Joe Thompson had the vision since his youth. He fixed his sights on the dream, charted the course, took his lumps and achievements with equal value, and readied himself for the moment of his dreams.
When that moment arrived this fall with a priority invitation to fish the 2018 FLW Tour, the 27-year-old Clayton, Ga., native seized the opportunity with a double-fisted grip.
“I was the kid that always wanted to be a professional fisherman,” Thompson says. “Everybody else wanted to be a vet or a firefighter, and I wanted to be a professional fisherman.
“I always said if I ever had the chance I was going to take it. It’s not going to be easy, but I think I can compete.”
Thompson has competed in FLW tournaments since his days at Young Harris College and has amassed 11 top-10 finishes in FLW College Fishing, T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League and Costa FLW Series competition as a boater and co-angler. In 2017, he finished seventh as a pro in the Costa FLW Series Southeastern Division event on Lake Chickamauga and took second as a co-angler in the Central Division’s Kentucky Lake event.
He claimed his lone FLW victory in 2016 while fishing as a co-angler in the Costa FLW Series Northern Division tournament at 1000 Islands.
Now, a Southern boy fishing a Northern event isn’t unheard of, but winning – that’s rare. Thompson traces his smallmouth acumen to family vacations in northwestern Ontario where he’d stop counting the number of big bronzebacks he’d caught when he go to 40.
He’s also very comfortable fishing deep spotted bass patterns in his home lakes of Burton and Chatuge, as well as Lanier and Hartwell – both an easy day trip.
“I may as well be considered from the northern part of the country because that’s similar to our local fishing,” Thompson says. “We don’t have any grass, and, generally speaking, shallow is 10 feet.
“We also don’t have any bushes to flip, although that’s what I love to do in other lakes. My deal is I’ll go fish for a big bite or two or three, but I’m not afraid at all to pick up a spinning rod. I’ll always have one or two on deck even if my game plan doesn’t involve that.”
En route to earning a biology degree from Young Harris in 2014, Thompson experienced an angling education that stretched his boundaries far beyond northern Georgia’s deep, clear fisheries.
“That was what really opened my eyes,” he says. “Up until college, I had never travelled out to different lakes, like grass lakes. We don’t have any grass to speak of in our local lakes, but College Fishing took me down to Florida, Santee Cooper and Pickwick.
“That really broadened my skill set. I was pretty well rounded even before I started fishing the Costa FLW Series. At first, fishing grass lakes threw me for a loop, but I can do it now.”
After college, Thompson went to work for his father’s construction company, while also earning his real estate license. The steady paycheck and flexible schedule have facilitated his tournament fishing, but all that’s about to change.
“I’m sinking my life savings into this because I’m short on sponsors, but I got my chance and I’m taking it,” Thompson says. “I’m putting everything on hold to go fishing.”
Thompson’s aware of the reality he’s facing, but he’s convinced of two things: 1) The opportunity justifies the challenge, and 2) the timing is right for this ambitious move.
“If I’m going to do it, I’ll have to do it before I have kids and get married and have a home to take care of,” he says. “It’s a benefit because I have a lot less to worry about at home.
“Also, I have a family that supports me. They’re already planning trips to Florida [for the Lake Okeechobee and Harris Chain events], and especially when we come to Lanier. The weigh-ins are going to be about an hour from where I live.”
Thompson knows that Tour fishing will be more demanding than anything he’s faced, with no room for errors. His top priority: eliminating mental mistakes – like the ones that likely denied him a divisional points title.
“I should’ve won the Southeastern Division [AOY], but I lost three fish – one each tournament – any one of which would have given me the winning points total,” says Thompson, who wound up finishing third in the points. “All three of those losses were my fault. I missed them with the net, or I tried to swing them in the boat and they came off; little stuff like that.”
Sizing up the 2018 FLW Tour schedule, Thompson says his only question marks are Smith Lake and Lake Cumberland, simply because he’s never fished either (though both line up nicely with his skill set). He’s looking forward to opening with two Florida events, Lanier is old hat, Kentucky Lake is familiar and St. Clair will offer the smallmouth game he enjoys.
Overall, Thompson says he’s planning to give his rookie season its due respect, but he’s not going to overthink it.
“It’s a pretty simple thing to me; I haven’t been stumped yet in the Costa FLW Series,” Thompson says. “As long as I can fish clean, even if I’ve had a bad practice, I’ll have something going on tournament day. If I can get them in the boat, I believe I can finish well in every tournament.”
His goals include the same one all first-year pros have, but Thompson is dreaming bigger.
“I honestly believe I can win the Rookie of the Year,” he says. “That’s a start; that’s a big deal. But I want to win Rookie of the Year and Angler of the Year. I believe in setting your goals high.”