“You just don’t go fishing in Florida without a worm tied on.”
Those words are burned into my memory as deeply as any fishing advice I’ve ever heard. The year was 1990 and Larry Nixon had just won his second Florida Megabucks, on his way to becoming the era’s most profitable competitor.
Now, over 30 years later, we’re left only with memories when reflecting on Nixon’s storied career, the announcement of his retirement taking over the bass fishing headlines.
Nixon’s always been a favorite. He’s one of the originals, dominating the game and rising to household-name status. Nixon is truly synonymous with bass fishing.
Together, we reflected on his career, spanning over 45 years.
“The highlight for me” Nixon started “was the consistency. For the first 25 years, I was as consistent as anyone’s ever been.”
This, according to Nixon, was the peak of his career. While his national victories would span a decade longer, the 80s and 90s was when Nixon made hay. He counted his Bassmaster Classic title as his single best win, crediting it for “setting my career.”
Nixon’s early years were a time of tremendous progress for the sport. Interest in tournament fishing exploded thanks, in large part, to the visions and showmanship of Ray Scott and his team at B.A.S.S. Advancements in boats, motors and tackle quickly followed. Some of these advancements, Nixon believes, were keys to his success.
“I learned on the fly. New lures filled a niche and were expanding the sport."
These new baits, including big jigs, buzzbaits and spinnerbaits with whopper blades, not only caught bass, but big bass. Next came crankbaits that penetrated the deepest waters. All “improved the whole stringer.”
Nixon was a model of consistency. “I knew when to hold ‘em. I was a slow fisherman, but I worked my way into patterns.”
His strategy was to take it one fish at a time. “I’d catch fish I didn’t know I was gonna catch (following practice),” he said. “I just fished so often that I knew I was gonna catch bass.”
Herein lies the real secret behind Larry Nixon’s career.
Guiding on Toledo Bend through the late 1980s, as well as fishing a full tournament schedule, kept Nixon on the water 300 days a year, year after year.
“You see how fish react at all times of the day. Catching is a big habit. You can’t take that away.” Nixon confirmed that catching bass drove him to catch more. His confidence soared.
A relentless outdoorsman, Nixon credited his lifestyle for his ability to think like a bass. “Staying in touch with Mother Nature; to me, that’s the most important part of fishing.”
During Nixon’s storied run, he’d win Megabucks four times in five years, more than doubling his carer income in short time. Fans of the sport jokingly referred to the event as the “Larry Nixon Benefit Tournament.” Truly, it was as if the format was perfectly designed to fit Nixon’s style.
“I fished so much, I could take one look at a bank and tell you where there was a bass,” Nixon stated. From there, he’d catch it, and move on. One fish per hole, one fish at a time. “I never got in a hurry. I knew it was gonna happen eventually.” By simplifying the game, Nixon dominated the most complex event. “I was red hot, like a home-run hitter.”
Peak performance in any sport only lasts so long. “You get more complacent,” Nixon mentioned of his slowdown in the early 2000s. “It’s a change in your direction. You’re no longer fishing every day.” Nixon insisted that such a shift is impossible to repress due to the nature of the game. With success comes sponsor obligations, product development and testing, and appearances. “You’re out there thinking some new lure’s not running the right direction, instead of (purely) thinking about catching bass.”
Nixon has seen this shift in every competitor. Questioned about the game’s greatest: “Oh, there’s no doubt. KVD.” And even he, Nixon insisted, was “obligated all the time”, forced to focus more on the business of fishing than the casts and cranks.
Product development, though, was a driving force behind Nixon’s prosperity. I still own a Larry Nixon worm rod, one of the millions of Team Daiwa sticks sold by way of a superstar endorsement, a new concept at the time in fishing. “It was a lot of work, really,” Nixon remembered “but a lot of fun.”
Today, endorsements are everywhere, occasionally given to anglers with little competitive credibility. That was never the case in Nixon’s early days.
“For years, when a fisherman would ask me how to get sponsors, I’d tell them ‘first and foremost, you have to win’. That was the most important thing at the time.” Nixon reflected how focus has changed, resulting, long-term, in poorer sponsor contracts for the sport’s top competitors.
“Nowadays, it’s so diluted. Everybody is promoting, wearing (logos). Everyone is ‘sponsored’.” Nixon surmised that, when a company gets free publicity, they’re simply not going to pay for it.
Numerous times, I’ve heard it stated that the 1980s were the pinnacle for competitive bass fishing as a sport. Nixon agreed. “Thats’ when it was really at its peak. The whole world was bass fishing. Boats and motors were selling. Sponsorships were growing.” Today, Nixon sees less expansion. He also finds tougher fishing.
“Back in the old days, there was always a shallow pattern.” Now, with better, more advanced anglers, bass are pressured much heavier, leading them off the bank, Nixon believes. He also mentioned a lack of shallow cover, a continued war on weeds, and better local anglers tightening things up. “You can still do OK fishing shallow, but you’re not going to compete in the Top 10,” Nixon declared.
A plastic worm accounted for a bunch of money coming over Nixon’s gunnels. “The reason it’s such a good lure, is it’s never limited by cover. And I found out that, about 80 percent of the day, I had to go to the bottom to catch fish … there are only a few hours of aggression (in the daily behavior of bass).
“Early on, I discovered that, if you don’t have a good worm or jig bite going on, you were going to struggle at least one day (in a three-day tournament, the format of the time).”
A five-inch Gatortail was responsible for Nixon’ biggest win. Today, the sickle-tailed plastic is no longer available. “I’ve got about 50 left.” Nixon joked.
When asked what he would have done differently in his career – if he had any regrets – not surprisingly, Nixon didn’t “have anything I would change.”
Somehow, through it all, Nixon’s marriage paralleled his carer, now surpassing four decades. Open, honest discussion of his outdoor obsession resulted in “never getting chewed out for going fishing in 42 years,” perhaps Nixon’s biggest win.
Nixon will still be fishing, just not at the sport’s highest level. He immediately mentioned fishing with long-time friend Tommy Martin, now 83 years old and still burning with bass desire. The two once belonged to a rag-tag crew of fishing guides known as the Hemphill Gang, bass junkies taking their game on the road after exploring the vast waters of Toledo Bend Reservoir, where the possibilities were endless.
My, how far Larry Nixon has come.
And how sad it will be to see him go.
(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.)