Each summer, the ICAST show serves as a place and time to gauge the status of our industry. To reflect, if you will, on the progress weíve made toward fooling fish and reducing the amount of effort needed to do so. Occasionally, a key product is released that revolutionizes the industry; more often, thereís inventors trying too hard. However, itís the general feel of the whole event that interests me most.
This yearís vibe can be summed up in one word: business. The fishing business remains strong in terms of dollars, and major manufacturers were ready to wheel and deal at the show. The feeling was apparent by the design of many booths: I saw one apparel dealer with more conference tables than shirts. In fact, the desire to see a bunch of new gear new left me short-changed. Sadly, ICAST had become a boardroom.
I did find a couple of gems, as well as some laughable flops. The Best of Show-winning BOTE paddle board was incredibly cool; I could imagine terrorizing a few redfish with that. Always a junkie for life-like plastic, I found large numbers of swimbaits capable of aiding me in my big-bass obsession. Lunkerhuntís new Fetch, designed by Matt Arey, grabbed my attention. It may be the softest plastic Iíve ever touched.
Of course, there were a few farcical moments that left everyone talking. A bucket took the prize for best boating accessory Ė beating out true innovations like a 15-foot shallow water anchor. And, as usual, the ICAST voters continued along their path of obsession with lures that represent terrestrial animals, as a bat won the best freshwater hard bait. Yes, you read it right. A bat lure.
But, all in all, ICAST is always a treat. Having the show here in Florida affords me a quick visit from industry friends for a few days of fishing prior to getting set up. Making time to goof off inevitably creates lots of laughs and unforgettable memories.
However, this year presented an unplanned occurrence that topped all else. So defined was its presence that itís taken nearly a week to turn my thoughts to words. Even still, I struggle to describe the gravity of the situation.
I had lunch with Zona.
Now, I know what youíre thinking: Iím using my journalistic freedom here to poke fun at a friend. Maybe I am. But perhaps itís more than that.
Zona and I first met while each trying to figure out life. I had just quit the only regular job Iíd ever had, attempting to scratch a living from the fishing industry in any way possible. He was doing the same, selling bass boats to support a new family. Each of us seemed thrust into adulthood well before its time, though Zona went first.
We both competed in the newly formed FLW EverStart circuit, as the Northern Division brought big-money events close to home. My performance consisted of monumental peaks and valleys, while Zona was rock-solid everywhere we went. He was easily the best there was on that trail. Travels took us to new towns where weíd occasionally meet up for dinner Ė even back then Zona, was hard to pin down. Always popular.
Occasionally in our lives, we meet people whom we wish we could be around more. Itís a strange but notable feeling, as those individuals seem to bring out the best in us, or possibly a lighter side. Mark Zona is on a short list of those people for me.
Over the next 20 or so years, each of us developed our lives into what we wanted them to be. Iíve always been too scattered Ė and overwhelmingly addicted to the outdoors Ė to dedicate too much time to work. Zona found his calling on television and hammered out a monumental, truly motivational career.
Zona is never ďoffĒ. The guy you see on television Ė that person who seems entirely too excited about the most mundane things Ė thatís just Zona being a little more Zona than normal. But itís always in there, and you never know when itís going to pop out and turn a routine stop at the gas station into an immature, silly, awkward culture shock.
I love every minute of it.
I went into ICAST a bit nervous, a bit apprehensive about the direction the fishing industry is headed, and where Iíll find my place in the upcoming years. Business moves so fast in todayís world; companies are bought and sold even before employees know what hit them. Insecurity has replaced handshakes.
But one hour on Thursday put me back in place; Zona doesnít give you a choice in that department. You get up and get with it, no matter what happened the day before, or whatís to come tomorrow.
Zona defines "the life of the party." To this day, after 20 years of friendship, Iíve never seen him in an outwardly bad mood. Not once. Whether he realizes it or not, he brings smiles to more people than heíll ever know. Many of them donít even fish.
But thatís the point.
(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.)