By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's Note: In observance of the Columbus Day holiday, a new top story will not appear until Tuesday.)
When David Dudley says, without hesitation, that you're better than he was when he was your age, that's high praise.
Philip Jarabeck, Dudley's nephew and travel companion for the last 8 years on the FLW Tour, said he doesn't feel any added pressure when uncle Dave, a three-time FLW Tour Angler of the Year, starts touting his talents.
Jarabeck, 23, acquitted himself nicely as a rookie on Tour this year, finishing among the top 60 in points and earning paychecks in three of six events. The Lynchburg, Va., native's move to the front of the boat came on the heels of two strong seasons as a co-angler, but also came with some growing pains.
"It was a dream come true," he said. "It was a big eye opener. It's a whole different world from the front. It's not anything I don't think I can handle. I felt really comfortable. I wasn't nervous or afraid, but you know immediately it's a different level."
He got off to a solid start with a Top-10 showing at Lake Okeechobee and check-earning 56th at typically tough Smith Lake. He shook off a three-tournament slump in the middle of the season to notch a Top-40 result at the season finale at Lake Chickamauga.
"It was very exciting. I felt really comfortable," he said. "I didn't have the finishes I wanted. I know I have a lot to learn about decisions and when to stay or go. It's just a big chess game. Over time you see a lot of anglers get more comfortable with those decisions, but it's still a challenge.
"I was definitely ready to move forward. My understanding of where to go and what to do and my confidence in my ability has never been higher. I could feel myself getting better."
Big Splash at Big O
What better place to make a pro debut than at big-fish factory Lake Okeechobee. That's where Jarabeck took off the training wheels last February and he hit the water running.
High water had the fish spread out and left many pros scratching their heads as to where the big ones were holed up. Jarabeck grinded it out, though. He made the Top-20 cut in 9th place, caught just over 9 pounds on day 3 to earn a slot on the final day and wound up finishing 10th – 55 places above Dudley, who has multiple Top-10s at the Big O.
"That meant the world to me," he said. "It was an overwhelming feeling to see my name on the screen in the Top 10 with names like Randall Tharp and all the biggest names in bass fishing. It was like, 'They're up there and I'm going (fishing) tomorrow.' It was a feeling of knowing you're right where you belong."
From the shallow waters of Okeechobee, he had to adjust to the deep, clear water at Smith Lake, where he caught the deepest bass of his life – in 48 feet.
"I had a bad practice there and it was a learning experience," he said. "I didn't figure out those were bass on the bottom until late in the day on day 2."
He had high hopes heading to Beaver Lake, but was done in by an opportunistic co-angler and finished 101st.
"I had high expectations at Beaver, but it just didn't work out," he said. "I am really comfortable there and it fits my skills. I like fishing grass and dropshotting and Smith Mountain Lake is a similar deep, mountain lake. My co-angler caught a couple good fish there, but that's how it goes. Two years ago, I was the co-angler that did that to Scott Suggs."
He had another triple-digit finish at Lake Eufaula, but got a confidence boost at Chickamauga that he hopes carries into 2014.
"Do I think I'm getting better every event I go out? Sure," he said. "I try to learn something every time out and I'm constantly picking up on things. Next February at Okeechobee, I know for a fact that when I make my first cast, I'll be a better angler."
Jarabeck has been around pro fishing long enough to know guys can come and go pretty quickly and becoming a household name is not an overnight thing. Of all the wisdom Dudley has shared with him over the years, a familiar phrase continues to come to mind, especially now that he's embarking on his own pro career.
"There have been so many things, just little lessons that build up over the years," he said. "I've traveled with him for 8 years now and his thing has always been never be satisfied. You'd think it might get annoying after traveling with him that long, but it's true. It's just the stance he takes on life."
More importantly, he was able to manage the whole aspect of being a tour pro – the travel, lodging, long practice days, etc. – without getting overwhelmed.
"I didn't fall into that trap," he said. "It's definitely possible. I fished as a co-angler for 2 years and have seen so many anglers go from making great decisions to something going wrong and it messing them up for a while."
> Jarabeck works for a commercial steel company as a jack-of-all-trades maintenance worker. "It's a little bit of everything. One day, I could be setting up a fiber-cutting laser in a machine shop and the next day, I can be building shelves. I like it because it's something new every day."