On February 20, 2011, Kevin VanDam made angling history during the Bassmaster Classic, held in the Louisiana Delta south of New Orleans. The professional angler from Kalamazoo, MI lifted the world championship trophy before 40,000 adoring fans at the New Orleans Arena. Successfully defending his 2010 Classic title, VanDam joined Rick Clunn as the only angler to win four Classic titles and back-to-back championships.
VanDam reached the career pinnacle by putting in more than two decades of hard work. Since 1987 VanDam has won 20 major tournaments, surpassing legendary angler Roland Martin with 19. He has earned the Bass Angler Sportsman Society Angler of the Year title seven times. During those years, VanDam earned more than $5.5 million in winnings and millions more in endorsements.
VanDam earned more than $5.5 million in winnings and millions more in endorsements.
In 1983, 16-year-old VanDam joined the Kal Valley Bass Club in Kalamazoo and fished as a non-boater for his first year. In his second year, VanDam fished as a boater and won the club Angler of the Year title. Making a name for himself, he began entering bigger events before winning the 1991 Georgia Bassmaster Top 100. That same year, the 23-year-old angler became the youngest pro to win the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year title. He won his first Bassmaster Classic title in 2001 and during the next decade continued to dominate the professional circuit.
“Fishing the club was great,” VanDam recalled. “We never went more than 30 miles from Kalamazoo. I fished a few regional tournaments and steadily worked up to bigger events. What really helped me most in the beginning was that we fished with a different club member in every tournament. People who fish together share ideas and learn new techniques from each other. There’s simply no substitute for time on the water.”
Many bass fishermen dream of becoming the next VanDam, with hopes of fishing for a living and one day lifting their own championship trophy before screaming fans as endorsement checks flood their bank accounts. However, most don’t realize the massive commitment and many sacrifices professional anglers endure to pursue that goal.
“Being away from my family is the worst,” VanDam admitted. “I spend a lot of time away from home—about 250 days a year. I love fishing new lakes, going to shows and meeting people, but the coming and going is tough. It’s lonely and nobody can do it without full family support.”
Terry Scroggins concurs with VanDam’s opinion of life on the road. The San Mateo, FL pro has won five events and pocketed more than $1.5 million in winnings. He began his career by fishing with the Bass Capital BassMasters in Palatka, FL and the Clay County Bass Anglers. He caught his big break by winning the 2001 Florida Eastern Open on the St. Johns River and has qualified for the Classic nine times.
“The worst part is spending 16 hours a day in a truck driving from coast to coast,” Scroggins said. “Once you cross the country 50 times, the traveling is not so exciting anymore.”
Traveling takes money, and lots of it. An angler might spend $40,000 a year in entry fees but that doesn’t include lodging, food, fuel, equipment maintenance and many other expenses. Just to stay on a major tournament trail for a year an angler may spend $100,000. Few fishermen can afford that on winnings alone and still manage to support a family back at home, so sponsors are a must.
“We can’t do it without the sponsors, but the more sponsors we have the busier we become and the more we find ourselves on the road,” Scroggins said. “To get sponsors anglers need to act professionally on and off the water. They need a good appearance and a positive attitude to help sponsors sell products. When I’m at a show I run from sponsor booth to sponsor booth meeting people and promoting product.”
Guys like VanDam and Scroggins can catch bass, but sponsors don’t give checks to anglers just because they put fish in the livewell. Sponsors pay people to sell their products and represent their brands. Top professionals spend a considerable portion of their time promoting sponsor products on weigh-in stages, in television programs and at public appearances. They work with writers and photographers in various media to help move products off the shelves. In fact, the more successful anglers become at catching fish, the less they actually get to fish.
“I don’t fish nearly as much as people think,” VanDam admitted. “The only fishing I do now is for tournaments, TV shows, media events and fulfilling sponsor obligations. I have a true love for the sport and I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have that passion, but it’s a job. Sponsors could care less about how many bass the pros catch. It’s about how many trucks, boats, lures, rods or reels they can sell.”
Shaw Grigsby of Gainesville, FL not only fishes competitively and fulfills his sponsor obligations, but he’s also the host of One More Cast, a national TV show. Shaw began his career fishing with Gator Country Bass Club in Gainesville. He’s won nine major tournaments since 1988 and has appeared in 14 Bassmaster Classics. With the added obligation of filming a show, he sometimes spends more than 300 days a year away from home.
“I probably spend about 30% of my time fishing and 70% doing something else,” Grigsby said. “We do a lot of consulting and tackle testing, television, radio, magazine and newspaper interviews. We’re also involved in a lot of photography sessions to promote ourselves and the products we represent. The bottom line is that we are salesmen.”
Grigsby, Scroggins and VanDam all highly recommend that students contemplating pursuing a professional fishing career first complete their education. Many people think they need a biology degree to learn how fish think, but professional anglers must learn how people think. The pros advise young anglers to earn degrees in business, advertising, marketing, public relations or similar disciplines. The better they can promote sponsor products, the more money they can earn as a professional, regardless of how many tournaments they win.
“The unique thing about bass fishing is that anybody can do it,” Scroggins advised. “Not everyone can hit a baseball, dribble a basketball or catch a football at a professional level, but anybody can catch bass. Novice anglers can enter local tournaments as non-boaters where they will gain crucial insight from experienced anglers. For a beginner, a day spent in the back of the boat with a skilled pro will likely turn into an all day fishing seminar. As they gain experience, they can shift to the front of the boat. The best way to learn how to fish competitively is to fish competitively.”
If you want to increase your skill and knowledge, enter tournaments in different states. You should also intentionally fish different habitats and various conditions—even if they are less than ideal. As a pro you’ll be forced to fish semi-tropical brackish deltas, deep glacial lakes, raging muddy rivers and rocky desert impoundments under any and all conditions.
Besides honing their skills, young anglers should make public appearances. They can gain experience speaking before a crowd by conducting local seminars or appearing as guests on radio and television shows. The more they promote themselves, the more sponsors they may attract.
“Professional anglers have to be good at public speaking and public relations,” VanDam said. The best advice I can give to anyone thinking of becoming a professional bass fisherman would be to never let anyone convince you that you can’t do it.”
Many universities now provide full-ride athletic scholarships for student anglers who compete for their school. An increasing number of high schools also offer competitive fishing teams. In addition, there are many youth tournaments designed specifically for junior anglers.
“Young people today have so many opportunities,” Grigsby said. “Anglers can start young and really participate at a number of levels while they are earning a degree. When they graduate, they’ll have all that skill, knowledge and experience before they ever turn pro. Remember to take some courses in public speaking, marketing and business to learn effective ways to promote yourself and the products you represent. You need to learn how to run a business because every professional angler is an independent contractor. Make sure to get a good education, but keep fishing on the weekends.”
Companies might pay big bucks to a guy like Kevin VanDam, but when he lifts his championship trophy and shouts, “I caught my fish thanks to…” sponsors get more than their money’s worth. Perhaps some kid reading this today will stand on a stage with a championship trophy in hand one day and provide sage advice for a new generation of anglers chasing their own dreams.