It was 1980-something. The Who was on their first farewell tour, Ronald Reagan was the President of the USA, Cheers was a smash hit on television, and Paul Elias was on top of the bass fishing world.
The Mississippi pro was not only one of the first public figures since Abraham Lincoln to rock a full, bushy hipster beard, he had also staked a claim to the top of the bass-fishing world with a victory in the 1982 Bassmaster Classic on the Arkansas River. For the foreseeable future, Paul Elias was positioned to be the king of the hill in professional bass fishing.
And then it all came crashing down.
Chatting with a writer from his home in the small southern Mississippi town of Luarel, Elias speaks frankly about that era of his life – painfully frankly sometimes – and without an abundance of joy. He’s rightfully proud of his tournament-fishing accomplishments: in addition to his Classic win, he accumulated 12 Top 10s in a four-year period in the early 1980s.
But decisions Elias made during that time in his life and the turmoil that followed shook him to his core; so much so that the 67-year-old legend admits that he’s still recovering.
“When I look back at my early career, I realize I made a lot of mistakes,” Elias admits. “If I could send a letter to myself back then, I’d let myself know that I did a good job sticking to my style of fishing, and that it would pay off with wins and a Bassmaster Classic championship. But, I’d also tell myself to change my personal life around. I was all about my career back then. I should’ve put God and my family first, but instead I put my fishing career above everything.”
As Elias matured in the sportfishing business, opportunities came and went for him. But there were a couple of opportunities, in particular, that he wishes he would’ve jumped on when he had the chance.
“I passed up on a television show and a lure business,” Elias remembers. “I had the right people lined up for both, but I decided it would take too much time away from family and my fishing career. In the long run, those decisions were mistakes.
“In that letter to myself, I’d tell Paul Elias to get public relations or marketing help, and not pass up on things when my instinct says to do them. I’m just not good at self-promotion. I would have done much better financially if I had help in that regard.”
Elias’ fishing career continued at top speed as he accumulated a string of wins and Top 10s through the mid- and late 1980s and early 90s. He started off the 1992 season with Top 5s in a Bassmaster Top 150 and Megabucks, and finished fifth at the 1992 Classic on Logan Martin Lake in Alabama.
And then life interrupted, and everything came crashing down.
“I was hit straight in the face with some news: My wife told me she didn’t want to be married anymore,” Elias says. “I guess I should’ve seen it coming.”
Elias’ divorce was a life event that, by his own admission, sent him into an extended tailspin in which he felt listless, and his confidence faltered noticeably. Elias’ Top 10 percentage dwindled, and he went from cashing a check in six to seven events a year to finishing out of the money in over half of the tournaments he fished.
“I lost several years that should’ve been prime for me after the divorce,” Elias admits. “I was just disconnected. The first couple of years afterward, I kind of limped through things and continued to fish, but from 1994 through about 1998, I was really just going through the motions. I totally lost all of my confidence. My fishing mind seemed to be gone.”
Elias’ life appeared to have a change of direction in 1998, when he won a Bassmaster Top 100 on Lake Okeechobee, and also remarried.
“I started to think things were getting better, fishing-wise,” Elias remembers “I had a decent run in the early 2000s with a Bass Open win, an FLW Tour win, and an Elite Series win, but I never managed to get into the Top 10 a lot. I never really got my mojo back. I managed a win every few years, but the confidence was never really back.”
As the 2000s kept rolling, and the advent of social media and self-promotion became a necessity to gather more sponsors and attention in the ultra-competitive world of pro fishing, Elias felt out of place, and his fishing showed it.
“The last several years have been a nightmare for me fishing professionally,” Elias admits. “My confidence faltered again, and I just couldn’t get my mojo going at all. If I could send a letter to myself a few years back, I’d say to mix it up more and be prepared to make gameday changes. What worked in the past may not work now, so be ready to change.
“I kept fishing the same way, but it was like I was turned off and couldn’t get going again. The anglers are so much better today, and the game is harder to play. But I know I can still compete.”
With the advent of the MLF Bass Pro Tour, Elias believes that his immediate future is brighter than it has been for several years. Unfortunately, a big roadblock cropped up shortly before Elias competed in the first Bass Pro Tour event on the Kissimmee Chain in Florida.
“In October of 2018, I had rotator cuff surgery,” Elias says. “Nothing out of the ordinary. I was expected to be ready for the first season of the MLF Bass Pro Tour, but something went wrong, and I wasn’t healing properly. I had to go back in for corrective surgery. So, on December 18, 2018, I was back in the operating room.
“I’m religiously going to physical therapy and working hard to recover – I’m a bit shaken by it all, but I’ll fight through it and fish the entire season. I’ll likely have to fish mostly with a spinning rod for a while. I went out the other day and could only use a baitcasting rig for a little bit. I’m in an awful lot of pain, but I’ll have to manage.”
Elias caught three fish for 5 pounds, 12 ounces in his first-ever competition day on the Kissimmee Chain, but then improved to 14-1 in the Elimination Round. He finished 62nd overall in the event, and maintained a positive outlook and a sense of humor through it all.
“Heck, I told my wife I couldn’t beat these guys the last several years with two hands, maybe I can with one,” Elias says jokingly. “Before the Kissimmee event, I’d only been in a boat one day since October. For me, the MLF Bass Pro Tour is a new slate, new tour, new everything for me. I haven’t been this excited to fish for a living in years.
“In life, you have to learn to take the bitter with the sweet. I’m ready to fish.”