Editor's note: BassFan columnist Joe Balog recently caught up with Elite Series angler Michael Simonton for a wide-ranging interview about all aspects of fishing at the tour level. Part 1 of the 2-part interview appears today.
When I grow up, I want to be a professional fisherman.
It wasn’t long ago that such a statement was like aspiring to be an astronaut, rock star or pro surfer. However, the reality today is that being a professional tournament fisherman is actually feasible for those willing to make the sacrifices. Who wouldn’t want such a dream job, right? Endless days in the sun, driving a brand new boat every year that’s loaded full of new rods, reels and tackle, not a care in the world.
Well, the reality is, the professional fishing lifestyle is a far cry from what is perceived to be by most fans, as we discuss here frequently. Becoming an established pro, like those who grace the pages of our favorite magazines and fill up TV air time, is incredibly difficult.
To get a feel for just how difficult it can be, I decided to interview an angler who’s living it right now. I knew I’d get the unfiltered, off-the-cuff scoop, too, because he’s a good friend of mine. As you can imagine, most of the guys in my circle don’t spend much time mincing words.
Michael Simonton is a second-year Elite Series pro from Fremont, Ohio. A friend for over a decade, I always felt he was one of the most talented, gifted bass fishermen I’ve ever met. He fished the Northern Opens in 2010 and 2011, cashing a check in every event, and winning the points championship his final year. However, since that time, he has spent 2 years fishing the Elite Series. In 14 events, he has cashed just two checks with finishes in the 40s.
I had to know, so I asked.
“Fishing the Elites is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” Simonton said. “I figured I’d be able to get at least three or four checks a year before I started."
He explained the primary reasons for the increased difficulty as inexperience dealing with the vast seasonal changes and water types when traveling the country, as well as a lack of practice time.
“We fish in Florida one day, during the spawn, then travel to Arkansas the next, and it’s pre-spawn. It’s a pretty big change," he said.
Simonton explained that his experience fishing Ohio, or northern lakes, could never prepare him for the diversity he sees across the country. He also sees a drastic difference between his home waters and those fished on tour.
“These places we fish are so massive and have so many fish," he said. "What I thought was a good spot back home, like when I find something in practice, really isn’t that good on a lot of these lakes."
Simonton also mentions that the Elite Series offers little practice time – just 2 1/2 days per event. In contrast, at the Open level, he was used to around 4 days. He said he's only scouted prior to the 30-day off-limits three times since joining the Elites.
“I just can’t afford to, plain and simple," he said. "For me to go to Falcon and fish for a week would cost 2 grand.”
It’s evident that every penny Simonton can scrape is already invested in his tournament travels.
So what is it that others do, or have done, to break through? Simonton has always been a proponent of “not getting any help." This is something we hear about all the time on the tournament scene. Many competitors claim it, few live it.
B.A.S.S. instituted the 30-day cut-off rule to add to the credibility of their superstars. Simonton, though, questions the rule's validity.
“Think about it. If I ask you where the fish are going to be on your local waters on a given date next year, yet alone in 30 days, you can probably put me really close," he said.
He added that even if the advise is just general, like which areas of the lake typically hold the most fish, or least, such information can be very helpful, as it allows an angler to then spend more time finding additional productive water. He claims that some pros solicit little or no help, while others go as far as receiving guided tours from locals, complete with GPS coordinates. That irritates him.
“If we (Elite Series pros) are supposed to be the best in the world, then why are we getting help from amateurs,” he said.
We both agree that getting help isn’t a pathway to a high finish. In fact, I mention that I’ve often seen it be more detrimental than beneficial. Simonton agreed, but points out that the best anglers know how to balance such insight into their own approach. He also feels that some anglers are just naturals, and just gifted, or as he claims “smarter."
Ott Defoe and Brandon Palaniuk enter the conversation as young guys who hit it big incredibly fast.
“I don’t have a problem saying it,” Simonton said. “Those guys are just better, maybe because they’re naturally smarter and able to adjust quicker."
Simonton also mentions that he has gotten away from fishing his strengths, which in his case is shallow-water power-fishing.
“I catch myself using baits I have no experience with, like fishing deep swimbaits at Falcon," he noted.
In that case, he claims it’s just “reaching for straws” when a familiar pattern won’t work.
When I asked him to compare fishing the Elites to the Opens, he concluded, “it’s way harder. But that just may be for me. It may not be for other guys, but for Michael Simonton, it’s really hard."
Though he admits to losing confidence along the road, he says a lack of success has driven him even more.
“I’m out here getting my (butt) kicked, but it has fueled my fire," he said. "I’m always jacked up for the next event even more. I’ve never tried something that has been so hard to accomplish, and that drives me.
"Lots of guys struggled initially. I read about (Brent) Chapman’s struggles early on, and Fred Roumbanis told me that it sucked for him the first couple of years. Fred says it takes 3 years to do anything, so I keep that in the back of my mind.”
(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.)