Bass tournament success is a family affair for the Joneses - Major League Fishing

Bass tournament success is a family affair for the Joneses

How Mercury pros Alton Jones, Alton Jones Jr. have cemented their status as the "first family" of professional bass fishing
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December 12, 2023 • Joe Balog • Bass Pro Tour

The father/son relationship between 60-year-old Wendell Alton Jones and 31-year-old Wendell Alton Jones Jr. is multi-sided. It’s grounded in strong family values – respect for a parent, love for a child, etc. – but it also represents a high-level working rapport where each is both partner and competitor.  

Alton and Alton Jr. have been competing with and against each other at the highest levels of tournament bass fishing since early February 2017, when “Junior” (as he’s commonly called by friends and family) fished his first Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on Cherokee Lake in Tennessee. Alton Sr. finished 19th at that event; Junior finished 25th, just 2 pounds behind his dad.

In the 50-plus tour-level events they’ve fished together since, each of the Joneses has learned from the other, elevating their game to a higher level. Within the Jones family blood runs a deep understanding of the intricacies of successful tournament fishing, an understanding made even more profound by the give-and-take between a veteran teacher and a gifted student.

Growing up in bass tournament life

Alton Jones Jr. spent most of his youth on the boat with his dad, tagging along with Senior on fisheries around the country. Photo courtesy Alton Jones.

A quick look at simple statistics shows that Alton Jr. is one of the top competitors on the Bass Pro Tour. He blew away the final-day competition to claim the General Tire Heavy Hitters title belt on Bussey Brake, Louisiana, this past April; he won Stage Two at Lake Fork in 2022; and he racked up $150,000 in big-bass bonuses at Heavy Hitters on Lake Palestine in 2022.

He finished fourth in Angler of the Year points in 2023, just five points behind winner Matt Becker and two points shy of second (Jacob Wheeler) and third (Ott DeFoe). 

Junior was deeply embedded in the world of professional bass fishing via an upbringing in the sport. “Senior” competed in the Bassmaster Top 100s the year Junior was born (1992) and fished the Top 150s, FLW Tour, Bassmaster Tour and Elite Series throughout his childhood. 

Perhaps Alton Jr. was destined to become a career angler himself, since most of his youth was spent on a boat with his father, tagging along as a practice partner in lakes, river and bays around the country. 

“I got to see more fisheries than anyone in the world at that time,” Jones Jr. says. 

Along with the highlights of travel and the success of Senior’s career came Junior’s exposure to the downside of professional fishing: “It’s dirty truck stops, grueling drives, sleeping in your vehicle for a couple hours so you can get back on the road,” Junior says. “People only see the small snippets and perks. It’s not a glamorous life.”

By his early teens, Alton Jr. wasn’t entirely sure of his career path. Home schooling – a necessity to allow the family to live full-time on the road – found Junior missing friends and sports. Balancing the hours was a challenge for everybody, and other interests began to appeal as much as fishing. 

But around age 15, Alton Jr. jumped into a tournament with a friend, for once not experiencing organized bass fishing through the lens of his dad’s career. For the first time, destiny was in Alton Jr.’s hand, and it suited him well. 

“That’s when the lightbulb went off,” he says. “It was like a flip of a switch.” 

Liberated by the ability to captain the ship, so to speak, Junior quickly took command of his own tournament fishing experience. From that point on, there was no turning back from a career in the game that he had grown up around. 

“I knew immediately after that (tournament) that I was going to do all I could to be a professional fisherman,” Jones admits. “It’s funny I never realized it until that day.”

Becoming his own angler

Alton Jones Jr. dominated Heavy Hitters in 2023 with 81-15 over the second-place angler’s total of 22-15. Photo by Tyler Brinks

Jones Jr. would eventually qualify for the Elite Series after two grueling seasons fishing the Bass Opens in 2015 and 2016. Early in his career, he found himself mirroring his father, with mixed results. While Senior was pulling down $10,000 to $25,000 checks virtually every tournament, Alton Jr. struggled.

“Year 1 on the Elites, I was the new kid on the block fishing against the big time, trying to figure out what it takes to even get a check, and my dad was at the top of his game,” Junior remembers. “Of course, he was trying to help me along, but we fished identical. I was trying to be too much like him. When I was struggling, I’d be out there on the water asking myself, ‘What would Dad do right now?’ You just can’t fish that way.”

Junior again needed to be his own man, and he began to take thoughtful steps to establish a more diverse skill set and broader base of knowledge. 

“I took what Dad taught me and sped things up a little bit,” he says. “I moved more. And I became better with finesse.”

Jones Jr.’s headfirst dive into finesse fishing came at a different career stage than his father’s, and at a seemingly opportune time. Unproven and mostly unsponsored during the first handful of years of his career, the younger Jones was most worried about putting food on the table and less concerned with catching the winning bag. 

“I was chasing checks; Dad was chasing wins,” Junior says. 

One tenet of Senior that remained central to Junior’s approach was the belief that he could get a jump on his competitors simply through good old-fashioned hard work. A decade of practice outings with his father, regardless of time of year or weather conditions, taught Junior that practice is the most important variable in tournament fishing – and hard work pays off. 

“I fell in love with the work side of tournament fishing” he recalls, admitting to an uncommon enthusiasm for the grind of practice. “The hardest thing to do is to learn how to practice. Those are the work days, but I look forward to the longest days in the worst weather. That gives me the ability and opportunity to outwork my competitors.”

Senior’s career resurgence

Alton Jones has notched some of his best years as a pro thanks to Junior’s energizing presence. Photo by Phoenix Moore

A 33-year veteran of tour-level bass fishing and one of the most prolific pros of all time with career winnings north of $3.4 million, Jones Sr. quickly admits that Junior’s enthusiasm and energy have rubbed off on him in ways that have energized his own fishing.

“(His energy) drives me,” Senior admits. “I might have retired by now if it wasn’t for him.”

Senior has enjoyed some of the best years of his career during Junior’s rapid ascent, winning the Heavy Hitters belt in 2021 – his first major win since 2012 – and finishing third in the 2022 Bally Bet Angler of the Year race while reeling off five Top 10s that season. 

While he continues to rely on many of the same lures and power-fishing techniques that made him a top-level pro for three decades, Jones has supplemented his arsenal thanks to Junior’s youthful versatility and his exposure to baits and techniques that he might not have even tried in years past.

“Alton Jr. has pushed me to become more versatile, and I get a shortcut (on learning new techniques) because Little Alton has already mastered them,” Jones Sr. says. “When he was a teenager, he’d already mastered fishing a frog before I’d ever fished one. There’s stuff in his tackle box now that I haven’t even heard of. It’s easier for me, because now I can get interested (in a new bait or technique) once I know something works.” 

Both Joneses agree that the shortcuts now offered by Junior are a payback for early Cliff’s Notes provided by Senior: Principles proven through years of tournament experience were adopted by Junior without the learning curve. 

The give and take

Senior won the 2021 General Tire Heavy Hitters on Shearon Harris Reservoir.
Junior won the 2023 General Tire Heavy Hitters on Bussey Brake.

Senior and Junior serve as sounding boards for each other in the process of developing strategy long before tournaments begin. They’re mindful of Bass Pro Tour rules regarding information, but the pair share unfiltered opinions and observations about fisheries before tournament week commences. For Alton Sr., the confidence that comes from the opinions of immediate, trusted family is unparalleled.

“In fishing, half the story can be worse than none of the story at all,” he says. “Naturally, we want each other to do well. Little Alton is a master strategist. He has game plans that blow my mind.”

Senior admits that details have become less important as he’s aged, and he’s honest about the physical slowdown, reduced energy level and time needed to process information at the age of 60 versus his 30s and 40s. (“It’s a matter of physiology,” he says simply.) Alton Jr., however, quickly hones in on details and is able to plug himself and Senior into information that frequently makes a difference.  

Junior’s hard-driving attitude about practice – “Practice hard every day, even during tournament hours,” he says – allows him to stay ahead of the fish, and his competitors. But he frequently leans on his father’s insight to initially get off the ground whenever he starts game planning for a new Bass Pro Tour tournament location.

“He’s seen it all,” Junior says of his dad’s 33-year well of tournament knowledge. “We’ll have a weather pattern, or it will be a certain time of year, and he’ll key me in to look for something that I’d otherwise never think of. He’ll mention a shad spawn or something that happened years ago under the same conditions, and it will be there. “

“Hopefully my wisdom rubs off on him,” Senior jokes in response. 

Now fishing in his fourth decade as a full-time pro, Jones Sr. finds himself in what he describes as “the most fun part of my career.”

“I don’t have to fish; I get to fish,” Senior says. “And let’s face it: At 31 years old, most kids don’t have time for their parents. They’re starting families, busy with their jobs. But our traveling together puts us together a lot. I’m trying to enjoy this time and not take it for granted.”

When they’re not on the road, the duo can often be found working on boats and equipment side-by-side, each keeping their rigs at the elder Jones’ property in Waco. They test lures together in the swimming pool. 

Nonetheless, competition is fierce. 

“I want to be on top of him on SCORETRACKER®,” Senior admits. 

“I’m usually listening for his name to judge how I’m doing,” Junior adds. 

The 2022 season saw the duo compete against each other in a Bass Pro Tour Championship Round for the first time, at Stage Two on Lake Fork. Alton Jr. claimed the first-place trophy and check that day with 46 pounds, 2 ounces while Senior finished fifth with 29-6. Junior hoisted the trophy in front of fans, friends and family in the Jones’ home state.  

His father just stood to the side of the stage, smiling and soaking it all in.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” Senior said at the time. “To be on the same lake with ‘Little Alton’ for a championship was pretty great, but there’s no better feeling as a father than to watch him lift that trophy.”

The glue that holds the Joneses together

As is almost always the case with any father/son duo, there’s a third party who deserves much of the credit for their success. That’s true for the Joneses: Alton’s wife and Junior’s mother, Jimmye Sue, is the lynchpin of this tournament-fishing family and the biggest common denominator between both Senior’s and Junior’s successes.

Junior would bounce from fishing lessons with Dad by day to schooling with Mom in the evenings. Photo courtesy Alton Jones.

Alton and Jimmye Sue met while attending Baylor University and married in 1985. Alton owned a computer store at the time, Jimmye Sue was a registered nurse, and bass fishing already occupied a hearty percentage of Alton’s time and energy. So much so that by 1989, Jimmye Sue offered Alton a suggestion that would set the family’s course for the next three-plus decades. 

“She told me, ‘You’re not being successful at fishing because of the computer store, and you’re not being successful at the computer store because of fishing,” Alton says. “’You have to choose one or the other, and if you don’t choose fishing, you’ll drive me crazy. Let’s try it and see if we can make it work’.”

So Jones went all-in on the tournament game, fishing the 1990 New York and Maryland Invitationals and a full schedule of seven Bass Invitationals, a Bassmaster MegaBucks, a Bassmaster Top 100 and a Bassmaster Top 150 in 1991. His total winnings in those events were $4,566.67.

“Jimmye Sue was paying the bills,” Senior admits. “A lot of wives put their husbands through law school or medical school, but Jimmye Sue put me through ‘fishing school’. I was also working as a guide at the time, but she was the one keeping us afloat.”

Alton Jr. came along in the spring of 1992, somewhere in between the Florida Top 100 and South Carolina Top 100. Alton continued to fish the Top 100s through the mid-1990s, eventually winning $24,000 cash and a $21,000 boat at the Alabama Top 100 on Neely Henry in May of 1997 and finishing 18th in the Bassmaster Classic three months later. Before Junior’s first-grade year in 1998, Jimmye Sue quit her job and the Jones family embarked on a seasonal road trip that continues (in some fashion) to this day.

Years later, with Senior secure in his career and an up-and-coming Little Alton and younger sisters Kristen and Jamie traveling the country with them, Jimmye Sue worked virtually around the clock to bring the next in line up to speed.

 “My mom is the glue that holds the family together” Alton Jr. says. “Home schooling takes a special set of parents. I’d be out practicing with my dad all day, and my mom would school my siblings. Then she’d have to work with me half the night when I’d come in after practice. What my mom did was pretty incredible – she was busy taking care of kids, taking care of my dad and doing all the things to allow him to succeed while also allowing me to get my feet under me in my career as well.”