By Todd Ceisner
Billy McCaghren is a simple guy. Lives a simple life in a simple town called Mayflower, Ark. (pop. 2,312). Likes his job in the family welding business, loves to fish and spend time with his family.
Competing on the Bassmaster Elite Series for the last 5 years, however, hasn't been so simple for McCaghren.
After winning the Red River Central Open in 2008, he made the move to the Elite Series the following year. While his rookie season was highlighted by a 3rd-place finish at the Mississippi River and a 27th-place showing in Angler of the Year (AOY) points that earned him his first Bassmaster Classic berth, the last 4 years have been nothing short of a grind – mentally, physically and financially.
His best finish over that span was a 9th at the Arkansas River in 2011 and he has yet to crack the Top 50 again in points, shutting him out of the end-of-season bonus payouts. He cashed 11 checks over his first two seasons, but has finished in the money just eight times over the past three seasons.
His on-the-water struggles have led to some frustration and plenty of introspective thought, which has left him conflicted as to how to reconcile pursuing his passion against treating it as a job.
"I thought it would be hard at first, but when you get there, you're at the highest level of your sport and I can look around and there are very few other sports that once you make it to the highest level that you have to struggle so hard to stay there," he said. "I tried to make it into a job and I forgot how much I love to fish. When I'm doing well, and almost any fisherman would tell you the same thing, you're out there because you're doing what you love to do, not because you're trying to make a living doing it. If you get your mind right, you can do a lot with it.
"I'm the kind of guy that fishes for fun. I feel like the pressure of what we're doing is so great that it's got to be fun or you'll burn out. I've sat down and thought about getting out of B.A.S.S. and doing something different, but then I forget why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because I love the sport, not because I love all that goes with it because I don't. I'm just a small-town guy."
He's toyed with backing away from high-level tournaments altogether or transitioning to the FLW Tour or PAA Series, but the allure of the Bassmaster Classic has him leaning heavily toward a return to the Elite Series in 2014. The tipping point appears to be the inclusion of Lake Dardanelle, just 45 minutes from his home, on next year's Elite schedule.
"I grew up watching Larry Nixon and Mark Davis back when it wasn't all about business," he said. "I understand the whole world's changing that way and you either have to go with it or get stuck. That said, and even though I disagree with a lot of the stuff that's going on, I'm still passionate about fishing and doing it at the highest level.
"I told somebody the other day, it's been almost 3 years since I won a fishing tournament. Getting beat down wears on you, but I'm better now than I was 5 years ago by a long shot, but so is everybody else. If I can get my mind right, I'll win one soon."
'Not Giving Up'
McCaghren was 12th in AOY points after posting quality finishes at the Sabine River (25th) and Falcon Lake (10th) to open this season. He slipped a bit at the next two, missing checks at Bull Shoals and West Point.
"I got off to a really good start with a really positive attitude and I just kind of let it get away from me at the end," he said. "I started putting too much pressure on myself. I've actually done that the last few years to be honest. I started out strong just going fishing for fun again instead of making it out to be a job and trying to make money doing it.
"A lot of it was just mental attitude. One thing I've learned from the last 4 or 5 years fishing as a pro instead of just fishing is 90 percent of it is mental. I had a good mental approach and when you're fishing like that things seem to go your way. You make better decisions."
The next two events were river tournaments, his strength, but his go-for-broke strategy on day 3 at the Alabama River and Mississippi backfired and saw him slide into the low 40s.
"I was having pretty decent tournaments in both, but on Saturday at the Alabama River, I gambled and tried to make a big jump and push toward the Top 12," he said. "Instead of moving up, I dropped about 16 places. It really flopped on me. That got in my head from then on. I was starting to count points for Angler of the Year. I hated giving those points back. I did the same thing at La Crosse. I wasn't having a great tournament, but it was pretty decent. On Saturday, I gave back 10 or 12 places there, too. I felt good about cashing the check, but as bad as I want to win and fish to win, right now for me the checks are still the most important thing just to keep afloat."
McCaghren has collected just eight checks over the last three seasons.
He closed the year with two finishes in the 60s at the St. Lawrence River and Lake St. Clair, missing $10,000 checks at both by a total of 4 pounds.
"I'm not giving up. I'm still striving every day to get better," he said. "I do feel blessed to be doing what I'm doing. When I got started, I wasn't trying to be a pro fisherman to get rich. I've researched enough to know that's only going to happen for 2 percent of the people doing it. It's all about doing something you love and then trying to make a living at it.
McCaghren won't spend every waking moment of the offseason on a lake somewhere. In fact, he might not fish all that much other than taking on some guiding opportunities.
"I like being around people and it'll give me a chance to be on the water some," he said. "I'm trying to just refresh myself. I've never been a businessperson, but I'm learning. In 5 years, you learn what you have to do. As we speak, I'm working at my family business back home trying to catch up on bills and making sure everything is taken care of at home. I'm also working toward sponsors for next year.
"I have some really good sponsors, but I haven't landed those one or two major people that I could actually work for. I still today don't consider myself a professional angler. I'm doing something I'm passionate about, but to me it's still fishing tournaments. I'm not doing it full-time."
While he hasn't enjoyed the level of success that he would've liked, he doesn't have any regrets about the last 5 years. It's been a memorable journey that also included the birth of his son, now 2 1/2.
"I wouldn't change a thing," he said. "I'm a competitor. It stings not finishing as highly as you want to. I've met some great people and got to work with some really fine people with my sponsors. I just try to be a down-to-earth person.
"I've met so many people that put us fishermen up on a pedestal because we're Elite bass pros. I'm an everyday person. I've met some really cool people. It's been a great experience."