Mark Daniels, Jr. doesn’t comprehend the word can’t; it’s apparent when you talk with him. There’s nothing he can’t do. I wonder how that can be.
With his recent Elite Series win, Daniels is at the peak of his career, so confidence naturally comes with the territory. But there’s more to it than that. What he possesses seems more internal, a direct result of experiences, or upbringing, or some series of occurrences that shapes unique individuals to become something special. Leaders in business, inventors, artists. Many people would term such an obsession. Daniels calls it passion.
Rewind to 5 years ago, and we find Daniels the winner of TBF’s National Championship and recipient of the Living the Dream Package – allowing a financially strapped amateur fisherman a real shot at the big leagues, complete with entry fees, travel expenses and use of a boat and truck for a season on the FLW Tour. But despite a strong local fishing reputation, Daniels' inaugural season was a flop. “I was good at home, not on Tour,” he said “and everything came tumbling down.”
Married with two children, Daniels was risking financial ruin after quitting his full-time job and following his heart toward a fishing career. However, initial failure was not to be Daniels’ demise.
“My passion would not allow me to give up. And I had big-time support from home; my wife was all in no matter how (poorly) I did.”
Daniels bounced back in 2014 with a win on the FLW Series, as well as landing a spot on FLW’s online reality show, Circuit Breaker. Quickly, Daniels became a household name in bass fishing and capitalized on it with a major expansion in social media. Along with the notoriety came a growing sponsor base and less financial burden. The result was a strong season on Tour and a top-10 finish in the Forrest Wood Cup. Things were looking up – for a little while.
The 2016 Tour season was again a bomb by Daniels standards', and he couldn’t figure out why. He was no longer committed to Circuit Breaker, which freed up valuable time. His longtime financial woes were clearing up and he had become somewhat familiar with many tournament venues.
Again, Daniels kicked his motivation into overdrive and worked toward any goal feasible to avoid failure. Enter the Bassmaster Opens.
“Nothing against the FLW Tour,” Daniels reflected, “but in my heart, I wanted to fish the Elite Series. It’s what I grew up watching on TV and I knew it was a better platform for me to build my brand.”
By the end of 2016, Daniels would qualify for the Elite Series through the Southern Opens, thanks, in part, to a rare double-qualification by Jacob Wheeler. With such a unique opportunity looming ahead, Daniels was determined to succeed at any cost. Again, can’t wasn’t around.
Despite his incredible passion for fishing, Daniels is a realist in most aspects of his life. Prior to his first year on the Elites, he recognized three key variables that were required for success. The first would be mastering technology, in this case electronics.
“I understood I needed to jump on that bus quick and the mapping would put me in the high percentage areas,” Daniels said. “I had just got with Garmin and had the best equipment, so I told myself, ‘There’s no reason why you can’t find the same schools of fish as Kevin VanDam, or anyone else.'''
With that concept in mind, Daniels spent nearly all of his downtime idling, graphing and learning waters near his home in order to better understand just what he was looking at. Immediately, he saw improvements in his tournament finishes.
Step 2 was to increase his time on the water – specifically pre-fishing for major events – something Daniels never had the luxury of doing in the olden days on his amateur, pre-sponsor budget.
When questioned, Daniels finally keyed me in on the final, driving stage of his plan: “I asked myself, ‘You gonna keep getting your butt kicked?’'' Such was apparently out of the question.
A serious athlete through high school, Daniels credits many of his baseball coaches for his competitive, never-fail spirit. But he’s quick to give higher accolades to his parents. “Those are two tough individuals who don’t give up,” Daniels added. Since the beginning, Mark Daniels Sr. has recognized a devotion in his son’s fishing. A passion.
So, in the course of a few short years, we’ve watched a man rise from amateur status, graduate to the big leagues, qualify for the Elite tour and win an event. He did so on a clear-water fishery nearly polar opposite of his home California Delta waters, with finesse tactics he had little experience practicing.
When I asked how this was possible, Daniels, again credited passion, but with a final disclaimer:
“Everybody has a passion, but a lot of people don’t truly understand what their passion is. A guy thinks his passion is fishing, but he gives up at the first road block. I wasn’t going to let small hiccups ruin me, whether that’s finishing 90th or running out of money or whatever; I wasn’t going to throw my arms up and pout.
“You see, that guy that quits, that guy likes fishing, but fishing’s not his passion. That guy won’t make it.”
I asked Daniels one final question: Out there in the big leagues, does he recognize others destined to fail, who are simply kidding themselves, without true passion for competitive fishing?
After a pause, Daniels simply chuckled and remarked, “Not on the Elite level, no.”
He said goodbye, and got back to work hooking up his boat.
(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.)