By Todd Ceisner
Chris Groh is a prideful man.
He takes pride in every tile-setting job he and his company have been a part of. He's proud that he stuck to the pursuit of his longtime dream of qualifying for the Bassmaster Elite Series, even after his father passed away suddenly in December 2015. He's proud that, after a strong showing in the Northern Opens last year, he'll get to represent the fishing-crazed Fox River Chain of Lakes area, northwest of Chicago, as the first known Elite Series qualifier from the area.
"The area where I live, they're all studs here," Groh said. "It's a part of the U.S. people don't consider bass territory, but we can go west to the Mississippi River or go to the northwest and Sturgeon Bay or Lake Michigan. The options are endless."
He calls himself one of the Chain Rats, the group of anglers who regularly fish the Fox River Chain, a series of 13 lakes connecting two river systems. It receives a lot of fishing pressure, Groh says, but it offers something for just about any freshwater fishing enthusiast - bass, walleye, perch, musky.
"It's an interesting place," Groh added. "It's not big, but you get a taste of everything. I call it the Junk Fishing Capital of the World. It gets a ton of pressure. It's like the James (River) without the tide."
And he's anxious to make people aware of where he's from.
"Out of all the hard-working anglers who come out of this area, I'm far from the best, but to be able to put this place on the map, it feels really good," he said. "For me to be the first Chain Rat to make it, that was cool. Time was ticking on the bass side. Plenty of guys have won BFLs and made the All-American, but it's been cool that those are all of my friends and we're taking this all in together."
Ready for a Change
Born and raised in Antioch, Ill., Groh knows what a long, hard day looks and feels like. He's been either building houses or laying tile for the better part of 20 years, earning a reputation as a stickler for detail. He's connected enough in the trade now that when he gets down time at home during the Elite Series season, he'll be able to slide in on jobs and earn some extra money rather than running his own show.
A typical day of laying tile doesn't differ much from an average day during a tournament week. One involves a lot of kneeling while the other requires you to be on your feet 95 percent of the time. Up before dawn and working well past sundown. He'll manage, he says.
"I have a great company, but I don't want to be laying tile anymore," he said. "It's breaking me down."
Instead, he's anxious to fish against some of the titans of the sport, anglers he's followed and studied for years. That's one of the things he's most looking forward to, especially going head to head with "Hack," short for Greg Hackney.
"Hack, (Todd) Faircloth, (Aaron) Martens, (Jason) Christie," he said. "I'm definitely a fan first, but maybe I catch 'em on an off day one day and beat them. I'm going to work really hard to keep myself here."
He paused, then joked, "I'm probably going to be trembling looking Hackney in the eye."
Somewhere, Gary Groh is smiling, knowing that his son is about to set off on the journey of his dreams - their dreams. The former high school shop teacher was Chris' No. 1 fan and supporter of his quest to chase down an Elite Series berth.
"I'm doing what he wanted me to do," he said.
Groh had planned to compete in all three Open divisions in 2016, but after his dad's death, he opted to only enter the Southerns, at his mom's urging. He finished 9th in points, narrowly missing out on an Elite Series bid. In 2017, he competed in eight of the nine Opens and twice finished in the money in the Northerns.
The tough part of the journey is behind him – getting here. Now, he gets to do what he loves to do.
"Just fishing for a living," Groh said. "I'm living the dream. When I leave a lake, I have to jump to the next one. It's just a regimen. Then, I'll come home to the Chain and fish a team tournament and run the business."
He's spent the last few months trying to line up sponsors to help underwrite his rookie season. Recently, he inked a title sponsorship with Sasso USA, a company that builds automated stone fabrication machinery.
"I'm hard-working and understand (money) doesn't grow on trees, but it was a struggle up until we landed a title sponsor," he said. "The easy part is working with the existing people I'd worked with. If you've been with people for a while, they will take care of you. I've always supported local businesses and they all stepped up to the plate and so did other places I already had relationships with."
He didn't mention making the Classic or winning Rookie of the Year when asked what his goals or expectations for the season are. Maybe they're on his mind or maybe he's taking the one-at-a-time approach.
"I feel good about it," he said. "If I get out of this first one alive – Martin isn't exactly my strength – everything sets up nice for me. I've been to most of the places before. The Chesapeake worries me. I've been running through tide charts because I'm not going to be able to pre-practice for that one. I just have to have the mentality to go and learn what I can learn.
"I'm jacked up for the Mississippi River and for the Sabine. That was the site of my worst Open finish (last year). I didn't practice the day before the tournament because I was on them so good. I got punished for it, so that will be a redemption thing for me."