Crossing the great divide - Major League Fishing

Crossing the great divide

October 31, 2001 • Rob Newell • Archives

Scott Martin of Clewiston, Fla., won the 1999 Co-angler of the Year title before crossing over to the pro side and eventually winning $100,000. He says that the Co-angler Division was a necessary step in his tournament-fishing education and that he would do it again if he had it to do over.Is moving from co-angler to pro a leap of faith, or is there more to it?

Only a few feet of floor space separate the front deck and back deck on a modern bass boat. But on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, the two platforms are worlds apart.

Just ask David Cooke, Pat Fisher, John Sisemore and Scott Martin. These four anglers have stepped up to the front deck thanks to a new Wal-Mart FLW Tour rule instituted in 1999 that allows the top 10 co-anglers from the previous season to cross over to the pro side the next season. These anglers have learned that while the front deck is not that far physically from the back deck, fishing against the best anglers in the nation is a whole different world.

Back-deck days

David Cooke, from Davidson, N.C., is quick to admit that he received his bass fishing education on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour as a co-angler. Before joining the tour in 1997, Cooke had never even fished outside of North Carolina. He sought to maximize his FLW Tour learning experience by going to tournaments early and hitching rides with pros on practice days.

“I would hang out at the ramp on practice days and beg for rides with the pros,” Cooke recalls. “I was not there to win the tournament, I just wanted to learn.”

In just three years Cooke got a crash course in tournament bass fishing. Through his eagerness to learn he developed friendships with pro anglers Ricky Diehl of Huntsville, Ala., and Alvin Shaw of State Road, N.C. “Ricky showed me how to fish a jig in deep water and Alvin showed me how to slow-roll spinnerbaits,” Cooke says. “I have since used those exact same techniques to finish well on the pro side.”

Pat Fisher weighs in a nice smallmouth as FLW Tour host Charlie Evans looks on.Pat Fisher of Stone Mountain, Ga., also admits he had never fished outside of his home state until his first Wal-Mart FLW Tour event in 1997. “I had an opportunity to travel the country with pro Tony Couch (of Buckhead, Ga.),” Fisher says. “I had no idea what to expect. Tony just said, `Do you want to travel with me and fish on the co-angler side?’ If you want to learn how to golf and a pro golfer asks you to join him on tour, you don’t turn him down.”

The first experience as a co-angler in the FLW Tour for John Sisemore of Farmington, Ark., came on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee in 1999 and included being paired with eventual winner Joel Richardson of Kernersville, N.C., during the semifinal round. “It was a powerful experience fishing with Joel in that event – to be that close to the winner and to feel, firsthand, all the emotions he was experiencing. It was so pure. It enhanced my desire to fish professionally tenfold.”

That magical day sparked a close friendship between Sisemore and Richardson, one that still exists today. Sisemore claims that cultivating such relationships is one of the biggest assets of the co-angler side of the FLW Tour. “That same year, I became friends with pros Marty Fourkiller (of Cyril, Okla.) and Darrel Robertson (of Jay, Okla.),” Sisemore says. “Darrel is still a kind of fishing father figure to me, even today.”

Scott Martin of Clewiston, Fla., won the 1999 Co-angler of the Year title before crossing over to the pro side. He says that the Co-angler Division was a necessary step in his tournament-fishing education and that he would do it again if he had it to do over.

“I probably could have gone pro in 1999, but I wanted to start on the co-angler side,” Martin says. “It allowed me to meet some great fishermen and gave me the confidence and credentials to approach sponsors. If I had gone pro immediately and not done well, I might not be where I am today. I owe a lot to the Co-angler Division of the FLW Tour.”

David CookeStepping up to the front

After a few years of picking up leftovers behind the pros, these four anglers were ready to call their own shots. Cooke, Sisemore and Martin qualified for the pro side in 1999 and went pro in 2000. Fisher qualified in 2000 and recently completed his first season as a pro.

Upon moving to the front deck, the anglers immediately felt a drastic change in atmosphere. While fishing behind the best pros in the country is a tremendous learning experience, they quickly realized that such an experience could build a false sense of confidence. The first lesson they learned from the front deck is that the old saying, “Catching fish is easy. Finding them is the hard part,” is true.

When a co-angler draws a pro who is on a bunch of fish, catching the fish can look easy. Sisemore cautions co-anglers about being disillusioned by this. Speaking from experience, he warns co-anglers about believing that they are good tournament fishermen just because they can catch as many bass as their pro partners.

“Just because a co-angler collects a few good checks does not necessarily mean he is ready for the pro side,” Sisemore says. “It might mean he has good mechanical abilities, but everybody out here has good fishing abilities. The real trick is finding fish.”

Fisher agrees. “It is not just finding fish that is a difficult adjustment, it is finding enough fish for two, three or even four days,” he says.

As a co-angler, Fisher says he fished one day at a time with little concern for the next day. “But as a pro, you must have a game plan for the entire tournament,” he says. “You have to know how to ration your fish based on the conditions. Fishing as a co-angler is more of a single-day deal, but fishing as a pro is definitely a multi-day deal.”

Fisher points to his own rookie pro season this past year as an example of being unable to have enough fish for two days. His year was riddled with fantastic single-day catches, but he was unable to match them on subsequent days. It was not until the 2001 Forrest Wood Open on Michigan’s Lake St. Clair that he was able to put two good days together to make the top 10.

Martin also agrees. “As a co-angler, one good day will usually put you in the top 10. But as a pro, you need two good days to even think about the top 10,” he says.

Another difference that Fisher has noticed about moving to the front deck is the need to dedicate to a fishing strength. “As a co-angler, I was always concerned with being versatile in order to adapt to any kind of fishing my pro might do,” he says. “But as a pro, you want to have a dedicated strength in your arsenal, such as flipping or cranking. Strengths are usually what win tournaments.”

Sisemore says one of the hardest judgment calls he makes each tournament day is how generous to be to his co-angler. Coming from the back of the boat has made him extremely empathetic.

“Over the last two years I have let my co-anglers catch fish that have cost me thousands of dollars, especially in sight-fishing situations,” Sisemore admits. “Other pro friends of mine have actually accused me of being too generous. But I know how I felt as a co-angler when a pro purposely left fish before I caught one, and I don’t want to be thought of that way.”

Crossing over to the pros

Finding fish and dealing with co-anglers are merely minor adjustments associated with moving to the front deck when compared to the tremendous amount of pressure and undeniable competitive intensity that comes with being labeled a professional angler. To begin with, the cost of competing more than quadruples by some estimates.

“Financially you can figure that the pro side is going to cost five times as much as the co-angler side, conservatively speaking,” Sisemore says. “Entry fees alone are four times as much. Then add the costs of extended practice periods, boat and truck gas, hotels, and all kinds of incidentals.”

Staying supplied with new equipment is a challenge in itself, according to Fisher. “I am fishing out of a 1995 boat and using rods and reels that are 10 years old. I keep asking myself, `What is going to break next?'” he says.

All four of these anglers are fortunate enough to have corporate sponsors that help with their expenses. But according to Martin, sponsorship means pressure. “When you step up and call yourself a professional angler and ask for sponsorships, you put yourself under a tremendous amount of pressure,” he says. “You go from hardly being noticed as a co-angler to having guys in the corporate boardroom follow your progress. It makes you work 10 times as hard.”

But perhaps the biggest change these anglers have experienced is the heady competitive intensity of the pro side. When tournaments become contests where careers and as much as $250,000 are at stake, the environment becomes fiercely competitive. Bass fishing is no longer a game. It is a business.

A real eye-opener for these anglers has been the intricate information networks that pros retain both inside the tour, among fellow competitors and outside the tour among various local anglers.

“Within the tour there are informational `cliques,'” Sisemore says. “A critical decision a new pro must make is if he is going to participate in an information-sharing relationship, and if so, with whom. It is a decision that cannot be taken lightly. Betrayal of such pacts can ruin friendships forever.”

In addition to quality information, many seasoned pros enjoy cutting-edge equipment and years of fishing experience on a variety of water. While these advantages may seem insurmountable, this new group of professional anglers does not let such things bother them. In seeking to make their own mark on professional fishing, each has ways of dealing with disadvantages, inexperience and bad days.

Pat Fisher“I fish against the bass,” Fisher says. “Sure those guys have bigger boats and newer equipment, but I block that out of my mind. I can’t worry about their advantages. I know my limitations, and I do the best I can within those constraints.”

“There are going to be bad days, and things are going to go wrong,” Cooke says. “But I try not to let it get to me. If something goes wrong, I don’t talk about it. I don’t want to dwell on any negative experiences during a tournament.

“I also think it is important to set realistic goals. My first year as a pro, I just wanted to make a few checks and the championship. It may not sound very ambitious, but it was realistic for me. When I achieved those goals, I had a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, which builds confidence.”

Above all, you have to decide what kind of pro you want to be, Sisemore suggests. “Are you going to use information or ignore it? Are you going to practice three days or 10? How much time are you going to set aside for sponsor commitments? Every pro has a routine for doing business out here. You have to decide what is right for you and then not worry about what others do.”