So what does Scott Suggs do with his spare time since becoming the first-ever winner of $1 million in a fishing tournament? He donates it. Suggs was one of nearly 50 professional anglers to recently donate a weekend of his time for the annual Lifeline Youth & Family Services, Inc., charitable fundraiser “Fish with the Pros – For Kids.”
Since 1999, Lifeline has been gathering some of the top pros in the United States to spend two days fishing with amateur guests in the Great Lakes area of north Michigan. Suggs could do a lot worse. At times it takes every ounce of concentration just to keep from looking at the scenery; in that part of the country, when the leaves are changing color against a bright blue sky, every turn provides one breathtaking view after another. Fortunately, the Lifeline pros are up to the task. They may choose to fish on a number of nearby bodies of water each day, each offering the possibility of lunker smallmouth bass.
Then there is a friendly but competitive weigh-in at the end of day two. Past pros who have taken Lifeline up on the offer include 2005 Forrest Wood Cup winner George Cochran, 2002 and 2007 Land O’Lakes Angler of the Year Jay Yelas, Bassmaster Classic winner Kevin VanDam, Mark Davis, Zell Rowland, Mike Iaconelli, Derek Remitz and Shaw Grigsby to name just a few. Amateur guests are paired two to a boat, and each guest fishes with a different pro each day. The guests have paid for the privilege of this exclusive guide service, with all proceeds going to Lifeline Youth & Family Service, a nonprofit organization.
What started with just seven professional fishermen and 14 guests, operating out of a private residence on Lake Leelanau, has grown to over 52 participating pros in just eight years. Unfortunately, the needs of Lifeline have grown in proportion as well. Lifeline Youth & Family Services, based in Fort Wayne, Ind., has a fundamental mission: changing hearts and bringing hope to a generation at risk. Through a variety of methods such as prevention, intervention and aftercare services, the nonprofit organization currently serves over 7,000 children and families a year, operates in 40 counties in Indiana and can accept residential placements for children from anywhere in the United States. Opening in the winter of 2007 are new Lifeline administrative offices, currently under renovation. In Pierceton, Ind., a new Lifeline campus is set to open in the fall of 2008, featuring group homes, a secure residential facility, school, gymnasium, recreation field and chapel.
The work to which Lifeline is committed, as well as its need for expansion to reach out to as many young people and families as possible, is not lost on the pros enlisted for their fundraiser. Wal-Mart FLW Tour angler and Gain pro Koby Kreiger, when asked what brought him to the event for the first time in 2007, said: “Most people don’t know that my family business (Trailmaster Trailers) has been supporting Lifeline for many years. I’ve always wanted to be here previously, but had other commitments this time of the year. I was finally able to be free this fall. As for what brought me here, `It’s for the kids.”
Fishing with Kreiger one day during the event was amateur guest Dr. James Chandler, who has attended “Fish with the Pros” in the past. In explaining the format, Chandler extols the virtues of the one-on-one time with the pros, which allows for asking questions and getting forthright answers. He also said he especially enjoys the all-around learning from this particular fishing experience. Having been educated in the fishing basics from previous pros, Chandler’s interest this year was getting a handle on the electronics: depth finders, fish locators, etc. He suggested this would be a good topic for one of the professional demonstration clinics, also part of the Lifeline weekend activities, held outside at the Hawg Trough.
The Hawg Trough, a giant fish aquarium on wheels, held a good number of largemouths and smallies to look at over the weekend, brought in by the pros during practice sessions prior to the event. When the pros weren’t giving seminars atop the trough, they might have been right next door at the Chevy-sponsored FLW Outdoors Ranger Boat Simulator. But whether or not those items captured anyone’s attention, there’s no denying the attraction of the turning autumn leaves and brilliant blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay.
Having chosen the Traverse City, Mich., area for this event because of the amazing number of smallmouth fisheries it offers, the anglers don’t just come for the scenery. Neither do spouses and children. This family affair, with accommodations at the Great Wolf Lodge, includes an indoor waterpark, a special “Bag the Big One” shopping contest for the ladies and – for anyone brave enough to pick up a rod and take on a pro – the “Cast Off,” a “Fish with the Pros” casting competition. FLW Tour pro Art Ferguson especially enjoys the fact that he’s able to bring his family along on this trip, which also serves as family time and vacation. Since Ferguson lives not too far from the area but travels so often for tournaments, it also gives him the chance to reconnect with other local and regional fishermen whom he’s no longer able to see except for at the annual “Fish with the Pros” event.
In addition to the camaraderie, great food and premier lodging, “Fish with the Pros” offers both silent and “extremely vocal” auctions during the evening meet-and-greet sessions. Over the years, Lifeline auctions have taken on a life of their own with spirited bidding and lots of good-natured ribbing among the families of fishermen and guests. All manners of items have been donated for the auctions: signed Indianapolis 500 race-car helmets; fishermen’s jerseys, like the one Bassmaster Elite Series Toyota Rookie of the Year Derek Remitz was on hand to autograph; and strikingly beautiful framed smallmouth photographs taken during Kim Stricker’s own underwater diving sessions. Stricker, who also resides in Michigan when not fishing as a Team Chevy pro on the FLW Tour, has several years under his belt as a “Fish with the Pros” volunteer angler.
Many of the pros simply offer up for auction what they have to give like outings on the water with the likes of FLW Tour fisherman and Pringles pro Chip Harrison. Harrison is an active committee member at Lifeline, his expertise in the field helping to make the “Fish with the Pros” event one of the finest of its kind. Each year he is amazed at how generous the guests are with their resources and their time. On a more personal level, Harrison appears to relish the educational aspects of his duties over the weekend and said: “Taking someone who doesn’t know a bait caster from a spinning rod, who doesn’t get a chance to fish, especially the ones who come back year after year just for the experience – it just makes me feel good. When I see the same guys repeat each year, bidding on my fishing trips, I know I’m doing my job.”
And teach them he does; during the weigh-in he has been heard quizzing pros of his amateur partners about their abilities and whether or not they were using the techniques he had shown them. For at least one amateur angler each year, the newfound skills pay off. At the weigh-in trailer on day two, one of Scott Dobson’s amateur partners hoisted his catch for the cameras; tipping the scales at nearly 6 pounds, this single fish will make Dobson a repeat tournament-winning pro guide. Even for a seasoned veteran, this is thrilling stuff, knowing that you have led a novice fisherman to a win.
But what else do the amateurs gain besides fishing skills, the opportunity to view some of the most gorgeous landscape in the country and the understanding that their involvement and support helps to bring lasting change to a generation at risk? Its name is the “Big Toad.” Only one angler per year knows the honor of having his or her name engraved on the coveted “Big Toad” trophy. The handmade trophy returns to the Lifeline event every year – a huge 6-pound smallmouth bass replica just as it would appear among the rocks underwater, mounted atop a red oak base – with the engraved name plate added each year for the largest fish caught in the “Fish with the Pros” tournament. Several guests return year after year, hoping to catch the big one for just that reason. That they are helping Lifeline is an added bonus.
As Bassmaster Classic and FLW Tour winner Mike Iaconelli said: “The most important thing is that it’s a good cause. I think everyone here would agree with that. We think it’s important. Youth are important to the fishing ’cause it’s how we’re going to grow the sport. I have the most incredibly crazy schedule you can imagine, but if it’s at all possible, I want to be here.” For Iaconelli, who did some research on Lifeline before signing on as a volunteer pro, the fact that his ability to fish today can help a young person face the future with hope carries a lot of weight. Without Lifeline’s programs for troubled and at-risk youth, fewer and fewer have that hope. Simply put, Lifeline offers struggling youth and families the help they need to have a brighter future, giving them the tools to achieve long-term success.
So whether pro fisherman Terry Baksay, who traveled from his Connecticut home for the event, is giving high-fives to the kids along the weigh-in line, or Women’s Bassmaster Tour pro Michelle Armstrong is talking about her family across the dinner table, it is a time that is rich with fish stories, rich in sportsmanship and, above all, rich in caring and generosity. Mark Terrell, CEO of Lifeline, is quick to pick up on any opportunity to show his appreciation for everyone involved with “Fish with the Pros.” He said, “No doubt we have thanked you all at least a hundred times, and we’ll probably thank you all at least a hundred more before you leave.”
For more information about Lifeline, a nationally accredited nonprofit organization or “Fish with the Pros,” please visit the Web site at www.lifelineyouth.org.
Anyone interested in attending future “Fish with the Pros” events as a guest, sponsoring the event with a cash donation or auction item, or donating time as a professional angler, please contact Ann Hettig, special events director, at (800) 509-6884.
As anyone privileged enough to attend the event would tell you, it’s for the kids.