By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Tom Mann Jr. will be on a boat at Lake Okeechobee when the 2013 FLW Tour season gets under way next month. The person in the passenger seat won't be a co-angler, though – he or she will be a paying customer.
The Georgia native whose name was so closely associated with Lake Lanier for the better part of three decades is now a full-time guide on the Big O. He's served in that capacity for each of the past three winters, but late last year he became a Florida resident. He works out of Roland and Mary Ann Martin's Marina and has been maintaining a 7-day-a-week schedule.
He said he'll take no more than 3 days off between now and the second week of March.
"I love it down here – every day's a vacation," he said. "I do miss Lanier, but this is one of the top three or four places in the world for bass fishing.
"This is a very easy lake to guide on because it's got so many fish from one end to the other. Throw in the aspect of live bait – about 80 percent of the people who come down here want to fish shiners – and almost every day I'm seeing a 7-plus-pound fish. There's not many places where you can do that year-round."
Time was Right
Mann, who'll turn 60 this year, would've preferred to fish the Tour for at least a couple more seasons. From a financial standpoint, however, he decided he'd had enough.
"I always told myself and I always told my wife that when I started having to do it on my own money, that's when it was going to be time to give it up," he said. "That's what it was going to come to this year.
"Some awfully good fishermen have been dropped recently from companies they'd been with for 20 years or more. That's just the way things are right now, and I feel bad for anybody who's trying to get into the business and earn a living. It's so tough right now and it looks like it's going to be that way for awhile. It doesn't look like this economy's going to turn around the way it needs to for things to get much better."
He had money finishes in each of his final three events last year after a rough start to the season. Placements of 124th at Hartwell and 126th at Table Rock to begin the Tour campaign prevented him from qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup, which was held at Lanier for the second time in 3 years.
He competed in seven Cups and eight Bassmaster Classics and his career earnings easily exceeded $1 million. He won events on both major circuits and had a huge year in 2009, when he won the Eastern FLW Series Angler of the Year Title (capturing the event at Clarks Hill) and took home nearly $250,000 from the Series and Tour combined.
"I don't have any regrets. I fished professionally for 27 years and enjoyed every minute. I got to see things I never would've seen otherwise and I got to meet a lot of people. I tried to do everything that needed to be done and I worked hard for my sponsors, and hopefully I didn't make any enemies along the way.
"It was always a job for me – it was the way I earned money, and it was never about fishing another tournament somewhere just to be fishing it. I was able to make it work for a long time."
Beer Deal No Factor
Those who know that Mann is a devout Christian might be inclined to suspect that FLW's new sponsorship deal with a beer manufacturer (Keystone Light) played into his decision to retire. He said that was no factor whatsoever.
"I see nothing wrong with it," he said. "I know they had policies for years (prohibiting alcohol and tobacco advertising), but we live in a different world now and companies, just like people, have to do what it takes to survive.
"I have no problem with a fisherman in a wrapped boat advertising beer or tobacco. It's up to each individual as to whether they're going to drink, smoke or chew tobacco, and how can you blame anybody but yourself? You're the one who walks into the store and buys it."
He doesn't have any competitive events penciled into his calendar for this year, but that could change. And even if it doesn't, he'll have no trouble keeping occupied with fishing-related business.
"I've still got some sponsors that I'll continue working with (primarily Yamamoto, Buckeye and Ranger) to develop new products, and I might hand-pick a tournament here or there at times when I'm not so busy. What I am going to miss are the people. It'll be hard not to be around friends who I've known for so long.
"This lake is so popular, though, that I expect most of them to eventually show up down here. It's on a lot of people's bucket list."
> Mann said he doesn't possess a single trophy or plaque that he won during his long career. "Those things never meant anything to me and I've given just about all of them away. I've always thought (tournament organizations) should just take that money and give it to you instead of wasting it on trophies."
> He said he caught a 10-03 at Okeechobee recently on an artificial bait. "What this lake has is an abundance of 5- to 9-pounders. You don't see double-digit fish every day."