By Todd Ceisner
Craig Dowling was ready.
Ready to park his boat and stow his tackle and put his tournament aspirations on hold for a while, maybe for good.
The Nashville, Tenn., resident launched his Tour career in 2007, but the results just weren’t squaring up with his expectations. Money was getting tight and he figured another season of missed cuts would sink him further into the red. The fun was being quickly drained out of fishing.
Then, life happened.
He got married and bought a house within the last year. Fishing suddenly took a backseat. The result was a much more relaxed approach on the water and his tournament finishes reflected his more laid-back mindset.
A string of solid, but not spectacular, results allowed him to finish 22nd in FLW Tour Major points this year and clinched him a berth in the upcoming Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Lanier. It’ll be his second career trip to the Cup, but he’s grown to appreciate its meaning a lot more now.
“Because of the timing, it is (more meaningful),” he said. “The one I made in ’09, I was in my second year so I was taking it for granted that I should be able to make the Cup. After the last couple of years, it was something I realized that you have to be in in order to make it out here. You can make checks all year long, but you’re pretty much breaking even until you get here.
“This was more of a do-or-die one if I wanted to keep fishing.”
‘Wasn’t Having Fun’
Making it as a pro angler has been Dowling’s lifelong pursuit. It started out just as he’d hoped, too, with a 3rd-place finish at his first FLW Tour event at Lake Travis in February 2007. Names like Thrift, Wendlandt, Shuffield, DeFoe, Robertson and Lefebre joined him in the Top-10 that week.
He’s only had one other Top-10 finish since then (10th at Lake Guntersville in 2009). In 40 career Tour events, he’s earned a check in roughly half (his average finish is 70th), but his failure to register consistent strong finishes began to sour his outlook and enjoyment.
“Ever since I can remember, back when I was 5 or 6, this is all I’ve wanted to do, all I’ve thought about doing and all I’ve ever done,” he said. “To get out here and to struggle for a few years, it was really disappointing. It just got hard to get up in the morning. It just wasn’t fun anymore. I wasn’t having fun and wasn’t making any money so I figured if I couldn’t change something this year then it was time to step back and re-evaluate.”
Financially, the burden of fishing the Tour was becoming harder to bear.
“I was seriously thinking about this being my last year if I didn’t make the Cup,” he added. “I just wasn’t competing at the level I wanted to be and I was getting pretty frustrated. I was going to step back for a little while if I didn’t make the Cup this year. Since I started, it’s gotten harder and harder to make money doing it.”
While many can understand how the financial hits can wear someone down, he feels that getting married has helped put things in the proper perspective.
“All of my life I’d been single and only had to worry about myself. Things change real quick,” he said. “I think it actually helped my fishing because my whole life all I’ve really cared about is fishing and I’ve devoted my whole life to it. Over the last year, my family’s been my top priority. It’s kind of taken all of the focus off of fishing. As funny as it sounds, I think it’s helped me not caring so much about fishing and having more of a balanced life. It’s taken a lot of pressure off the fishing side and allowed it to become more fun knowing that if I don’t do good, it’s not the end of the world. I still have a family and a happy life at home.”
Back To The Cup
The road to Lanier for Dowling started with a 48th-place finish at Lake Hartwell, where a couple late-day bites earned him a check and gave him a much-needed boost in March.
“I caught a fish on my last cast on the 2nd day that got me a Top-50 check,” he recalled. “That day I had battery issues and had to pull off the water and change out my batteries so I lost a lot of time. It was good to rebound from that and get a check. It kind of set the tone for the year.”
He followed that up with a 16th at Table Rock, where again some late-day bites proved pivotal to his result as did his commitment to sight-fishing when many thought it wouldn’t hold up.
“At Table Rock, I caught a key fish on my last cast there each day and that got me into the (20) cut,” he said. “That really showed the importance of fishing hard all day long and it can happen at any minute. You don’t want to lose hope until the last cast of the day. Anything can happen at any time and you have to stay focused.
“I was totally convinced (sight-fishing) was the deal and that most everyone in the Top 20 would be sight-fishing. I was dead wrong, but in my head I was doing the right thing.”
After an 86th at Beaver Lake, he got back into the money at the Potomac River (33rd) before a 65th at Kentucky Lake where he was 8 ounces shy of a check. He went to Lake Champlain 30th in points so he knew another bomb could’ve derailed his Cup hopes. He turned in a 16th-place effort doing something few others were (fishing for smallmouths) and locked up a trip to Lanier.
“This year, I was fortunate enough to make a couple cuts and didn’t have any real bad ones,” he said. “I feel like I’m a much better fisherman than I was when I started even though the results don’t show that. I’ve tried to figure out why that was. This year, I tried to get back to how it was when I started before I knew anybody or had any kind of networking. I didn’t know what I was doing on a lot of lakes. It seems as if it’s okay if you don’t know what you’re doing, as long as you think you do.
"That’s the most important thing – whatever you’re doing you just need to be confident in it. You don’t have to find the mother lode or find the best bait or know how to catch every fish on the lake.”
> He’s fished a couple events at Lanier – the Bassmaster Southern Tour in 2006 and last year’s PAA tournament – but he’s approaching it as if it’s a new body of water even after making a scouting trip a couple weeks ago. “I really don’t have much experience there and don’t know the lake very well,” he said. “I’m just looking at it like I’ve never been there before.”