wait for my boat number following the National Anthem. One by one the boats are called and my heart races faster and faster. A deep breath followed by a quick sigh as my boater idles past the check boat. My boater accelerates, sending the nose of the boat into the air followed by hovercraft-esc glide into plane. Here goes nothing!
Okay, from an outside perspective it all seems easy. I can understand why people would say there is nothing to the sport of competitive bass fishing. In fact, early in my fishing endeavors I most likely would have agreed. As far as the Co-Angler game is concerned, you are pretty much being given a $100 dollar guided experience: taken to the fish, no pre-tournament practice, nowhere near the financial investment, the list goes on and on. Until you own your own boat or compete in events where you are making the shots, it is really hard to fully grasp the commitment boaters have both from a mental and monetary perspective. Over the past year and a half I have been fortunate enough to experience the front of the boat. Although I have not yet competed in the boater category, I have experienced the disappointment of breaking down and the uncertainty associated with never having owned a boat before, the financial investment, and the time commitment. Living in Northern Virginia and the boat being in Richmond, the traffic alone is enough to drive a man insane! And the drive back to my hometown isn’t even towing the boat! Below are a few tips that will help you understand both boat positions. In fact, I believe some of the most humble professionals are those that began their tournament ambitions in the back.
1) Buy Used. It is important to remember that you are no KVD or Mike Iaconelli. A common problem drilled into the heads of anglers is that you have to have this latest and greatest product on the market. Social Media and television especially drill this into your head! On the contrary grasshopper, start out with something you can manage like most logical human beings would after getting a drivers license. Go for the 18-foot instead of the 21-foot, or maybe even an aluminum Jon Boat depending on where you will be fishing. A professional grade 250 HP outboard motor is great but a beginner has no need that kind of power. The same holds true for your equipment and electronics. Take the time to focus on learning boat positions, understand the markers you will come across on the water, and the simplest of boat operation processes. In the long run, an angler is less likely to burn out from too much too fast. Next time you look at the professionals, know that this is by no means their first rodeo. Many started fishing out of much smaller boats and climbed the latter of boat sizes.
2) Learn to understand that you are not going to catch them every time you head out on the water. I am not embarrassed to say that the James River has chewed me up and spit me out like an angler too late on the hook set more times than I have been successful! It is the learning process that makes the experience worthwhile. Gain an understanding of why you caught fish in certain spots and build on what you have learned. Is the fact that you did not catch fish in a certain area due to a improper bait presentation, a wrong color choice or lure size, or are you fishing the wrong tide for the particular location? Without questioning your successes and failures as an angler you limit your growth. Maps, Google Earth, and fishing reports are but a few outlets you can use to jumpstart your learning curve. Just as putting time into studying for a college exam more times than less will boost your test score, the same holds true for your preparation off the water.
Next time you are fishing as a Co-Angler in the back of the boat, take the time to appreciate a man/woman who is on the fish because it isn’t easy! Go to any bass fishing weigh-in and you will hear guys that were on them in practice and by tournament time the fish have moved. At the same time fishermen are famous for tall tales, so take such dock and stage talk with a grain of salt. Bad tournaments happen to everyone, including seasoned veterans.
If you are interested in taking a youth fishing, save the trip for a day you are most positive the bite will be on. In a modern world of technology and instant gratification, boredom is common theme from children fishing for the first time, especially if there are no fish to be found. Although as competitive anglers we are not allowed live bait presentations, a live night crawler or the common tackle shop minnow will give a kid the best chance of catching a fish. Not only is presentation and retrieve speed eliminated from the equation, but also provides a great opportunity for the visual bobber experience. Although I grew away from the simple bobber fishing of my childhood for many years, I can vividly remember witnessing the bobber disappear under the surface and reeling in a bream, crappie, or largemouth bass. Any fish is a trophy to a child.
3) This is an expensive sport. No one I know fishes because the money and sponsorship opportunities are so lucrative that any Joe Blow can make a killing. Dedicated anglers at all levels of competition struggle many times to make ends meet chasing dreams of tournament success. This is not to say that there are no ways to cut costs, but many times tournament entry fees alone can drive away individuals from the sport. When competing in the back of the boat, put your best foot forward and more. Towing a boat alone decreases fuel efficiency making the boaters’ job more difficult than yours. Gas money, marina boat fees, double the entry fees, boat maintenance to ensure your day is operational; the list goes on and on guys. I have heard so many horror stories lately about bad Co-Anglers and it disturbs me that anyone would show the person willing to take you out with disgust, at least without any previous reason. Owning your own boat will end up showing you a lot about boat etiquette. Follow the simple wishes of your boater and chances are you will be given the upmost respect.
4) Sleep is often at a minimum. As a Co-Angler I struggle to get sleep and can only see the situation being worse for boaters. The fact that an expensive piece of equipment is parked outside a hotel will make for restless nights. Anyone remember Chris Lane’s misfortunes this year on the Bassmaster Elite Series, or the Federation Angler that was killed last year catching a thief breaking into his boat compartments during the night? My wishes are not to scare the reader of my Blog, but to instead emphasize there is a whole lot more at stake in all categories. There is more gear to rig up, more nuts and bolts to tighten, and the simple fact that most times the boater has to disconnect the boat from trailer both upon hotel check-in and first thing the morning of the event. Take into account that many anglers as high as the pro level are working men outside of their fishing endeavors and you begin to really appreciate the drive of the competition. Add in sponsorship commitments, speaking engagements, and a family and you’re staring into the truth of competitive fishing.
5) Neatness is a virtue. This is especially important when you are fishing as a co-angler but also a staple in success at the boater level. Stay out of the boater’s space, simple as that. Many times a boater will give his co-angler a full compartment to place your belonging and tackle. Always remember that this is by no means a requirement of boaters and it is the Co-Angler’s job to mold to the situation. If this is not enough, place your gear under your feet. Often this is an easy route to travel and will make it easier to rig up/change baits on a rod, especially as a boater gets off plane and slowly idles into the fishing hole. On many occasions you will see a boater place rods on the deck one side or the other. This is not only for neatness but also to prevent stepping on equipment and losing guides, rod tips, or stepping on a treble hook. Remember neatness and organization in all facets of your fishing and I guarantee your mental clarity and speed will improve tremendously!
As I preach throughout my Blogs, there is nothing wrong with starting at the bottom and building the tools of the trade over time. All companies in the industry want to persuade the angler why choosing the latest and the greatest will take your fishing to the next level but without taking the time to learn the fundamentals you will quickly become a fish out of water. Mastering the basics will not only help you become a better fisherman, but retain a humble attitude throughout your development. Till next time, remember that no matter your situation, we are joined by the love of chasing these beautiful and elusive creatures: A metaphor for life, for love, and human existence.