By Todd Ceisner
Not too long ago, Blake Nick was just another guy in a hard hat on the floor at the U.S. Steel plant in Birmingham, Ala.
Every day, he’d come face to face with thousands of pounds of molten iron that would eventually be turned into steel. He was one of the grunts who injected different alloys into the iron to make the steel a certain strength. There aren’t many harder ways to make a living.
He’d fish when he could – on off days or at night. The rotating-shift schedule didn’t allow for much in the way of tournament fishing. Eventually, he left the steel mill and started his own excavation business with the hopes he’d have more flexibility to be on the water more.
It worked out, but he found the longer he was on the water, the less he wanted to be “at work.” So the Adger, Ala., native decided to make being on the water his job and in 2011 he joined the FLW Tour and fished all six Majors and the four Opens. The results were to be expected for a rookie – a few triple-digit finishes and an average finish of 72nd in the Majors. He made four checks in 10 events.
Undeterred, he devoted all of his time and energy this year to fishing – and noticed drastic improvements right away.
“It was a completely different experience,” he said. “I now understand what it takes. You can’t be in this thing halfway and halfway out of it in order to compete out here.
“If you’re going to be successful in sports, you have to dedicate every little bit of time to it,” he added. “This was the first year I did that. It made such a huge difference to be all-in.”
His Major results alone resulted in five checks in six tournaments, including a 3rd-place finish at Lake Champlain that allowed him to qualify for his first Forrest Wood Cup. His average finish (44th) was 28 spots better than a year ago.
“There’s no way to be satisfied, but with it being my second year I feel good that I’m getting better. It shows – I made the Cup this year,” he said. “In no way is that as good as you need to be to make a living against these guys. I need to be way more consistent. I blew a lot of opportunities to have some really good tournaments.”
Nick’s improvement was apparent from the get-go this season. After finishing 115th at Lake Hartwell a year ago, he was 4th after day 1 there in the season-opener this year, but slipped to 28th at the end. While it was a mighty improvement on a blueback herring lake, which are typically not his strong suit, he was disappointed he couldn’t stay among the leaders.
He had a similar letdown at Table Rock Lake, where he led after the opening day, fell to 4th after day 2, then weighed just two fish on the 3rd day and settled for 17th.
“I’ve got that bug where you try not to think about it, but I was making cuts and doing really well on the first day and then just completely had a brain fart on the second day or third day,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it choking. I’d call it wanting it too bad to where I wasn’t thinking. Instead of just fishing the conditions and the lake, I was just pressing and pressing.”
He cashed checks at Beaver Lake and the Potomac River before a virus cost him virtually his entire practice session at Kentucky Lake, where he wound up 101st, a result that dropped him 20 spots to 37th in the FLW Tour Angler of the Year (AOY) standings and put him on the bubble to make the Cup with only Champlain left on the schedule.
He withstood the pressure, made his first career 10-cut and pulled down a career-best 3rd-place finish at the season finale, easily making his first Cup as he rose to 25th in points.
“That was probably the highlight of the year,” he added. “Not so much the finish, but just to know that when I needed to do well, I could do it.”
He admits he was better this year at getting over the "wow factor" that he was fishing the pro Tour, since he devoted all of his time and energy to it this time around.
Nick is concerned that next year's FLW Tour schedule could hamper his and others' effort to make a living as a tournament angler.
“Settling down and relaxing and not being impressed by everybody (was important),” he said. “Your first year on Tour, you’ll pull out there and there’s Larry Nixon beside you and whoever else over there. These guys are like your heroes growing up and you just get caught up in the moment and you don’t use your brain.
“I think that comes with experience and I still have a long ways to go as far as getting that down. I need to trust in myself to make that crazy decision. I think I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type of fisherman and if you don’t trust in what you’re doing, it’s not going to work out. If I want to make a move, I need to make it and not second-guess myself.”
Thin Schedule A Concern
After the success he enjoyed this season, Nick is looking forward to continuing that momentum next year. However, he thinks that’s going to be difficult to do with the limited Tour-level schedule put forth by FLW. With just six Tour events in 2013 – FLW eliminated its Opens for next year “as an adjustment to the current market demand” – he’s going to have to look at other tournament options such as the B.A.S.S. Opens and possibly the EverStarts.
“I just think for us guys who are just getting started and have bought into FLW – and they’ve been great at giving us a chance – that it’s going to be hard to make a living on six tournaments,” he said. “It’s hard to get sponsors when you have six tournaments to advertise their products and I don’t have a sponsor. It even makes it harder for me to get one.
“And I’m not talking about a big-money sponsor. I’m just talking about help. It’s just going to be super hard to make a living fishing with only six tournaments. Maybe I can fish the B.A.S.S. Opens as long as the schedules don’t conflict and qualify for the Elites and at least give myself another option. If it looks like you’re not going to be able to make a living with FLW, then I have to look at other options.”
While he admits ignorance as to the inner workings at FLW, he can’t help but be concerned about the future of the organization that gave bass fishing its first $1 million first-place prize just a few years ago and now seems to be scaling back its tournament offerings.
“It is disappointing,” he said. “I try to have confidence that maybe this is just a down year, but when you hear about the sponsorship deals and the money coming in, you can’t tell me the National Guard alone shouldn’t fund FLW for a full year if they made smart business decisions. You’re telling me $20 or $30 million wouldn’t fund that for a year? Cut out the civic center stuff and have (the weigh-ins) in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Cut the wasteful spending out, even if it’s just for a year or two – make those kinds of cuts. Don’t cut from what the whole thing’s about, anyway, and the whole thing’s about the Tour and the people in the (EverStarts) trying to get there and people making a living fishing.
“It just seems like they’re not really focused on what the goals should be and that’s to have a really, really good Tour. If they have to make cuts to things like college fishing, while I’d hate to have that happen, there are ways to do it without cutting us out. I just feel like they did. All I know is what I hear. I love the FLW. They give people like me a chance to live out a dream and I hope they stay around for a long, long time and maybe the cuts they’re making are a way to ensure that happens.”
While he knows no schedule will ever please everyone, he was puzzled by the exclusion of some prime fisheries, especially with the elimination of the Opens.
“There are a lot of people who’ve been loyal to FLW and I’m sure they feel a little betrayed when they see that schedule come out,” he said. “Why not have Guntersville on there? Why not have them on the best lakes at the best times? You’re telling me that Smith Lake, which is an hour away from Guntersville, is better for a tournament than Guntersville? I can’t see that. I don’t understand and I live right here (in Alabama).
"I know the population (around Smith) and what they think of that lake. It’s night and day. There’d be a lot more people excited about the Tour coming to fish Guntersville than the Tour going to Smith Lake.”
One look at Nick’s boat or jersey and the first thing you notice is the number “147” emblazoned in red letters against a blue camouflage background. Beneath the numbers are the words “Million Orphans.”
Not exactly your typical endemic sponsor. In fact, it’s not a sponsor at all. The organization 147 Million Orphans helps raise funds and awareness as well as provides clothing, food, medicine and shelter for orphaned children around the world. It’s an organization his wife, Jennifer, became aware of late last year and he felt compelled to help spread their message.
“I said that if I couldn’t find a sponsor, we needed to do whatever we could to lend a helping hand,” he said. “I talked with them and told them I was interested in trying to do whatever I could. And of course they were interested. They wanted to meet me and find out what my plans were. I was just trying to get their permission to put their name on a boat.”
When he began researching the marketing reach of a boat wrap, he came upon some data that said in a year’s time, a boat wrap typically will get 147 million views. It was an ironic twist, for sure, but he saw it as a sign he was doing the right thing.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s crazy.’ I was astonished by that and took it as a sign that this was the direction God wanted me to go,” he said. “That’s what we did. I will always support them. I don’t care if I were ever fortunate enough to get some kind of sponsor, they will always be somewhere on my boat. It makes you feel good about what you’re doing and I’m the last person you’d ever think – if you knew me – would be into this. But ever since we got involved with them it’s been a huge blessing.”
Being a relative newcomer to the Tour, he expected to get some odd looks or comments from fans and fellow competitors when it came to his boat wrap or jersey. It was well-received by most, though, he said.
“About 75 percent of the people that see it are interested and say how great it is. They’re interested in what it is and what it means,” he said. “That 147 isn’t just the name of the organization. That’s 147 million kids in this world that have no home, no anything. It’s good on that end, but then you have the other 25 percent that say, ‘What’s that have to do with fishing?’
“At the start of the year, I heard a few other anglers joke, like ‘There’s the little orphan boy.’ That’s natural. I’m not down on those people for saying that. They don’t understand that there are things way more important than sponsorships and things way more important than money and looking good or looking the part and that’s doing the right thing, or at least trying to.”