The only thing that mattered was that fish. As he laid awake in bed, for the first time in his life, the 12-year-old boy had found a purpose. He’d spent most of his summer fishing the pond in his backyard; by now he knew every fish by name. Then the 6-pounder showed up. Rising beneath his jointed Rapala, she’d looked him right in the eye, as if contemplating her next move. The boy stood motionless. As the big bass gave the lure the slightest kiss, the boy reared back with all his might, but the lure’s tiny treble-hook straightened. That night, long after bedtime, the boy went through the minuscule tacklebox he’d kept stashed beneath his bed. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, he’d get her.
It was a long way from striking it rich, but, for the first time, Billy was making a living fishing. Tournaments had changed the game, and his life, forever. Gone were the pressures of juggling vacation time and travel, spending more on weekends than he made during the week. Now, with a small network of sponsors and an increasing number of events in his region, Billy found himself in the black, justifying his habit.
Long hours spent practicing for upcoming tournaments took away from any social life and relationships, but the payoff was always just around the corner. Maybe those big fish would show up again on the subtle ledge he’d found last year, or maybe the docks in Gibson’s Creek would be loaded. As the sun began to set on Thanksgiving Day, Billy again found himself alone, on the lake, the rest of the world gathering around the table with family. He tied down the hood on his rain coat and pushed the throttle forward a little farther.
Like his father before him, he’d always yearned for a life on the water. Now, long after the industry began to put more emphasis on “likes” and “shares” than pounds and ounces, the grizzled veteran was forced out. Gone were the days of sponsors approaching him at weigh-in with offers of free boats and motors. Now, he found himself buying overpriced gear at a discount.
Bill turned to the only thing he knew.
With a growing number of referrals from satisfied clients, he went weeks at a time without a day off, making decent money once he counted tips, renewing his purpose. He hit it hard in the winter months, vowing that the hot summers wouldn’t find him again dry-walling for his brother-in-law. Besides, guiding gave Bill renewed faith that his neighbors would no longer judge him when he pulled out of his driveway every morning, boat in tow, as they cursed their commutes to Orlando.
Through time, Bill watched the world of fishing put less emphasis on numbers, and now found himself surrounded by clients interested in nothing more than a single trophy, regardless of cost.
He’d seen the tremendous stress a growing population put on his once-pristine fisheries. Where 10-pound bass had been commonplace, now mere 7s turned heads. Exposure of his honey holes by the big bass magazine hadn’t helped: demand was now overrunning supply.
Staring at the giant fish barely visible within the flooded willow-tree, Bill debated telling his clients about it at all. The bass, easily 13 pounds, was the first true giant he’d seen in two years, despite spending thousands of hours searching the shallows. He despised bed-fishing – always had. But, anymore, it was the only way to make a living.
Bill wondered, how had it come to this?
Eight o'clock sharp; that’s when the old man would show up. For three consecutive days, my dad and I had watched the old-timer drift down past us on the St. John’s River, plunking a worm to every stump and treetop he could hit. There was never any urgency in his fishing.
As he passed us this final day of our week-long vacation, we couldn’t help but ask his story. “My whole life” the old man said “I’ve spent here on these waters.” He set down one of the last remaining pistol-grip bass rods on the front deck, continuing: “I’ve seen the fish that live here change the lives of men.
“Not long after my wife died, I vowed to come back out here and fish every morning until God called me up to join her.
“I’ve only missed a couple,” he continued. “I guess you could say fishing kind of gives me a purpose.”
The river rolled by, just as it always had, carrying the old man around the next bend.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)