By Eric Jackson
People keep asking me why I have decided to enter the FLW Walmart Tour as a Co-angler. A place where my first four finishes have been 78th, 136th, and 106th, and 117th, out of 160 competitors. Being in the bottom 1/2th of the class is something that I haven’t experienced in 30+ years of competing. Why? What is the motivation? What if I never get great and I am only average at this sport? Isn’t the risk greater than the reward? I am at the top of the sport in kayaking, a leader in a variety of of disciplines, in business, etc., but I am drawn towards adding a new challenge… why?
Wishing for position, things, income, titles are awesome motivators for most people, including me. However, I have been lucky enough to discover that achieving those things does’t produce happiness, but leaves me only wanting the next level of achievement, and my expectation is that I should achieve it, and if I don’t, I have failed. What I also discovered is that as long as what I am doing every day is what I want to be doing, and I am able to be with the most important people to me, than I am happy. This has lead me to a life where I can truly be free to live as I want, to strive to be the best, but grounded by the fact that if it isn’t fun today, rewarding today, than it is not worth it in the long run.
Many people confuse comfort with being happy. Being happy can also mean being in pain, being dirty, being tired, and being scared, as long as you are working hard to move in the direction you want to go, and you are not sacrificing what is important to you to get there. Using my available money, time, resources, and energy on something that is important to me is not only acceptable, but it is critical for my happiness.
I am an obsessed fisherman. Bass fishing is my favorite type of fishing because the personality of the bass is a perfect compliment to my personality. Bass are hunters, aggressive, and active, but they are also smart, finicky, and always changing their habits with the weather, water temp, time of year, and fishing pressure. Being a great bass fisherman takes an amazing amount of learning, experience, and focus well beyond what most imagine. The sport of bass fishing is an extremely competitive sport with well sponsored, full time, focused fisherman working on their own skills, strategy, and techniques, often with big industry behind their efforts in hopes of helping them become dominant and benefiting from their marketing horsepower. I want to be the best of those people one day.
What is it like being a fisherman? How can that compare to the life of a whitewater kayaker? To be clear, I am not giving up my kayaking life. Kayaking will always be a passion of mine. I love the destinations, the people, the events, and the industry. Most of all, I love kayaking as an activity. I also love fishing as an activity. I love bass fishing specifically, as it is not just about getting a lure in front of their faces, but the right lure, the right techniques, and the every day can be different. They can be aggressive and eat anything that passes their way, or they can be finicky and only the best presentation of the right lure can tickle their fancy. I also love the concept of the sport of bass fishing in its human manufactured format. In the FLW or BASS leagues, you drive 250 hp racing machines, born for two purposes: to go really fast from the starting line to where you think you can catch fish, and to be ideal fishing platforms that are effective and fun to fish from once you get there. Some folks where full face helmets on the takeoff as the high speed chase with 160 boats flying around the lake to the waypoints they set on their GPS in training can be exciting, but also dangerous. I would not suggest that this is an extreme sport, but it certainly is not a lazy day with a fishing pole hanging over side of a canoe waiting for a bite. When I fish out of my kayak, I am extremely active. I paddle fast to where I want to go, I stand up and cast as accurately to the spot I want, and if I think I am not going to catch one on that cast, I reel the lure back in as fast as many hand can crank the handle and then I fire my next cast immediately. From the first cast, typically at sunrise, until the last one, often 10+ hours later, I don’t usually want to take the time to eat lunch, chat with my friends much, or change lures. I do all of those things, but with haste, and usually when I think it won’t affect my fishing success much. Explaining the fun in fishing is fruitless. Being on the water, in the outdoors, in beautiful places is a good way to start because it makes sense. Sitting around and looking at the outdoors for any period of time, to me, is boring and that isn’t worth the journey in my opinion. If the journey is hard and few are willing to make it, then it becomes more attractive to me. I think this is part of the adventurers DNA. Explorers, expedition kayakers, mountain climbers, etc.. We all talk about how wonderful the view is where we go, but if there were no obstacles to getting there, or nothing exciting to do in that venue, we would not be bothered. Fishing is like that for me. The challenge of trying to catch fish, specifically more fish, and bigger fish is the obstacle or game that makes being on the water purposeful and gives each location more luster. Paddling down the Calf-Killer River in a kayak is something worth doing once to see what is there. It is class 1-2 at best, and is semi-secluded and mostly quite beautiful, but also has a few eye sores on it too. The same run, with a fishing pole in hand, trying to catch Spotted bass, small mouth bass, and muskie, becomes an amazing run, worthy of multiple runs in a season. Lake Kissimmee in Florida is a wonderful and massive shallow lake, that has Lilly pads, grass, and other vegetation through out it and can be explored by kayak or boat alike. It connects to other lakes, such as Toho through a lock system and a power boat is necessary if you want to see much of it in a day or two. A 70mph bass boat with a GPS to use for seeking out areas that you think will produce big and lots of bass in a day makes this huge open water lake a wonderful game of high speed travel, mixed with intense fishing. A total contrast to the Florida lakes would be the mountain lakes in the Southeast, like Lewis Smith Lake in Alabama where crystal clear and up to 160 foot deep waters, rocky shores, and narrow channels become the venue for fishing. The techniques for fishing for bass in this type of lake is quite different from the shallow murky water of Kissimmee. The scenery is different, and the the feel of the day is different.
To be clear, I love fishing from my kayak and that is the best way to catch a lot of fish and I look forward to many kayak fishing competitions in the future. Given a choice between only having a kayak to fish from or only having a bass boat to fish from I would only have the kayak. You can fish from a kayak anywhere in the world, but you can’t fish anywhere in a bass boat. It needs a boat ramp and deep enough water to work. However, having both is the best way to go if you want variety and if you want to compete on the big stage.
What I found in the people in competitive Bass fishing. I have only been in four tournaments so far in the FLW (Fishing League Worldwide) Walmart Tour as a co-angler. This tour is one of two major leagues. The tour has 6 tournaments and 1 championships (Forest Wood Cup). The other tour, called the BASS Elite Series is the same with the “Bassmaster Classic” as the championships. I am fishing the FLW Tour because I can fish as a co-angler with the top pro fisherman in my first year and learn and compete with the pros while the BASS league doesn’t have that option. I wanted to immerse myself with the top guys right away to see if the people involved were a fun group to be a part of, or full of themselves. In three tournaments which is 6 days of fishing as a co-angler, and another 6 days of meeting pros at the “Expo” where I had a booth for Jackson Kayak I have met many of the 160 pros on tour. Like all sports there is a pecking order and a level of success that each has achieved, and some are veterans while others are new to the scene. With that comes a certain attitude, typically, that is affected by how desperate each one is for the attention that they feel they deserve. This is easy for me to see as a long time pro-kayaker, who at one time clamored for attention, and now is comfortable with the amount of attention I get for my endeavors. Most of the fishermen are very nice, friendly, and open to meeting newcomers and helping them. My first tournament I knew only one person, Charlie Ingram, who we sponsor for his TV Show. However, I didn’t see him at the registration, and I entered this big auditorium full of pro fisherman, wearing their sponsor jerseys, with their $70,000 bass boats and wrapped vehicles out front. Everyone was chatting with others that they knew and for the first 5 minutes I felt lonely and very out of place. I was a complete nobody, looking around at some of the most famous fishermen in the world, the FLW Staff, volunteers, co-anglers, etc.. I knew what it felt like at that moment for a kid entering a new high-school for the first time, or a new employee of a big company in a new city where the boss who hired you isn’t present. After a few minutes I did a little small talk with a few folks, found out how to register, went to the competitors meeting, and got my first text message telling me what pro I would be fishing with the next day. It was Jim Moynuagh. I never heard of him, but I don’t read the magazines or know hardly any names of top guys. I called Jim and we made a meeting plan for the morning. He was super nice to me right away and made me feel quite comfortable. That was a good first sign about this sport. I left the meeting and went back to my RV with Kristine and KC in Toho, Florida where the tournament was staged. I didn’t get to know hardly anyone, didn’t see Charlie, didn’t get anyone’s number as a new friend, etc.. but I was staged up to fish with Jim for 7 hours the next day. Kristine suggested that I look him up online. I found out that he has been quite successful on the tour, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings, etc.. Cool, thought, I am getting to fish with someone who knows what is up!
My first morning of fishing I met him, long before sunrise at a marine about 15 minutes away from the starting line as he wanted to avoid the rush of boats getting in. We drove over to the starting line and he asked if I had my “marker buoys’… “Uh, what are marker buoys?” I asked. He said I couldn’t fish without them and I had that panicky feeling of “uh-oh” but he offered to help me find some, only minutes before the start of the competition. OK, so this guy is cool, and even with my rookie mistake, he was calm and supportive. Considering that this was the first tournament of the year on the tour, with $125,000 up for grabs for first place, and it starts the run for the championships where first place is worth $500,000, I thought he went above and beyond to accommodate his rookie co-angler.
This has been my experience so far on the tour. I fished with even more famous names in other tournaments and each one was nice, helpful, and friendly. Some are more enjoyable than others, but that is a personal preference, of course. I also met what Kristine calls my new “besty” in another co-angler, Simon. Simon comes from California, is a surfer, kayaker, and active and fit. He had a band at one point, but is now a fisherman on the second tier circuit, the “Rayovac Tour” for FLW and a co-angler on the FLW Walmart Tour aspiring to be a Pro as soon as he can get enough sponsors to afford it. He has been taking me out on his boat, letting me drive it, run the trolling motor, which is letting me be the pro, while he is the co-angler on his own boat. After just three tournaments I have quite a few new friends and team members (Team Jackson Kayak) in Pro fishermen. Billy McDonald, Scott Canterbury, Jim Moynaugh, and Simon are people I can call on the phone and have stuff to talk about, related to Jackson Kayak, the FLW tour, and fishing in general. Charlie Ingram, who is now a long time friend, I finally see him at the other tournaments and he is always providing advice on what to expect, etc..
So what is the consensus? After four tournaments, I believe I can have a “boatload” of fun everyday I strive to learn, prepare, or compete as a pro fisherman on tour. While there are some minor things related to how the tournaments are run that are not perfect, I am finding that most of the rest of the activities related to the tournaments are awesome. I also believe, after getting lower than 100th place three times in a row, that I will not suffer from being bored in the climb to the top. What more can one ask for… formidable opponents with great attitudes and sportsmanship, the lure of fame and fortune (a fun by-product of many sports that come to very few, but that is what makes it so special). Combine those with the challenge of finding and keeping sponsors to make competing affordable, and then, of course, the challenge of becoming a winning tournament fisherman and you have all of the elements of a big adventure. Unknown outcome, physical and mental challenge in an arena where few truly succeed (maybe the top 20% of the pros are really making money and considered successful tournament fishermen), and few people are good enough to become pros to begin with. These things make up my ideal world. I am now on the ladder, one foot on the ground, the other on the first rung, my hands stretched up as high as I can reach, and my eyes fixed not on the top rung, but above it where no rung is today, but where I want to add another one, and then another again. Getting to the top is a goal, of course, but it is secondary to the primary goal of enjoying each action along the way that creates movement upwards. Learning to “flip” on my deck in the backyard, calling on potential sponsors, working towards finding the right boat, motor, electronics, anchor, and even two vehicle are exciting actions. My first action as a pro fisherman was before my first tournament in Florida. I chose my uniform for fishing. I didn’t want to look like a cookie cutter NASCAR jersey wearing pro. Yes, I think their jerseys look cool and I think they are functional and appropriate, but they are not for me. I wanted to differentiate myself from the crowd immediately. What is my uniform? Dickies coveralls and a Stetson hat. I am the only angler or co-angler that looks like that and while it won’t necessarily help me win any tournaments, the uniform is very functional on the water and everyone already knows who I am because of it. You can’t miss me running around in that get up. The process of deciding what to wear was fun for me, I imagine, like a girl picking out her prom gown. The future is truly unknown. I will be whitewater kayaking, training, and competing in whitewater, kayak fishing, and training to be a Pro Bass Fisherman. That I do know.
Fitness is important to me, and while fishing for 8 hours without rest is taxing and tiring, it is neither aerobic or strength training. My idea is that I will do 20 push-ups for every fish I catch during the tournaments or training. I am sure this will make some of the pros uncomfortable if I am the co-angler doing push-ups on the back of their boat, but that is a social thing that I am willing to deal with. I was pleasantly surprised to see a much higher percentage of fit pro fisherman than I imagined. I would suggest that the cross section of FLW pros are fitter than the USA population by 50% on average. Certainly not as fit as the whitewater kayaking world, which is, perhaps, my only reservation for becoming a pro. My time training/competing/traveling is not automatically part of my fitness program. In whitewater kayaking, the act of paddling is physical training. Kayak fishing is somewhere in the middle. I will make my time on a bass boat include physical training- even if it is just push-ups… I think my friend, Simon, will join me in this new trend.
Why not just focus on whitewater kayaking competitions, on kayak fishing, etc..? This is such an obvious question to ask. “You make fishing kayaks, what are you doing fishing in bass boats? You are at the top of the game in whitewater kayaking, have sponsors, win events, and have a kayak company that makes boats that say “Jackson” on the side of them…. why stray from that?” I have already answered these questions in a round about way, showing my motivations in fishing, etc.., but there is a shorter answer; one paragraph.
I have been around the block in whitewater kayaking more times than anyone in history, and by a long shot. While there is still lots of new ground to cover, the daily actions are still similar. It has been my favorite thing to do for the past 30 years and I have done it to such a high level, for so many hours/day everyday, that to truly enjoy it as much as I have in the past, I need to do it a little less and cherry-pick my favorite parts, my favorite events, and my favorite rivers. I will likely still paddle 200 days/year, which is down from 300+, but not exactly a low number! Kayak fisherman are not the top tournament fisherman in the world at this stage. I don’t want to be the best in the junior league, I want to be the best of the best, in a hyper competitive environment where winning is very difficult. That doesn’t mean that I would win all of the kayak fishing tournaments, or any of them at the moment (I have done two and been 9th both times). I will do kayak fishing tournaments as well, but my primary sport for now will be the Pro Tour and I’ll bring what I know to kayak fishing tournaments as that motivates me. My bass fishing on the pro tour will help me sell fishing kayaks more than fishing in kayak fishing tournaments. Why? Because I will be introducing kayak fishing to people who are not familiar with it, versus fishing in a kayak, along side of others already fishing in a kayak and just competing for their brand loyalty. This is part my “life without compromise” concept where I try to find mutually beneficial situations in the things that are important to me.
OK, I just got back from Germany, where I just won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Paddle Awards, and like an idiot, I left the award on the seat in the shuttle van… (I really hope I can get it back and am pretty sure that I will since the van is driven by a kayaker… in my defense, I was helping a girl from Nepal with two big bags and even walked her to her gate in Terminal 1 when I was late for my flight in Terminal 2. The award was on the seat next to me but I was busy getting her a cart, loading her bags, and running her to her gate.. I do appreciate the award and am super bummed it isn’t with me!) When I got home, I loaded my RV with Kristine, KC, my fishing gear and we headed to Alabama for my next tournament in Eufaula. From there I will be driving straight to Colorado for the Colorado Tour, USA Team Trials, and the GoPro Games. I have my brand new 2016 Rock Star to play with which is another game changer in the freestyle kayak world… AWESOME! Can I make the USA Team again for this World Championships, making it 26 years on the USA TEAM?
Meanwhile- click here to follow the FLW Fishing Tour