I’ve said it before – I’m a hopeless optimist.
That, mixed with the fact that I'm still young and relatively inexperienced, means that whatever bubbly perspective I have on what it takes to make it as a professional angler in this day and age probably leaves something to be desired as far as credibility.
I could talk all day about my beliefs on what it takes to turn professional, or how possible it is to make a good living in this sport, but in the end I'm still just a guy living in a trailer with dreams of making it big.
I must admit that despite my optimistic tendencies, I often experience doubt and uncertainty when it comes to my future in the sport, and the future of the sport itself. That’s why I wanted to talk with someone who knows firsthand what it takes to make it big in the fishing industry.
Fortunately, I was honored with the opportunity to speak with none other than co-owner of B.A.S.S., and one of the people whose passion for the sport has elevated it to new levels – Mr. Jerry McKinnis.
Following are some of the things that Jerry and I talked about over the phone during a short break from my pre-practice at Bull Shoals for the TBF Championship.
The Hard Way
I immediately wanted to know how common it was to see a now-successful pro make it to the top level by doing things the “hard way.” In essence what I meant by the “hard way” was basically starting from scratch, with little initial financial backing, and making huge sacrifices as far as living situation and social lifestyle, among many other things.
“I don’t know many professionals out there that haven’t done things the hard way," Jerry was quick to point out.
He explained that everyone from Skeet Reese to Kevin VanDam have had to deal with their fair share of financial, emotional and physical woes. Even though each individual had a different set of hurdles to jump, they each nonetheless had nothing given to them on a silver platter.
To me, this is a comforting thought because when I see my favorite pros on TV and in magazines, I see the end result of the years of hard work, but it's hard for me to see those same pros “struggling” the way I often do.
One such example Jerry offered of an individual who has climbed the ladder of professional fishing with little more than a passion and a heaping helping of determination and work ethic was Chris Lane.
“I remember a tournament on Champlain, where he was leading after the first day, but something happened the next day and he just fell off the map. He was young then, with a wife, and he was really having a rough time at the game.
“Chris had every excuse to quit, but he hung in there and ground it out. Now look at him – the Classic has changed his life forever.”
His comments about Chris really brought me back to my own experiences speaking with the 2012 Classic champion. I remember sleeping in the back of my truck at a campground at least 5 years ago, and Chris happened to be staying with his family in their camper in the campsite next to mine.
Aside from him treating me with a great deal of respect, which I will never forget, I remember how he told me how much he had sacrificed for his dream of making a living fishing. At the time, I hoped he would make it, for little more than the selfish reason of giving me hope that one day my hard work might pay off too.
Yep, look at him now!
Jerry also admitted that the sport is extremely tough to break into, especially for the younger guys just getting out of college. One must take care to not underestimate how difficult the sport is.
“But you can always find a way. The key is focus.”
It should be no surprise to hear that one of the biggest keys to success, in Jerry’s opinion, is your ability to sell yourself to sponsors.
“Your goal should be to go out there and get the biggest sponsorships possible, especially non-endemic sponsorships," he said.
If you are trying to go pro like me, these statements shouldn’t seem new to you, but the simple fact that Jerry McKinnis is taking the time to emphasize these points should be a shot over the bow for all of us aspiring professionals.
For Jerry, one of the biggest things to concentrate on while fishing for those key sponsorships is selling the potential sponsor on how many people like to go fishing as well as how many people you reach – how many “impressions” you draw.
Personal branding, according to Jerry, has a lot to do with how successful you are on the business side of things as well. Well-established pros like Mike Iaconelli, and Skeet Reese immediately come to mind.
Like I said before, for many of us, it is hard to see these fishing icons in any other light than lime, but Jerry insists that their individual brands have been carefully developed over time by starting with something that separates them from the next competitor.
“All the most successful pros put almost equal amount into both branding and fishing.”
Jerry openly admitted that the financial hurdles that today’s anglers face is a source of frustration, and is something that he has worked extremely hard to try to improve.
“Helping anglers with the business side of the sport has been a real important subject for B.A.S.S. and myself personally. We have done workshops on how to approach these companies, and also how to deal with them once you get them.”
Still, Jerry emphasizes the importance of good old-fashioned hard work and perseverance in this difficult search.
“Believe me, you will be going out there and getting yourself a lot of No's.”
When he told me that, I kind of related it to tournament fishing in that you might go out and fish one tournament and win it, but more than likely you are going to have to take some licks, and lose a lot, before you win big.
I have had my fair share of tournament losses, so I guess if I not only survive those, but grow stronger because of them, I can adopt the same mindset for the business side.
Only Plan A
A common thread throughout our conversation could be summed up by the word “dedication.” Jerry continually reminded me that in order to make it in this sport, or at anything that you want in life, you must be dedicated without exception.
My personal belief has always been that if you have a Plan B, you are not completely dedicating yourself to your Plan A, which was something that Jerry said he wholeheartedly agreed with.
“Having a Plan B means that you might be expecting to fail," he said.
As the conversation started to wind down a bit, and some gulls began to dive on a huge school of shad nervously swimming on the surface of Bull Shoals, Jerry made one thing clear:
“You gotta love it! If you don’t love the sport completely, you better find something else to do. Coming from a guy that loves the sport, and not from an owner of B.A.S.S., I honestly believe that if you work hard and you have a passion for the sport, you can make it.”
I couldn’t have heard more comforting words than those, and I hope they comfort all of you out there who are also working hard to make a living in our beloved sport. If all it takes is a lot of love and a whole lot of hard work- consider me all-in.
Now, back to fishing!
Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is a student at the University of Central Florida and the winner of the 2011 BoatUS Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship. He's an aspiring professional angler who writes a regular column for BassFan. To visit his website, click here. You can also visit him on Facebook and Twitter.