It was the final-day weigh-in of the Bassmaster Classic and with the microphone now in front of him, Gerald Swindle was pulling out all the stops. After several redneck references and a few jokes that bordered on politically incorrect, he jumped on Brent Ehrler’s fashion choices one more time. It was just too easy.
As an outside observer with a little history, I actually saw Swindle turn it on. His performance was not unlike a stand-up comic once he starts getting laughs or an above-average karaoke singer with the crowd behind her. The more the people howled, the thicker Swindle spread it.
My past experience with Swindle doesn’t come from a working relationship or common circle of friends, as with many of the other fishing competitors. In fact, I was never that into him, really.
But I recognized Swindle’s placement in the industry as unique, and I wanted an up-close and personal look at it. You see, while fame and sponsorships have grown by leaps and bounds for nearly all touring anglers, there’s still a handful of guys who run the table. VanDam, Swindle, Skeet Reese, Scott Martin; I think it would shock fans and fishermen alike if they were brought inside the daily lives of these highest-level pros. So, when I made my picks as a press observer for this year’s Classic, I put in for Swindle.
Now I must admit I was also influenced by Swindle’s placement as a top-level spokesman for Johnson Outdoor products – Humminbird and Minn Kota – as I provide photos for that team to use on social media from time to time. But really, I just wanted a chance to find out for myself what this guy was all about when nobody was looking. I mean, has anyone, ever, really done that?
A little late to the launch during the opening round, Swindle was noticeably rattled. Prodding fans didn’t make it any easier for him to concentrate on the job at hand: getting out his rods, putting on his raingear – just trying to settle. To focus.
“Go Gerald!” they’d yell. “Hey it’s G-Man” you’d hear. Swindle acknowledged them all in the best way he could, all the while navigating his boat through a sea of watchers and chasers who were simply in the way, while speakers blared the same music I heard the last time I went to an NBA game. The lake frothed into a sea of boat wakes after blast-off. Holding on, I was relieved when Swindle took a quick side-step into a creek and got the boat in calm water. Once at his first spot, the entire world transformed back to nature. As the sun rose, the birds sang a melody that could only be described as spring in the South.
Immediately, Swindle let me in on his plan. He chose this area to start in because it contained a large population of schooling fish – both largemouth and spotted bass – and he felt his more productive areas needed some time to warm up. In essence, he stopped to fish here just to get things rolling. “I don’t care who you are, if you start on your best stuff and don’t get bit, you get rattled,” he confirmed.
Swindle connected with a few small keepers relatively quickly, but was also plagued by large, schooling hybrid striped bass. He rotated through a dozen baits. “I’ve got more tricks” he’d say to the fish as he went back in his rod locker.
Swindle remained light and easy, catching a limit of fish in the first couple hours, though nearly all would have to be culled if he hoped to make a run at the Classic. Swindle himself admitted this fact, and I wondered why a guy with so much going for him would even care about catching a limit. Why not swing for the fence?
As the day and the water warmed, I was given my first glimpse into what makes Gerald Swindle a super-star. With five small fish in the boat, a solid upgrade - much bigger than anything he had caught thus far - inhaled his Chatterbait right at the boat, just under the surface. We both witnessed the awesome strike. As if on cue, Swindle centered himself in a milli-second, set the hook with intention but not excitement, and steered the fish into a boat flip with six feet of line out. The fish immediately came off the hook on the floor of the boat, flopping around as Swindle admired it like just another orange he picked from the tree. With a bunch of ways to make a mistake, and screw up such an opportunity, Swindle had made none.
The solid 3-pounder gave Swindle a clue: how to begin to piece together the pattern he had waited for, power-fishing shallow cover in run-and-gun fashion. The remainder of the day would become vintage chunk and wind; Swindle often moving to find water to fit his pattern rather than adapting his fishing style to fit the water. Over the next two hours, he would replace his entire stringer and move into contention.
We kept the conversation light, including frequent jabs and jokes that are always found between guys with similar senses of humor. But through it all, there was no feeling of ease with Swindle, as nearly everyone would assume. Instead, there was always a job at hand, and one that doesn’t come particularly easy. Throughout his boat were constant reminders to stay the course: a motivational note from his wife, an Etch-A-Sketch mounted in his rod locker (“That’s a reminder that every day’s a new day. I can always just wipe the slate clean and start over” he’d say). But nowhere was there a sign that read Look at you; You’re Gerald Swindle.
Swindle got what he was looking for; his 15-pound-plus stringer put him right in the mix of things. Day 2 brought some engine troubles, but Swindle rallied and brought in another good bag of fish. The final day was a bit of a stumble for G-Man, but kept him in the top 10, and left him heading home with an increased fan base and 20 grand in his pocket.
My personal journey took me eight hours south Sunday night, leaving me plenty of time to reflect on the week. The Classic was another smashing success with a record-book ending, and the expo was possibly the busiest ever. But my mind went back to my day with Swindle.
A couple years ago, he’d given an emotional speech after winning the Angler of the Year title. “Any of you can do this,” Swindle exclaimed, fighting back the tears. It was hard for me to take him seriously, complete with the biggest sponsor base in fishing.
But this week I saw the other side. I saw a guy who never strayed from his roots, who still carries a knife in his pocket and is proud to say he owns a hundred acres of land that’s paid in full. I saw a glimmer of fear from start to finish, no matter what his shirt or the Classic program said, and the need to succeed for his family as much as his fans, or himself.
I saw Gerald Swindle, the most unlikely of regular guys, and realized that’s exactly what he is.
(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.)