I’m always intrigued by the subtle aspects of professional fishing and the way the sport fits into modern society. One such detail is the perception by up-and-coming stars on the reality of “turning pro.” Not long ago, the idea of becoming a professional bass fisherman was viewed about like becoming an astronaut. Today, things are changing.
This week, I spoke with two young men who confirmed that a career as a bass pro is no longer a pipe dream for teenage standouts. You see, for their generation, it never has been.
Carter McNeil and Cole Floyd are one of the "dream teams" of college fishing. In 2018, they teamed up to win the FLW College Fishing event on Lake Seminole, following it up with a win at the BoatUS National Championship, deemed the premier title in the sport. In 2019, they again took down the BoatUS Championship, as well as the B.A.S.S. national title.
My original interest in speaking with the duo was to discover their fishing secrets. What I came away with, however, was insight into a unique mindset.
McNeil and Floyd, both now seniors at acclaimed Bethel University, both started fishing early. McNeil partnered as a kid with his uncle and grandfather in night fishing events across the Savannah River chain, while Floyd grew up in a tournament-heavy family. Floyd’s father, legendary Ohio angler Steve Floyd, was winning tournaments before Cole was even born.
Fast-forward a handful of years and both Carter and Cole were at the age when decisions needed to be made. College, or not? Move, or stay close to home? What about finances, tuition and majors?
“I didn’t have plans to go away to college,” McNeil offered. “I planned to go to the community college and work at my family’s business; try to make enough money to pursue fishing on the side.”
While McNeil may not have been considering colleges, however, they were considering him. A standout on the South Carolina high school circuit, he gained the attention of Bethel coach Gary Mason and was offered a partial scholarship to join the school’s fishing team.
At first, relocating over 500 miles to Tennessee wasn’t in McNeil's plans. “My parents convinced me,” he mentioned, confirming that they added “not many people get this opportunity, and if you don’t do it now, you’ll regret it someday.”
Wait, hold up. Stop.
The kid talked with his parents about moving halfway across the country to go to a school on a partial scholarship, to better prepare for a life as pro bass fisherman … and they encouraged it?
Floyd’s story of support is similar.
Growing up in Ohio, his family frequently vacationed at Kentucky Lake, just east of Bethel University. After sending in a résumé in hopes of landing a team spot, Floyd was offered a tour of the school. His parents soon purchased a vacation home in the area to better center the family around their son’s chosen educational and career path.
For Floyd, fishing runs through the main trunk of the family tree. Little else, in terms of a life, has ever been suggested or considered. “If I’m not going to fish (for a living), I really don’t know what I want to do,” he mentioned.
Both McNeil and Floyd are obviously exceptional anglers and each offered a unique bit of maturity in their interviews. I have no doubt that they both have a viable shot at a career as a bass pro. Such isn’t uncommon for college-aged anglers these days, as we’ve seen in recent Tour-level performances.
What is unique, however, is the way such decisions and dedication are now being perceived. In many parts of the world, gone are the days of a young angler going out on his own, defiant to the world and the rules that regulate him, in hopes of surviving on tour. Replacing such are scholarships and support groups that believe in the anglers as much as they believe in themselves.
It’s true, parents are now helping student-athletes gain a foothold in fishing, much the same way they do in other sports. Grooming kids early on to give them the best shot at a good school, working with coaches on financing and campus tours, then showing up for home games decked out in team colors.
Recently, I spoke with several pre-teen anglers being home-schooled, specifically so their fishing and travel schedules could be accommodated. Now, I’m learning of college athletes with full support groups and their own bass boats.
I reflect on a story Rick Clunn’s often told, how his father assured him he’d starve if he tried a career as a bass pro. Later, I’d hear similar words form my own dad, as did a number of my vagabond fishing buddies.
My, how times have changed.
(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.)