By Todd Ceisner
George Cochran was into baseball and football as a kid growing up in North Little Rock, Ark. Few things, though, captured his interest or imagination like being in the outdoors.
As a boy, he’d walk the banks of small subdivision lakes with his fishing rod and a Zebco 33 reel, completely naïve to the notion that as a man he’d one day make a living at the sport.
“I remember catching some bass and was just intrigued by it,” said Cochran, now 62. “I used to play sports and this and that, but I never had anything I enjoyed doing more as a kid than fishing and hunting. I didn’t want to do anything else.”
He’d get home from school and hurry across the street to his neighbor Pete’s house where he’d watch Pete clean and fillet his day’s catch. It wasn’t long before the 9-year-old Cochran was asking his neighbor when he’d get to tag along on a fishing trip.
“He told me that when I got to be 11, he’d take me fishing,” Cochran recalled.
Pete made good on his promise and it allowed Cochran to experience fishing from a boat on bigger lakes. He couldn’t get enough and when he was old enough, Cochran was fishing in local club tournaments and statewide events, laying the groundwork for what would become a remarkable 32-year career at the pro level.
The Florida Invitational in February 1979 was his first pro tournament and in 2 weeks, he’ll retire after competing in his final tour-level event at the Sam Rayburn Reservoir FLW Tour Open.
His career spanned five decades and he racked up 10 career wins, including two Bassmaster Classics (1987 and 1996) and one Forrest Wood Cup (2005). He’s collected 60 Top-10s and amassed more than $2 million in winnings. Known as one of the premier shallow-water anglers of his time, he came to be to known as Mr. Money as it seemed every time a big payout event rolled around, his name was always near top of the leaderboard.
“I guess everybody has their time when all good things come to an end and there’s nobody who’s enjoyed it more than I have,” he told BassFan this week. “I loved what I’ve done all these years and I still love it, but this is a time I’ve been getting ready for. I’d set a goal to retire when I was 62.”
The highlight of Cochran’s early fishing days was winning the Arkansas Governor’s Cup and accepting the trophy from then-Governor Bill Clinton. Among the prizes was a new Ranger boat.
“Back then, we didn’t have a lot of tournaments,” he said. “There were like six or seven each year. That was a huge deal in Arkansas and it gave me the boost to want to fish for a living.”
From there, he began saving every penny he could from his job as a brakeman with a local railroad company so he could eventually enter B.A.S.S. events. His first taste of the top level of competition was the 1979 B.A.S.S. Florida Invitational at the St. Johns River, where he finished 31st and won $525.
“I thought that was really something. That was a lot of money back then,” he said.
In the early 1980s, he dropped to part-time with the railroad so he could devote more time to fishing tournaments.
“The only ones who were making a living when I started were either somebody who had a tackle company like Tom Mann or a TV show like Bill Dance or Roland Martin or Jimmy Houston,” he said. “There were a few like Larry Nixon and Ricky Green and Tommy Martin, who were full-time pros that were doing really well, but I noticed the ones who were doing real good had won a Bassmaster Classic. So that was always my goal.”
He crossed that off his to-do list in 1987 when he caught 15-05 a stone’s throw from the takeoff to beat Rick Clunn at the Ohio River in Louisville, Ky., to win his first Classic. The weight stood as the lowest Classic-winning total until 2005, when Kevin VanDam won at the Three Rivers in Pittsburgh with 12-15.
After his Classic win, he left the railroad company for good (he’d stayed on for 1 day a month to maintain seniority) and began fishing for a living full time.
“I told my wife, ‘I think I’m going to quit the railroad and go fish for a living. What do you think,’” he said. “She said, ‘Whatever you want to do, I’ll stand behind you.’ So she was young and dumb, too, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
His second Classic victory in 1996 came at Lay Lake, but by then he’d recorded three other B.A.S.S. wins and established himself as one of the top sticks in the sport.
Cochran is one of five anglers to have won the Bassmaster Classic and Forrest Wood Cup in their career.
“There’s probably not a bass fisherman out there that wouldn’t die to win it,” Cochran said. “There are a lot of goals when you’re a professional fisherman like Angler of the Year, but nothing takes the place of a world championship.”
From 2002 to 2005, he fished both B.A.S.S. and FLW events before migrating to FLW only in 2006. Aside from his Cup win at Lake Hamilton, he’s made just one Top-10 cut in an FLW Tour event since 2005.
The Rayburn Open will be the 361st B.A.S.S. or FLW tournament of his career.
Cochran said he began to seriously start planning for this day after he won the Cup 7 years ago. The $500,000 winner’s prize gave him and his family some financial security and he’s looking forward to all the trappings of retirement.
“I plan to spend more time with my family and grandkids and see the stuff that I missed with my kids because I was gone so much when they were growing up,” he said. “I’m just ready to retire.”
But he won’t mothball his boat and tackle just yet.
“I’ll be fishing a lot, but not for 8 hours,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll fish 4 for fun. I love to hunt so I’m going to do a lot of hunting and spend more time with my family and just have a good time.”
He’ll continue working on a promotional basis for CLC Leather, a California-based company that has recently developed a line of tackle bags under the Wild River label.
“I’m going to stay busy,” he said. “I’m the kind of person that gets up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning and I’m going to be doing something. I’m not going to change that except I won’t be traveling fishing the trail.”
While his fishing career took him across the country to countless lakes, rivers and reservoirs, he said he and his wife, Debbie, have never been able to take a true vacation. That’s about to change, too. Hawaii is tops on their list of destinations.
“In other words, I’m about to turn another page in my life besides being so devoted to fishing for a living,” he said. “There are other things I’d like to do.
“The way I look back on my life, there’s nobody that can say I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do because I’ve been fortunate to fish for 32 years for a living. It entitled me to go to Japan, Canada, Mexico and all over the United States. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve really worked in my life.”