SO YOU WANT TO GO PRO: PART 2 HOW DO GUYS AFFORD IT?
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in our "HOW TO" 6-part series on the realities of trying to become a professional tournament fisherman - a lot of good tips for "Chasing the Dream"- from the viewpoint of Ryan Said, a fisherman whose been there and done that.
Part 1 of this series covered the cost of tournament fishing from the bottom levels to the top levels. But before having the opportunity to pay for the top level, an angler needs to qualify for the top level. This is typically through the Bassmaster Opens or the Toyota Series. Only the top 5-10 anglers at the end of the year qualify out of the hundreds who try every year- less than 3% make it to qualify. The reality is, if you want to climb that ladder and try to be in that exclusive qualifying club, you must be ready to spend the minimum $15,000 to fish at least one full circuit. That reality often leaves many asking, “where’s that money going to come from?” We might as well start at the top.
Top Level: Bassmaster Elite, Bass Pro Tour, Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit
As far as actually paying for it, there seem to be two paths. First, there are the fishing “phenoms”. These are young guys like the Lee brothers- Jordan and Matt- who are able to turn early success in their careers (usually through significant circuit wins) into sponsor money. In the case of the Lees, it was the college angling circuits. In the case of Canadian Coop Gallant it could be his recent win against some very seasoned pros at the Southern Open on Cherokee Lake. This is for sure not the majority, but it does happen. Young anglers with the dream should strive for it, and, through high school and college experiences at least put themselves in the mix. But be realistic, don’t make it your only plan.
Most of the pros pay for it with either money from their own business, which also can afford them the time required, or maybe through inheritance they have some discretionary wealth. There is also the potential of monetary support from family or friends who are fortunate enough to be in the upper income bracket. Finally, there are those who have flat out saved for many years to try to make this very dream a reality. Unless you are born into it, none of these paths are easy or guaranteed to be successful. Most young guys you see on tour either have money, or know someone who does. This is by no means a knock on them. Knowing people with money, networking, and building business relationships is a significant part of the game no matter what career you choose, so why should fishing be different? Those who are good at those skills are able to leverage them into money to advance a possible fishing career- sometimes. These networking skills and the ability to successfully market yourself could very well be every bit as important as your fishing skills.
Another key guys find important is to either have very flexible job, or an employer willing to allow you the time to be away from your job when you need to be fishing- and that’s definitely not just Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes this “time factor” is there because some of the guys run their own business allowing the flexibility- family businesses are a good example where family members or spouses, run the show while you’re on the road. This arrangement allows an angler to take off the weeks they need to fish pro tournaments and still have a source of income when they return. For some guys, one of those businesses is guiding- also a very demanding job requiring consistent success. There are also a few cases, where, through a guy’s employment, he or she has built connections that lead to sponsorships because of their years, and dedication, at the lower ranks. In this case, the employer can be a sponsor, helping pay the costs to qualify or pay the costs if you qualify. In my case, the year I was able to fish at the very top level, I was able to talk my employer into both giving me the time off, and sponsoring me. They were a very large Company, but they did not pay me cash, but covered most of my expenses, about $80,000 worth. Needless to say, they were very supportive. I had no other expenses at the time (did not own a home or have a family to support), and I had saved a lot of money to pursue my dream, so with all this, I was able to go for about eight months without a direct income.
A friend of mine who fishes at the top level had a really good connection with a regional business owner. He was in the right place at the right time and he is excellent at networking, so things worked out for him such that they agreed to pay his entry fees in exchange for representation on his jersey and boat decals. He had to pay the rest and put a lot on his credit cards the first couple of years. He also owned his own painting business which he has continued to build. With that as a platform, he then had a breakout year where he won a Bassmaster Open along with several other high finishes. Without each of those pieces in place, he likely would not be where he is today on the Elite Series.
Of course you cannot under estimate the importance of fishing skills- having great skills is incredibly important, and you will never get a shot at the dream without them. But skills alone won’t replace the need for connections and an income stream. Finding the money to fish at this top level, once you qualify, is very hard work. Many guys take on significant debt and run up credit cards in the hope of getting that big win or high finish that attracts sponsors. Sometimes they are successful. Many times they are not. You’ll need to be patient working your way up to this level and make sure you are saving along the way.
In summary: Being able to fish full time professionally on the Bassmaster Elite or MLF Pro Tour is 50% fishing skills, and 50% about having the financial resources to be able to stay at that level and continue to work on your skills to get better, AND WIN!
The Next Level Down: Bassmaster Opens and Toyota Series
Many of the things mentioned above apply equally at this level, even if the total expense is less. The bottom line is, at this level, you really need a good paying and consistent job that allows you to save money and take time off when you need it. If you have that, most guys can find a way to save enough money to fish for a year or more to chase a slot in the next level up.
The Level Further Down: BFL Circuits, BASS Nation
Face it, if you are working this level, you have a long way to go and a need to save for that trek. You need a good paying job- if nothing else, to support the boat payment. You need a good job with decent vacation time to give the circuit you choose the attention the lakes deserve.
Ryan Said is a tournament angler and U.S. Coast Guard licensed guide on Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. He books trips through Marcels Guide Service - an affiliation that is beginning its ninth season. In 2011, after winning the Bassmaster Northern Open points championship, Ryan had the honor of fishing the Bassmaster Classic and the Bassmaster Elite series trail. He has fished the Bassmaster Open Series several times, as well as the Costa (now Toyota) Series. Ryan is an engineer and teaches high school math. He coaches the college bass fishing team at Lawrence Tech, and offers seminars and "on the water" instruction for high school anglers. Ryan is pro staff for Dobyns Rods, Lew's Reels, Costa Sunglasses, P-Line and Blackfish