Capt. Blake Smith, who’s signed on to fish the Walmart FLW Tour this year, will tell you that he’s a “true rookie” when it comes to big-time bass tournaments, which is true. However, he’s no newcomer to competitive fishing.
In 2014, the Florida angler finished second in the AOY standings of the Inshore Fishing Association (IFA) Redfish Tour Lucas Oil Open pro-am series, a circuit that caters to coastal anglers in the Deep South and is set up much the same as a saltwater version of the Walmart FLW Tour, though on a smaller scale. Pros fish with co-anglers and practice catch-and-release. Tournaments are staged at the traditional redfish meccas of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Given that the “Captain” in Smith’s title derives from the fact that he’s U.S. Coast Guard-certified in Florida as both a saltwater and freshwater fishing guide, and he grew up in Polk County fishing the lakes and nearby coastal waters, he’s not intimidated by the FLW challenge. In fact, Smith plans to fish both circuits, which probably ranks him as the only dual freshwater-saltwater pro in 2015, though a few years ago it was a fairly commonplace practice before various redfish circuits ceased operations.
“Believe it or not, a lot of the tackle and techniques that we use in redfish tournaments are pretty much the same stuff that bass fishermen use,” says Smith. “I don’t want to say that I’m a junk-fisherman, but I’m very much at home pitching and flipping in grass – whether it’s in a lake or in the Intracoastal Waterway. My biggest concern is my unfamiliarity with fisheries like Chickamauga and Beaver Lake. I’ve fished some hard-bottom lakes and have had some practice on smallmouths because my wife is from Canada, but unfamiliarity with some of the fisheries is definitely going to be my biggest obstacle.”
If you spot Smith’s Ranger this year, you’ll notice a couple of things unusual about it. For one, the Z520C doesn’t have carpet. Rather, it has hard rubber-like flooring and coating on all interior surfaces, because saltwater ruins carpeting. Also, the wrap on Smith’s boat will be that of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). It reflects the 31-year-old’s commitment to a bigger mission.
Though he doesn’t profess to be the Tim Tebow of fishing, Smith would like to present himself as an example of people who live their faith, in an unobtrusive, non-proselytizing sort of way. Smith has been associated with the FCA for the past three years.
Last fall, when he received word that he would be eligible to fish the Walmart FLW Tour through his relationship with Ranger, he considered his options. Some of the folks at Ranger who were familiar with Smith and his background in saltwater and freshwater fishing had encouraged him to join the Tour. He talked to his wife, Meagan, about the idea, and they both prayed on it.
“I didn’t really have the means to fish both the redfish circuit and the Tour in the same year,” recalls Smith. “Meagan and I finally decided if we could make it happen, if God provided, I would do it.”
God provided. When it came time to pay the deposit to fish the Tour, Smith found a check in the mail from a local church to cover it. The word spread regarding Smith’s intentions, and other nearby congregations donated to the cause. Soon, he was meeting with FCA representatives about the possibility of an ongoing sponsorship, and the organization agreed that such an arrangement would be mutually beneficial. This year Smith will represent the FCA both passively and actively. His boat wrap and fishing jersey will speak for themselves, and through his words and deeds, Smith will take care of the rest.
“I plan to talk to school and church groups everywhere the Tour goes this year,” says Smith. “Actually, I was a missionary in Africa and Europe for a while, and now fishing on the Tour will be part of my ministry. I especially look forward to working with young people. The notoriety and attention you get as a professional gives you the ability to reach people in a special way, and I hope to make good use of that platform.”
Of course, how high the platform and how bright the spotlight depends on how well Smith does as a rookie. Best not to sell him short, though. He grew up fishing in Polk County, where it’s difficult to throw an orange in any direction without it splashing down in a bass lake. He started guiding as a kid to make pocket money, and it grew into a profession. Nowadays he often guides customers on Lake Toho and surrounding waters, as well as to the coast. It’s not an exaggeration to say that many of the topwater lures, jerkbaits, jigs or swimbaits he casts for redfish and speckled trout will also be tied on to the ends of his fishing rods at Tour events this year.
Though Smith knows a few bass pros, by and large he’ll be a stranger in a strange land this year. Meagan and their two preschool-age daughters will travel with him throughout the season and root for him at takeoffs and weigh-ins – whether bass or redfish weigh-ins.
Smith’s primary goal during his rookie season on the Tour is to make a strong statement in the first event of the year on Toho, then try to finish somewhere in the top 50 the rest of the way. The tidewater tournament on the Potomac River in late June likely might make or break Smith’s chances to represent the FCA at the Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Ouachita in August.
“To qualify for the Cup would be awesome. But that’s what everybody’s shooting for at the beginning of the year, and I’ve been told about the caliber of fishermen there are on the Tour and what to expect,” observes Smith. “So I know it’s going to be tough. All I can do is give it my best shot. Lord willing, I’ll make it.”