The Bennett brothers will use an American tradition to try to win the BFL Championship: TEAMWORK
When 19-year-old R.J. Bennett weighed in a two-day total of 16 pounds, 13 ounces at the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League Regional on Lake Shasta last season, it looked as if he would be the youngest angler to qualify for the All-American. That was until 17-year-old Michael Bennett, his brother, weighed in a two-day total of 17 pounds, 2 ounces and also secured a slot in the All-American.
R.J. and Michael are now two of the youngest anglers to ever qualify for an All-American. Both anglers, from Grass Valley, Calif., earned their 2002 All-American berths by competing in the Wal-Mart BFL’s Western Division.
Qualifying for the All-American was a logical step in the Bennett brothers’ intended career paths: professional bass fishing. Both anglers have been preparing themselves for the professional ranks since they were each 13.
Neither R.J. nor Michael can point out the exact moment that they decided to pursue professional fishing as a career. Both say an insatiable need to fish combined with a healthy diet of televised tournaments help spur their desire to fish professionally.
“We grew up watching Kevin VanDam,” R.J. says. “He has been an inspiration for both of us.”
“We also have learned a lot from Skeet Reese,” says Michael. “He is a Western pro who has made it big on the national circuits.”
Juggling school, fishing
Somewhere between his government, economics and English classes at Nevada Union High School, Michael finds time to fish the BFL circuit and other regional tournaments.
As a high school senior, he finds a way to juggle his studies, social life and the demands of professional bass fishing.
“I seriously considered a home school program for my senior year so I could fish more,” Michael says. “But I did not want to miss out on the social activities of my senior year.”
Michael doubled up on college preparation courses early on in high school so he would have more time to fish by his senior year.
“I have a pretty lax schedule this spring. My counselors let me take only four classes. If I am gone for more than a week, I go on an independent study program.”
Ironically, Michael’s graduation day is during the All-American.
“I will have to take all my finals early and then miss graduation ceremonies. But it will be worth it.”
R.J. is studying business as a freshman at Sierra College near home. He says that managing college studies while fishing the BFL requires communication with his instructors.
“I make it a point to communicate with my professors about my career goals,” R.J. says. “When they see how serious I am about becoming a professional angler, they usually have no problem with me missing class for a week or taking make-up exams.”
Traveling to Cross Lake in Louisiana for the All-American will represent the first “eastern” waters that the Bennett brothers have fished. Home waters for the two California anglers include Lake Shasta, Lake Oroville, Clear Lake and the California Delta.
Cross Lake will be a new piece of water for the Bennetts and will require teamwork: a Bennett tradition. Michael and R.J. have always worked as a team.
“That is what we are about, a team concept,” R.J. says. “We share water, we share information and we share sponsors.”
“We are best friends, and we work really well together,” Michael says. “When practicing we will run to a certain part of the lake, and I will fish one bank, and R.J. will fish the other. Then we meet, discuss anything important and move to the next place. We cover a tremendous amount of water that way.”
The two brothers plan to put their teamwork ethic to use in the All-American. Both traveled to Shreveport, La., in April. R.J. was competing in the B.A.S.S. Federation Championship on the Red River, while Michael was combing the waters of nearby Cross Lake practicing for the All-American.
“R.J. will only have one day of official practice at the All-American, so I tried to find enough fish for both of us,” Michael says.
Both anglers eagerly await the opportunity to fish eastern waters. While it seems that California should be dubbed “The Drop-shot State,” R.J. says he is more comfortable flipping and spinner baiting shallow water.
“I really don’t use a drop-shot rig that much,” he says. “It is an ultra finesse technique. I actually prefer a Carolina Rig over a drop-shot.”
Both R.J. and Michael realize they are fortunate to have a father who backs them both virtuously and financially in their bass fishing endeavors. Dick Bennett, R.J. and Michael’s father, believes in his boys’ abilities and in the bright future of bass fishing.
Bennett says his boys have always had a natural passion for fishing. He introduced the boys to a wide array of angling, from saltwater to fly fishing, at an early age.
“But by the time they were about 9 or 10, it was clear that they had their hearts set on bass fishing,” Dick recalls.
In order to help the boys learn more about bass fishing close to home, Dick built them a pond in the back yard. While other kids got backyard pools or trampolines, the Bennetts built a 2 1/2-acre pond and stocked it with bass.
“That little pond entertained those boys for days on end,” Bennett remembers. “They would get up at daybreak on Saturday and fish around that lake until dark. They knew where every fish lived in that pond.”
As the boys became teenagers, Dick began to see the positive benefits of their bass-fishing pursuits.
“It gave them direction at a time in life when many kids are struggling for an identity. It taught them organizational skills, discipline and kept them out of trouble. I never had a curfew on the boys in high school; I didn’t need one. They were never out late because they had to get up at 2:30 a.m. to go fishing. Bass fishing was their curfew.”
“Most kids their age are scared to death to talk in front of a crowd, yet they are becoming great public speakers through their seminar work,” he says. “They are learning the importance of communication and time management – all because of a fish!”
Dick is also impressed with the company the boys keep in bass fishing circles.
“Bass anglers are some of the greatest people on earth,” he says. “When R.J. and Michael go to a tournament, I never worry about them. Bass anglers are solid people. The quality of the people in this industry continually amazes me. The boys have made many good friends all over the country.
“Sometimes I joke that their dream is my nightmare,” Dick says. “Because financially, this is an expensive sport. But as a parent of six children, I can say anytime a child expresses a sincere interest in something as positive and healthy as fishing, no matter what it is, I think it is important to support that and nurture it. Even if it does not pan out, the life skills they have learned along the way are irreplaceable.”
Dick is looking forward to the All-American and possibly getting some of his investment back. As the purveyor of two anglers in the event, the chances of hitting the $100,000 jackpot are doubled.
“But I don’t want them to focus on just winning. I think you get out there and do your job to the absolute best of your ability and winning will come. You can’t force it,” he says.
Should either one of the Bennett brothers win the All-American, he would be the youngest angler to do so. A record that would likely stand for a very long time.