Young, Inexperienced and Really Good

Marcus Sykora, the 2014 All-American champion, earned a ticket to the Forrest Wood Cup with his win on Wilson Lake

Demographically speaking, professional bass fishermen are getting younger and better all the time. That’s one conclusion to draw from the roster of anglers who qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup this year.

When the competition opens the morning of Aug. 14 on Lake Murray near Columbia, S.C., there will be 25 pro contestants who have fished the Walmart FLW Tour six seasons or less. Of those, nine have fished the circuit only this season, and three – including the FLW College Fishing champion (Austin Felix of the University of Minnesota), BFL All-American winner (Marcus Sykora of Missouri) and one Rayovac FLW Series qualifier (Joseph Wood of Massachusetts) – have never fished the Tour at all. The remaining 20 qualifiers have spent between seven and 19 years competing at the top level.

That’s not to say the old guard of FLW is in retreat. Most of the top 10 pros in the Angler of the Year standings are veterans. For instance, there’s Angler of the Year Andy Morgan (19 years on Tour), Brent Ehrler (third in the standings, 10 years), Mark Rose (fifth, 16 years), Scott Martin (ninth, 15 years) and Wesley Strader (10th, 18 years).

What it does suggest, however, is that more 20-something anglers have what it takes to compete successfully. Their learning curves are much less steep, and it shows in their ability to hold their own against anyone in a tournament. Perhaps more accurately, they are better able to figure out the nuances of bass fishing and solve problems than most of their predecessors were able to at the same age. Experience doesn’t guarantee dominance, but expertise most assuredly does, and age doesn’t really factor into it.

Cody Meyer, Andy Morgan’s nemesis in the AOY race this year, isn’t exactly a seasoned pro, but he fishes like one. He thinks that the youth movement marches in lockstep to technological advances.

“I talked with Larry Nixon about this at Kentucky Lake,” says Meyer, who’s fished the Tour for six years and will be competing in his sixth Cup. “Larry said that when he started fishing, guys used paper maps, and when you found fish you had to line up ‘this with that’ so you could find the spot again. And when you returned, chances are you were the only one there.

“Today, you can look on your fish-finder and go right to a spot,” he adds. “There are no secrets, and it’s made everybody more competitive. Electronics are incredible, and the younger guys are up-to-speed on how to use them. I pride myself in staying ahead of the learning curve, and it’s helped me tremendously. Pros of an earlier generation had to figure things out for themselves and waste a lot of time locating fish. In three days of practice you learned what you could learn. On some lakes now you don’t even have to fish in practice – just run over a spot with your fish-finder and see if the school is there and how big. Pickwick and Kentucky lakes were two prime examples.”

Richard Peek, whose career path thus far could serve as a role model for aspiring pros, credits the proliferation of organized tournaments – especially those for youth – as being a major catalyst in the skill level of younger fishermen.

“Used to, there weren’t as many opportunities for young anglers to participate in tournaments and develop their skills along the way as they got older,” says Peek, who was 25th in the overall standings this, his first season as a Walmart FLW Tour pro. The Centre, Ala., angler was also runner-up to Jason Lambert (21st) in the Rookie of the Year race.

“Now there’s high school fishing (through the Student Angler Federation partnership that involves FLW and The Bass Federation) and FLW College Fishing, which is where I came up,” Peek adds. “What these events do for young people is give them a taste of tournament fishing and whether they might be good at it. It teaches them how to make good decisions, how to develop their own systems and styles, how to interact with other people, and just generally develop the manners it takes to be a successful tournament fisherman. I wouldn’t have traded my experience in College Fishing for anything, and I imagine there are some high school fishermen coming along now that will say the same thing one of these days.”

Peek, whose first major tournament victory was in the FLW College Fishing Southeastern Division Regional on Lake Okeechobee in 2009 with fishing partner Caleb Rodgers, also credits the co-angler format for honing his skills and helping to provide him with the confidence to become a pro. Peek was a co-angler at the Tour level for three years before he chose to become a full-fledged professional.

“I’ve said it a hundred times – whether it’s BFL, Rayovac or Tour, the best way to break in is by being a co-angler. It doesn’t cost much to see whether you’re cut out for tournament fishing,” advises Peek. “The guys you’re likely to draw at the BFL or Rayovac levels are local guys who are really good on a particular body of water. So that’s another part of your education. You can build on those experiences, take what you’ve learned by fishing with the best and decide if you’re cut out for it. I did, and it worked out for me. Look at the track records of some of the other pros on the website [flwoudoors.com]. It worked out for a lot of them, too.”

Tom Monsoor, the veteran Wisconsin pro who is also fishing in the Forrest Wood Cup, thinks that the reason more good young fishermen are coming along boils down to a familiar motivation: money.

“Tournament fishing has really gotten to be serious business,” says Monsoor. “The word’s gotten out: There’s big prize money at stake, maybe millions of dollars, and also the money you’re able to make from sponsors if you consistently finish near the top of the standings every year and help them get the word out about their products. Anything that has that kind of money involved in it, like tournament fishing does now, attracts more and better participants. So you’re seeing younger guys coming in, and the good ones are really good. They’re computer-savvy and know where and how to get the best information. They’re a whole lot further along these days when they start.”

In other words, though the sport of professional bass fishing has been around for a long time, veterans don’t have a monopoly on excellence.

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