By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Joel Baker's first stint as a tour-level angler was fraught with heartache and disappointment. Now, more than a decade since he competed in the last of his 18 FLW Tour events, he's set to tackle the Bassmaster Elite Series with a new mindset.
Instead of trying to "make things happen" on the water, he's now content to simply let them happen after he's prepared to the best of his ability. That's how this new opportunity came about for the 54-year-old Oklahoman.
"This time I'm just letting fishing come to me," he said. "The only reason I got into the (Bassmaster Central) Opens was because a buddy wanted me to come fishing with him, and everything's been landing the way it should've years ago.
"Being older now, I look at that as an asset. I'm more mature, but I think I can still physically do it. I think it's the perfect time to get back into it."
Head Wasn't Right
Baker competed on the FLW Tour from 2001 through 2003, but said he was really just going through the motions during the final two campaigns. The 2001 season had been a nightmare, and the ramifications of what transpired that year were long-lasting.
He was vying for the win in the event at the Red River, but was disqualified on day 3 due to FLW's logo restrictions, which were nothing short of Draconian at the time. It was determined that his Louisiana Tech Bulldogs hat was non-compliant and he was relegated to a 10th-place finish.
Then, just a day later, his 16-year-old stepson was killed in an auto accident.
"It was a horrible deal, as you can imagine," he said. "With everything the way it was, my wife needed a lot of support at that time. I was there (on tour) in '02 and '03, but my head wasn't in it. The reason I got out was because I knew I wasn't at my best and there was no reason to keep wasting money."
The logo issue was extremely minor in comparison, but it was nonetheless a huge disappointment back then. He said he's since gotten over it, though.
"I'd worn that hat all week, and I'd talked to the tournament director that morning and he didn't say anything about it at the time. I wasn't running a Ranger back then and it was a pretty big deal if you weren't. You weren't going to get by with anything."
Not Nervous, but Excited
The chance to return to top-level competition occurred quickly for Baker, a plumbing contractor from Talala, Okla. (the city in which Elite Series stalwart Edwin Evers resides). After three mid-pack showings in the Central Opens in 2012, he began this year's slate with a 50th at the Red River in April.
His finishes improved dramatically once the calendar turned to fall, however. He posted an 11th at the Arkansas River in September and a 17th at Ross Barnett Reservoir a month later to end up 4th on the points list.
He didn't need much of an assessment period before deciding to accept his Elite Series invitation.
"I'd often thought after I (left the FLW Tour) that I'd like to get back into it someday, and now it's just kind of come back to me," he said. "Everything fell just right and everybody was telling me, 'There's no doubt you've got to do this. There's lots of people trying to do what you did, and it wasn't even your goal.'
"I think with all of the extra stresses I had last time, I did okay. There was a lot of negativity to handle and it was really hard to get my head back up and back in the game. I'm absolutely all-in this time and I'm looking forward to it."
The financial aspect is a bit of a hurdle, as he'll have to basically shut down his plumbing operation in order to devote all of his time and energy to fishing. He's picked up a couple of sponsors thus far (Elk River Jigs and G-Blanks rods) and hopes to nail down other deals by the first of the year.
"It's not easy, and I didn't expect it to be. After I get a year under my belt, and if I do well, I figure more sponsorship will come.
"I understand that you have to perform first – it's a tough market and there's thousands of people trying to get stuff. We'll take the monetary side of it as it comes and hopefully I can survive this first year without a lot of help."
He has prior experience at four of next year's venues – Table Rock, Toledo Bend, Dardanelle and Chickamauga. He'll do all the homework that he can for the others.
"I enjoy going to new lakes and I welcome the challenge," he said. "I'll do the best I can and try to make smart decisions, and then I'll let things fall where they may.
"I don't expect to go out there my first year and tear the world apart, but I think I can do decent."
> Baker will fish the Central Opens again next year in addition to the Elite Series.
> He and wife Stephanie will welcome their first grandchild in May.
> He qualified for the 2001 Forrest Wood Cup, which was canceled due to the 9-1-1 terrorist attacks, via a 2nd-place finish in the 2000 Central EverStart points race.