How one Team Fuijfilm member fished his way out of rural Tennessee and into ranks of nation’s elite anglers
All great athletes can look back at a turning point in their career where they were able to make the leap from the shadows of relative anonymity to center stage in their respective sport. Sometimes this transition takes years, while other times it can take as little as one defining moment – a moment that immediately becomes frozen in history for all to admire and cherish. In the case of Wesley Strader – an up-and-coming FLW Tour angler starving for a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming one of the nation’s top pros – his metamorphosis can be traced back to one simple cast.
It was a cast that would change everything.
During the final day of competition at the FLW Tour event on Lake Ouachita last March, Strader knew that he needed a “kicker fish” of massive proportions if he had any hope of winning his first-ever FLW title. With time running out in the contest and hopes of his very first FLW victory slipping away with each passing minute, Strader looked to the heavens in search of sign that a defining moment was upon him.
“I had about 40 minutes left to fish and I had just lost a 4-pound fish. I was devastated,” said Strader, reliving the final moments of that fateful day. “Over the next 30 minutes, I didn’t even get a bite. Right about then I told the (television camera crew), `God, it’d be nice to see a 6-pounder on a bed right now.’ But before I even got the words out of my mouth, I saw it.”
What Strader saw made his heart race almost uncontrollably. There, sitting on the bank, was one of the largest fish he’d seen all tournament. It was also a fish he knew he needed to catch to have any hope of victory. Strader, who had watched someone else walk away with the title during his two previous FLW finals, was determined not to let it happen again.
“I was nervous. I kept thinking, `Don’t make a bad cast. Don’t make a bad cast.’ Usually you flub up when you start thinking like that,” Strader said. “I tried to calm myself down. I told myself to make the cast just like I’ve done a million times before.”
The cast was perfect.
“It was one of the best casts I’ve ever made,” said Strader. “And then the fish bit. I remember thinking, `Don’t come off, please don’t come off.’ But suddenly, and I don’t know why, I just knew the fish wasn’t going to come off. And when I finally got it into the boat, I realized that I actually had a chance to win this tournament.”
Back at the weigh-in stage, Strader’s storybook finish was far from complete. Standing between him and title was none other than Kevin VanDam – universally revered as one of the best angler in the world today.
“You couldn’t have written a script any better,” Strader said.
With VanDam attempting to win his very first FLW title and a wealth of fishing experience on his side, the native of Kalamazoo, Mich., posted a five-fish total ultimately weighing 13 pounds, 5 ounces. But now it was time for Strader to pounce. Despite facing overwhelming odds and one of the most intimidating anglers on the professional bass circuit, Strader managed to produce a 14-pound, 10-ounce stringer to grab the title and send VanDam to yet another bittersweet defeat.
“Words can’t describe what it feels like to win your first FLW tournament,” said Strader. “It’s what every angler dreams about. To me, that was like winning the World Series.”
With time running out in the FLW Tour event on Lake Ouachita, Strader had made a once-in-a-lifetime cast, landed a 6-pound bass and defeated one of the best anglers to have ever graced the sport – the bass-fishing equivalent of hitting a grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth inning off Nolan Ryan.
However, while the feat at Ouachita represented the greatest single moment of his career to date, Strader’s long climb to the top has been littered with a host of equally compelling and life-altering moments that have helped shape the young man who grew up in the farm towns of rural Tennessee.
A pro in the making
Born in Rockwood, Tenn., on Nov. 23, 1971, Strader quickly discovered that, unlike other kids his age, he was much more interested in the Great Outdoors than with video games or cartoons growing up as a child.
“I had a real country farm-boy upbringing. We did a lot of stuff outdoors,” said Strader. “Me and my brother didn’t play a lot of video games or anything like that. And because we’re outside all the time, I developed a really good understanding of the outdoors at a very early age.”
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before he developed a real taste for angling on the shores of Watts Bar Lake – the hometown lake that would serve as Strader’s makeshift fishing laboratory for years to come.
“My parents started taking me fishing on Watts Bar Lake when I was about 3 years old and ever since then I’ve been hooked,” said Strader. “I really think, even then, I knew I wanted to become a professional fisherman.
“I kind of laugh about it now, but anytime my parents would lose me in a department store, they’d always know right where to look,” Strader continued. “Because they could always find me playing around in the fishing department.”
Although Strader was an avid fisherman growing up, he really didn’t get an opportunity to witness the high-octane world of tournament bass fishing first hand until after he had finished high school. And by that time, Strader had already earned the nickname that would stick with him throughout his career.
“The guys started calling me `Sweets’ in high school because I had such a high-pitched voice at the time. It kind of evolved from `sweet talk.'” he said. “I guess I was kind of a late bloomer.”
In many respects, Strader was a late bloomer on the tournament bass-fishing circuit as well. In fact, it wasn’t until 1990 that Strader even witnessed his first competitive bass fishing tournament.
For Strader, it was worth the wait.
“In the fall of 1990, (FLW Tour pro) James Nuckols asked me to be an observer at one of the fishing tournaments he was entering,” said Strader. “He said, `You won’t get to fish, but you might be able to learn something.’ Everything about that tournament was awesome. After that experience, all I wanted to do was fish tournaments for the rest of my life.”
Growing pains, rookie mistakes
“The first tournament I ever fished was on Douglass Lake in 1991,” said Strader, who was still in his first year of a two-year program at Roane State Community College at the time. “I wound up finishing in 15th place and getting a check. But I would have finished a lot higher had I not screwed up.”
“I counted wrong and left one of my fish in the livewell,” he said. “At that time, my livewell was painted black and it was hard to see inside. It was a dumb mistake. I still can’t believe I did that.”
Strader would have many more forgettable moments leading up to his breakout season of 2002. However, for now, the young man from Tennessee was content to put in all the time necessary to overcome any roadblocks that stood in his way. So, with barely any money to speak of, Strader forged onward with dreams of fishing, fame and fortune dancing in his head.
By 1992, Strader had become a regular on the Red Man Tournament Trail (now known as the Wal-Mart BFL). In addition to the Red Man circuit, Strader also began participating in a variety of local and regional tournaments with limited success. Within a year, with his new job at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant going smoothly, he would make the first major purchase of his career.
Unfortunately, he would learn to regret the decision almost immediately.
“I finally bought my first boat,” he said. “It was very exciting at the time, but one month later, I was laid off from my job at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. I was making good money at the time and that’s why I decided to buy the boat in the first place. But now I suddenly have this boat. And I have no idea how I’m going to pay it off.”
As fate would have it, Strader made a gutsy and somewhat desperate decision to try and pay for the boat by succeeding in the only “job” he ever truly loved – tournament fishing.
“Because I didn’t have enough money to pay for the boat, I decided to enter a bunch of little shootout fishing tournaments on the side,” he said. “The entry fees were like $40 or $50, but if you wound up winning the tournament, you could take home about $300 or $400. Luckily for me, I did fairly well. That’s the only way I was able to keep making those payments.”
For the first time in his career, with pressure mounting, Strader started to win at the fickle and sometimes discouraging game of tournament bass fishing. However, even after his initial success, Strader was under no illusions that he could afford to fish full time. Consequently, after trying his hand in the fishing guide business on Watts Bar Lake and doing some odds-and-ends construction work, Strader eventually took a job for the Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1994 as a lineman – a rather dangerous job that entailed coming face to face with high-voltage power lines on a daily basis.
“I really thought I’d like the job,” said Strader. “It was good pay, plus it gave me the opportunity to go fishing every now and then.
“Before you could get a job at the TVA, you had to go to climbing school first,” Strader continued. “Luckily for us, the school just so happened to be close to Old Hickory Lake. So, when we finished with school every day, me and a co-worker friend of mine would take the boat out and go fishing.”
Despite working long hours, Strader kept up on the tournament circuit as well.
“During that period of time, I really tried to work on my consistency,” said Strader. “I was fishing the Red Man Tournament Trail and I managed to qualify for three or four regional tournaments. I also just missed making the Red Man All-American right around that time.”
By 1995, Strader was fishing nearly every fishing circuit he could find time to enter.
“I started fishing as much as I could,” he said. “And it was about that time where I really started to learn a lot. I started going to tournaments all over the South – South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia – and fishing all different types of water. A lot of it was totally different than anything I’d ever fished before. It seemed like every single day, I always managed to learn something new.”
That wasn’t the only new thing new in Strader’s life. After dating his high school sweetheart for five years, Strader finally decided to propose to his fiancee Stephanie in that same year.
And what did Stephanie think of Strader’s obsession with a professional fishing career?
“She’s always been supportive of my goal to become a professional fisherman – as long as I was bringing home enough money from my other jobs to pay the bills,” said Strader, letting out a brief chuckle. “But I don’t think she really understood how I could make a living at fishing until I won at Lake Ouachita. I think that really opened her eyes.”
However, while his new marriage and passion for tournament fishing continued to flourish, he was quickly becoming disenchanted with his budding career in the TVA. Then, one day, whether by coincidence or fate, Strader’s entire life changed just dramatically.
And he almost didn’t live to tell about it.
(Editor’s note: Part 2 of Strader’s sweet recipe for success will be published on FLWOutdoors.com on Friday, Aug. 16).