December 11, 2012 by David A. Brown
Watch thoroughbred horses just moments before the race begins. Stamping, snorting, chomping at the bit - the anticipation is clear. Bell rings, gate opens and they do what they're born to do; what they've trained to do; it's what's in their blood. That's a fair analogy for Adrian Avena's perspective on life. He knows he's capable of building a successful pro career.
And it's nearly race time.
Avena's no stranger to FLW competition. The FLW College Fishing standout has already laid significant groundwork on name-building. He's competed at the EverStart and Tour levels and he's felt the rush of a big win. Clearly driven by an all-in commitment to establishing a full-time professional fishing career, Avena's taking wise steps toward realizing that dream, while giving himself options that can serve as fall-back as his career needs dictate.
Hailing from Vineland, N.J., where hunting and fishing have long been a way of life, Avena traces his formal interest in competitive fishing back to his senior year in high school (2008) when he met a local tournament series competitor named Dom Simone who took him under his wing and introduced him to the tournament scene. The notion quickly took root and Avena has had his sights set ever since.
"Growing up, I was always an athlete and I was really competitive, so when I came to the conclusion that it was possible to fish bass tournaments for a living, I immediately grew a lot of interest in it," Avena said.
Books and hooks
A graduate of Sacred Heart High School, Avena was recruited by Chestnut Hill College for his tennis skills. When December sees him graduate with a bachelor's degree in Business Administration, one of the things Avena will remember from his years of secondary education will be his success in the FLW College Fishing Series. In this team competition, he amassed five top-10 finishes.
In Northern Division regular-season events, he earned fourth place at the Potomac River (2010), fifth at Lake Champlain (2009) and eighth at Smith Mountain Lake (2011). His team also took 6th at the 2010 Northern Regional on Jordan Lake and ninth at the 2009 Northern Regional on Lake Norman. Avena said that the College Fishing experience also served as a training ground for future pursuits as well as an invaluable venue for visibility and exposure.
"The biggest thing about FLW College Fishing is that it allows you to not only network with other students and FLW Tour anglers, but it allows you to get your name out," Avena said. "A lot of tackle companies are looking for young anglers and College Fishing allows you the opportunity to get your foot in the door.
"That whole atmosphere is a mini version of the FLW Tour. It's a great way to start building up a little confidence and taking that first step to see if this sport is for you."
Avena said that, although College Fishing eventually conflicted with tennis, he always maintained a clear vision of what he wanted. He played college tennis from his freshman year through the fall of his junior year, but once he heard about FLW's College Fishing program, he traded racquets for rods.
Avena recalls the day of reckoning: "I told my coach, 'After I graduate I plan on continuing my fishing career. I don't plan on making money playing tennis.' I told him it was something I had to do. He didn't like it too much but he definitely understood."
Profiting from a comprehensive fishing game plan, Avena earned his captains license in late November. With extensive saltwater experience complementing his freshwater knowledge, he plans to establish a charter fishing service targeting bass, stripers, tuna, mako sharks and flounder.
"I really want to pursue a career in fishing, so I figured while I'm not tournament fishing I can be a guide," he said. "Whether its saltwater fishing or freshwater fishing, I'll keep busy in the off season."
Notably, Avena claims that flounder fishing - his personal favorite - has actually helped him in the bass tournament world. It's all about finding the right habitat on a sonar screen - sound familiar?
"Flounder fishing related to bass fishing more than any other type of fishing because it's real structure-oriented," he said. "You're using your electronics on offshore wrecks and hard bottom. It kind of feels like you're dragging a Carolina rig or a jig. This is really where I learned to use my electronics."
This experience and insight served him well in June 2011 when Avena entered the EverStart Series Northern Division event on Lake Champlain and bested a field of veteran competitors to capture his first professional tournament trophy with a wire-to-wire victory by nearly a 4-pound margin. Two years prior, Avena won a Walmart BFL Michigan Division event from the back of the boat, but his Champlain achievement gave him a much-needed shot of assurance.
"It gave me a tremendous amount of confidence because being a younger person and not totally understanding the whole tournament (scene), that opened my eyes that maybe it's possible that I have what it takes to do well," he said. "It also opened the eyes of my family members and they've grown to see that it is possible that you can fish for a living and do all right, as long as you work hard and keep your head down and stay confident."
Avena set his plan in motion this year and in his first full season on Tour, he turned in a respectable performance, cashing checks in all but the Table Rock Lake event, taking 16th at the opener on Lake Hartwell and finishing 23rd overall in points. He also placed 33rd at his first-ever Forrest Wood Cup appearance last season. Since that Champlain victory, Avena has sharpened not only his skills, but his perception of the game.
"Looking back at that now with a full Tour season under my belt, I've grown to appreciate it more and more with every tournament I fish," he said. "In order to win a multi-day tournament, with the caliber of (competitors), everything has to go right. You can be on the winning fish and not execute or have one or two bad breaks happen. Winning a tournament, in some sense, is under the command - if it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
Need some evidence? Avena bought the boat in which he won Champlain a month before the tournament. One week out, while towing the boat, he was involved in a major accident that totaled the tow vehicle - but the boat remained on the trailer and escaped unscathed.
Ambition and aptitude
Avena said he's certain that, while completing four years of college required him to keep his professional fishing plans on the back burner, advancing his education was an essential building block for a secure future. Nevertheless, the time is coming where he can now turn his undivided attention to the sport he loves so much.
"I can't wait to really be able to focus on fishing for a full year," he said. "Being a full-time student holds you back from doing that. And that's been my problem for the last couple of years. I'm trying to focus on fishing and I'm trying to focus on school, but I haven't had that much time to focus and dedicate to sponsors. I'm really looking forward to being able to focus my off time on (developing) sponsor relationships. Instead of writing term papers, I'll be sending out emails (to sponsors). I just can't wait to get on with 2013."
Avena said he measures himself as a student of the sport. Once an angler loses that perspective, he said, it's time to put away the rods and get a day job.
"I don't consider myself one of the best in the sport, but I want to be," he said. "As far as Angler of the Year, I don't think I'm there yet. I'll be going into most of these (Tour) lakes with no experience, but I'm looking at trying to cash a check in every tournament."
Avena said his long-term plan involves earning name recognition through a well-rounded career that balances angler performance with fan interaction and sponsor relations. Along with this, he's not hesitant about aiming setting his goals high. "I'm planning to make fishing my career and someday earn (FLW Tour) angler of the year."
No doubt, Adrian Avena's eager to hear that starting bell, but he's tempering his enthusiasm with prudence, practicality and humility. He knows the real work is just beginning, but he's confident that he's up to the task.
In an attempt to drill down on a more personal level, here are some other interesting insights into what makes the New Jersey native really tick:
Favorite Lake: Champlain, for its habitat diversity and abundance of green and brown fish.
Dream fishery: Lake Okeechobee and Falcon Lake. He's intrigued by the big-bass reputations and the prospect of developing his shallow cover game.
Signature technique: A 3/8-ounce All Terrain Grass Jig with a Smallie Beaver. He fishes the jig on a 7-foot, 3-inch medium-heavy Twilight series rod by Halo - his first major sponsor, which he signed in late November.
"Whether I'm flipping it, pitching, swimming it, I feel like I can fish that anywhere I go and I can always catch fish on it," Avena said.
Mentors: FLW Tour pro Daniel Welch and Bassmaster Elite Series pro Randy Howell. Both have consistently counseled, encouraged and motivated him on his career course.
Support system: Parents Bobby and Lori, who travel to each event with him - along with the family's chocolate lab "Triton," who has also appeared in tournament morning photos.
Always onboard: Two things - First a lucky dollar bill that Avena discovered way back in his rod locker after the Champlain win. (He surmises that it was in the boat when he bought it second-hand. Now it's a fixture). Also, the heart-shaped key ring that his girlfriend Samantha Mason fashioned by welding a pair of 2/0 Gamakatsu octopus hooks.