Last week, we discussed the struggles and reality of life on tour with my buddy, second-year pro Michael Simonton. I had a chance to visit with Simonton this week, as he stopped by my house following a pre-fish day on Lake St. Clair. True to his word, he never talked of upcoming patterns or secret locations, sticking to his “no help” motto. It will be interesting to see how that all unfolds as the final Elite event approaches in August.
In any case, Simonton had just returned from the ICAST show, as did many pros, marketing professionals and TV show hosts. Each had the same thing on their mind: secure relationships that may, someday, lead to lucrative endorsement contracts. In addition, the bass-junkie pros justify the trip to view some of the newest, hottest pieces of equipment available in the industry, hoping to gain an extra edge with a secret bait.
Some such lures will be innovations we won’t be able to live without. Others will be flops or gimmicks. Somewhere at the show, I’m sure there was a frog lure sporting glow-in-the-dark eyes that hopped and croaked.
Simonton mentioned that he didn’t necessarily get any new leads at the show, but that it was nice to visit with the companies he endorses and offer his help. His sponsor list is small, and mainly contains product-level support for rods, reels, boat equipment and lures. Simonton feels that these companies support him at realistic levels, and doesn’t believe he deserves much more until his tournament performance improves.
His lone title sponsor, Crown Battery, flips the majority of the bills for his Elite Series competition. In return, Simonton also volunteers regularly at promotional events and coordinates kids' fishing functions, many of which have gained decent publicity with the press. Simonton sums up his title agreement; “I have a good sponsor, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
A former schoolteacher, Simonton left his job mid-stream in the school year to pursue life as a touring pro. He adds that working with the press has become a common occurrence, and that such efforts go a long way for Crown.
One thing Simonton stresses is the fact that performing poorly is a real downer. “It really sucks having to do a kids' event or volunteer for an appearance when I’m having a (poor) year." I understand fully what he means – when announced to a crowd, it sure helps if a few notable credentials precede your name. It reduces the “who’s that?” factor quite a bit, and instantly wins some quick friends in a foreign environment.
Michael also mentions that, at times, his performance is embarrassing. The most difficult aspect of his “job” lies in his performance. “I can control the press work and the sponsor aspects, but not the performance. And that’s the hardest part,” he claims.
I asked him if some competitors are simply lucky or perhaps just get good breaks. “One thing I know,” he said, “I haven’t had a good break yet. I’ve missed a check in five or six events by, like, 2 pounds.” I think back to his numerous stories of lost fish on lures that are normally known to be guarantees. But, I wonder, doesn’t everyone lose fish sometime?
Our conversation leads to other aspects of Big League Bass, as I’m always inquisitive to get all sides of the story. I ask if he ever thought of fishing FLW rather than the Elites. I’ve seen several times where touring pros just mesh better with one circuit or the other, and FLW is known to many as the preferred locale of the “money fishermen" – those more interested in competition and cashing checks than signing autographs at Bass Pro Shops. I wonder if that would be a better career path for him. “No, I’d rather just stick to B.A.S.S.,” he states. “I grew up watching Bassmaster TV; it’s always been No. 1 for me." Very interesting, considering his struggles there.
I go on to ask other pestering fan tidbits, like who the tour anglers feel are the best fishermen. Simonton lists his Top 3 as VanDam, Faircloth and Bobby Lane. VanDam, he says, is easily No. 1 because his record simply proves it. Simonton acts as though most of the touring pros feel the same without even mentioning it. I’m always dumbfounded by the way most pros feel as though VanDam is untouchable, or in a different league. When it comes to head games, KVD has that piece of professional fishing all wrapped up without even trying. No doubt he’s the current best, but do the fish care whose hook it is?
I ask Simonton about travel. “It doesn’t even bother me anymore. On tour, all you do is fish, sleep or drive. But I’m used t it.” His dietary details are less than flattering. “Usually, it’s either TV diners at the (hotel) room, or three sandwiches in the boat – one for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he claims. I wonder how many people ever desire to eat all three meals at work.
In any case, I’ve often admired many pros' abilities to adapt to the traveling lifestyle. The need to feel familiar with my surroundings has often led to a personal resistance to extensive travel. However, many of these guys, it seems, just roll on through, literally, and can focus on fishing.
Simonton makes it a point to mention that he has no regrets. I find it interesting when he answers my question regarding changing his initial approach. “I wouldn’t do anything different,” he says. He wouldn’t pre-fish more simply because he doesn’t want to be “gone all the time." I immediately reflect to the recent story on Ish Monroe, who hasn’t been home since January and spends every waking minute becoming a better tournament pro. It sure must be hard to compete with a guy like that and keep a girlfriend.
For some, it seems, just being a professional angler and making a living traveling the country and fishing bass tournaments is surely enough to be fulfilled. Others are bitten early by the desire to be in the headlines. A remote few still do it for the obscurity and love of the pursuit of bass. And then there are always the gamblers.
Simonton has a few pieces of advice for the next group of young guns with stars in their eyes.
“Keep an open mind,” he says. “Don’t get discouraged, work your (butt) off and be sure to save a lot of money before trying."
Sounds pretty legit. In the end, though, there has to be more, and I’m afraid it’s all “upstairs." It will be interesting to see when Simonton grasps this final and most crucial aspect, which seems to come so naturally to the great ones.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)