UPCOMING EVENT: TACKLE WAREHOUSE PRO CIRCUIT - 2020 - Harris Chain of Lakes

At the heart of EverStart

At the heart of EverStart
Connie and Jerry Stakely, tournament directors for the EverStart Series

An interview with the Stakelys

When Jerry and Connie Stakely began their tenure as tournament directors for Operation Bass some 14 years ago, the competitive bass fishing scene was little more than a minnow in the vast school of American sporting events competing for public attention. Since then, the couple has seen bass fishing grow into the leading candidate to threaten NASCAR as the next big thing.

And they are thrilled about it.

Jerry Stakely began his fishing career in east Tennessee at the same time Ray Scott first put competitive bass fishing on the map in the early `70s. Stakely had already built a reputation as one of the top bass anglers to prowl the open waters of Watts Bar Lake on the east Tennessee River. In 1972, he entered one of the first B.A.S.S. tournaments and did well. He later won one of the early Red Man Tournament Trail national tournaments, taking home the coveted spittoon.

Of his fishing ability and knowledge, Stakely commands respect throughout the bass industry. FLW Tour pro and fellow Tennessean Ben Kron singles him out as the one angler he's met in his many years "who really knows his stuff." Since 1971 Stakely has made all his own jigs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits, and more than a few anglers on today's tournament trail are known to use his baits as well - and win.

He met Connie when he was in the Navy and they married when they were just 19 and 18 years old, respectively. Jerry worked as a machinist and a bar band musician in his early twenties, which supported his passion for fishing (sometimes he can be seen playing air guitar to Lynyrd Skynyrd during breaks at tournament weigh-ins). At age 26, his son, Jeremy, was born. Two years later, their daughter, Brianne, came along and Jerry cranked up his involvement on the pro bass fishing circuit.

In late 1986, Jerry and Connie were hired by Operation Bass to run Red Man tournaments - he as a tournament director, she as a clerical assistant. For over 10 years they directed tournaments in almost all 22 Red Man divisions. Then, in 1998, the couple took over as directors of both the Wal-Mart FLW Tour and EverStart Series - both fledgling bass fishing circuits on the rise.

The next year, they opted out of the growing FLW Tour to focus their energies on just the EverStart Series, and that's where they now stand. In charge of directing what is effectively the feeder circuit into the nation's most prestigious bass fishing tour - the Wal-Mart FLW Tour - the Stakelys' job is both enviable and thankless at the same time. The sheer numbers of anglers they must organize and miles they must drive would be daunting to most people. But most people don't love bass fishing as much as Jerry Stakely does.

I recently sat down with Jerry and Connie at an EverStart tournament where, between Louis L'Amour quotes and some golf chatter, the Stakelys talked a little bass fishing.


First impression. What's it like being a professional bass tournament director for Operation Bass?

Jerry: Being a tournament director is probably the most fulfilling and satisfying job you could ever have. It's something that you've got to love to do, and something you've got to want to do. And you sure can't be in it for the money. It's very trying at times, and it's hard on your family life because you stay away from home a lot. Our children are grown now, thank God, but that wasn't always true. This is our 14th year of doing this and they were just small children when we started.

Connie: They were eight and 10, as a matter of fact.

Jerry: Being a tournament director, I guess, it's just something I love more than anything. I wish I could do a tournament every week.

I assume a lot of people, especially anglers, would love your job. You get to go to most of the best bass destinations in the country. What do you love about your job?

Jerry: What I really appreciate as a tournament director are the fishermen who come up to us and tell us that you're running a good tournament and he appreciates it. These are the guys that actually pay our checks. Thank God I had enough talent, if you want to call it that, to get me a job in the industry where I could get a sure paycheck, instead of fishing for a living.

Connie: It's not often that you get to do something that you love like he loves fishing. And that's what this is - it's a love. When he was a tournament fisherman, I would make a copy of the check that he won and the articles. And now you'll see families doing that for everyone. I guess that's what makes it good for us because we know how they feel. We've been on the other side.

Jerry: I think that's what makes me like my job so well. I know the other side as well as I know this side. The easy part's running the tournament. The hard part's disqualifying the fishermen.

For a long time you've dealt with many anglers who come from all walks of life. In this competitive environment, is it hard to keep everybody in line?

Jerry: What made Red Man strong was that Mike Whitaker - and Charlie Evans, who came along later - was really a stickler for the rules. All of our tournaments are uniform. If you went to a tournament in New York, the rules would be the same for a tournament in Texas. That's the way I was taught, and that's the way I still run it. I don't vary. I don't have any skeletons in my closet. I'll never let a man break a rule that I know of, and, I hope, I never treat anybody wrong. To me, the very worst thing a man can be is a bad sportsman. The worst thing is trying to cheat. And in our tournaments, it's hard to cheat. But unsportsmanslike conduct, there's no use for it in any walk of life.

Connie: But over the years, there have been very, very few incidents. The majority of the fishermen who fish tournaments are good guys.

There are a lot of names and numbers involved in managing an Operation Bass tour. How do you contend with the large fields of competitors?

Jerry: She says it's simple, but I say it's not. I say she holds it together. She and the people who work with me, they do all the work and I get all the glory. But they've got to be special people also. Connie just does a fantastic job.

Connie: It takes the whole crew to make it what it is. A fancy name for what I do is clerical tournament assistant.

Competitive bass fishing is just blowing up, popularity-wise. What affect has that growth had on your experience as tournament directors and on Operation Bass itself?

Connie: The divisions for this year, everything is just growing. EverStart is full, the FLW is full, and look at the Red Mans.

Jerry: It's another phenomenal year for Red Man. Our first seven tournaments we had five of them full. You know, I've run the EverStart and I've run the FLW, but the Red Man is the momma - it's where my heart is. I just have a special love for Red Man people. The guys that fish Red Man are just everyday, common people - people you can relate to.

What do you think of the growth of bass fishing?

Connie: It's overwhelming.

Jerry: It really is, and I'm really thankful because it puts bread on the table. I think sponsors that work outside the industry are really catching people to buy their products. And of course our television show helps a lot with that. Look at air time now. The cost of a 30-second commercial is unbelievable. They buy FLW, they get their entire cost for their sponsorship in two shows. And it costs a lot of money for ESPN to do anything. And they've got it both ways: ESPN2 in the wintertime and early spring and ESPN in the spring and early summer.

Connie: Look at the people who have come to sponsor fishing. It has grown so much from just things that had to do with fishing, per se, to companies outside the industry. Now we have sponsors from Land O'Lakes to Shop-Vac.

What is the state of bass fishing now?

Jerry: Infancy. It's just starting.

What's the next step for Operation Bass and its role as the leader in pro bass fishing?

Jerry: Sponsorships. If we can ever get to the point where our fishermen are fishing for money that's not theirs, like golf, then we'll be where we should be. And we'll get to that point. Television is the answer to all that. I think the Millennium (M1) tournament that we had was just the start of something phenomenal. I think live tournaments are the answer to all of this. And we can do it with the help of Irwin Jacobs. I've never met a gentleman who's got as much foresight as he does, in anything. All the fishermen in the world should send him a Christmas card because he is a godsend to the bass fishing industry.

How did you feel when Jacobs first bought Operation Bass?

Jerry: We were apprehensive at first. All we knew about him was that he'd buy companies and rip them up. But we looked around us and we figured he couldn't get a lot out of six computers.

Connie: He bought the people.

Jerry: We talked a lot about it. What's he going to do for us? Is Mike Whitaker selling us out? Are we going to lose our jobs? Then we looked around and we decided that he bought six tournament directors and their expertise in running tournaments. You can't very well break us up and sell us. So I figured he's in it for the long haul. Thank God he is.

This year Operation Bass changed the Red Man format to a pro-am structure, like the EverStart and FLW. Tell me about the shift.

Jerry: You know, running a pro-am circuit used to be a lot different than running a Red Man circuit because the pro runs the front of the boat and the amateur fishes out of the back. Personally, I think the pro-am format is the best way to go because of the guy who's a little timid about fishing a professional tournament. We took the pressure out of it for both the professional and the co-angler. You're not against the guy in the front of the boat, and you're not against the guy in the back of the boat.

At the February EverStart tournament registration in Alexander City, you told me to watch pro Trip Weldon. You said he was going to win the event. And he did. How could you possibly know, out of 175 anglers, which one would win the tournament?

Jerry: I knew it because he's such a good fisherman. There wasn't anybody better than him on that lake, except Chris Ingram, and he wasn't in the tournament. There were a lot of good local fishermen in that tournament, but Trip is just so good down there.

Connie: You know, fishermen know fishermen.

Knowing fishing, Jerry, you know this can be a frustrating sport. So what's the attraction?

Jerry: This fishing thing is (pause) I don't know about it. You're chasing Mother Nature's smartest predator in their habitat and if you get lucky you catch a few of them. But it seems like the ones you don't catch are the ones that make you come back for more. Anybody who thinks professional bass fishing is easy has got another thing coming. I'll tell you what, if anybody made me work as hard as I fish, I'd quit before dinner. That's true for everybody out there. Guiding would be the hardest thing. I've done some. But getting up at 4 o'clock every morning and having to put people where they can catch fish, and depending on that for a living, that would be the hardest part in this business. Fishing is just like any other trade. For instance, you take a rock and put it in a river. Let it roll long enough and it'll become smooth. That's the way it is with fishing. You start out, you tumble a little bit and you get smoother. You start winning a little bit and you get smoother and smoother until you know seasonal patterns. You know, you don't spend a lot of time looking in places where there's not fish. There's nothing hard about fishing. The hardest thing is finding the fish.

Connie: We've been married 30 years, and he still gets as excited over the first fish as he did the last one.

Who do you admire as a fisherman?

Jerry: I probably admire Rick Clunn more than any professional fisherman ever. He's a gentleman. Rick is a quiet fisherman. When you're on the water with him, he doesn't talk much to you until you get off. The reason is, when a tournament director calls his boat number, from that moment on he's punched his clock. That's the reason that he's so successful. I've known him since 1985 and I've never known the man to say a harsh word about anybody, and I've never heard anybody say anything bad about him. He's just a great, great guy. Rick Clunn is a thinker. Honestly, he thinks like a fish.

What do you think of the new, young anglers who are making their mark on tour?

Jerry: They can pick up a magazine now and they can learn what I and all the guys who are over 45 years old - who have been fishing for many, many years - had to learn on our own. My first depth finder was a 12-inch cinder block and a rope. Nowadays, they've got GPS and everything. What fishing has evolved into is a science. See, I know what Jerry Stakely knows. As I came up, this guy out in California named Dee Thomas came up with flipping, around `74 or `75, and he got it down to a science. I jumped on it like a hen on a June bug because I absolutely love shallow water. Until then, I was basically a shallow-water spinnerbait fisherman. When I got that flipping stick in my hand, man, it was Katie bar the door. But I had a lot of problems in tournaments, too, because I'd draw some guy who'd never heard of flipping.

Tell me what it's like to work for the world's leading competitive bass fishing organization.

Connie: The people at Operation Bass are wonderful. They are the people we've grown up with and still work with. It takes the whole organization, from the bottom to the top, to make it work. And it's been that way since day one.

Jerry: Charlie Evans is probably the most knowledgeable man in this industry. He knows more about it than anybody, I guarantee it. He has all my respect in the world. He's a great boss. Kathy (Fennel) and Charlie Hoover are fantastic, too. All of our people are.

Connie: The tournament directors are a very, very close knit group. All the tournament directors love their part of the trail as much as we love ours.

How many miles have you driven, going from tournament to tournament?

Jerry: Oh, I don't know, probably 60,000 a year.

How many cars have you gone through?

Jerry: Thank goodness for Chevrolet. I'd say probably 25 Suburbans. We've got a lot to be thankful for. Our sponsors help us out a lot. We get to ride in a new truck constantly, a new boat constantly. That's worth a lot of money. You go out and buy these things, I'm guessing you could add close to $20,000 a year on my salary.

How do you deal with traveling so much? Ever drive each other crazy?

Jerry: I'd like to do a tournament every week. If it was physically possible, I would. But I've got my daughter at home, and I need to see my son once in a while. Connie and I are together constantly. That, in itself, is a blessing, but it's also a curse. When I'm at home and you try to call me, you won't find me at my house. And she has never said a word. You know, I go fishing, or I take off and go somewhere for two or three days, or whatever, she never says anything. The same for her. If she goes to Tennessee or California or wherever, we have to have our separate time, too. But we work together. That's not saying we get along all the time because we don't. That'd be a lie. I don't know anybody that does.

Connie: But he is my best friend. We've always respected each other's privacy. And we've always had OUR time. You've got to love fishing to travel as much as we do.

You mentioned your kids, Jeremy and Brianne. How was it for them growing up in a bass fishing family?

Jerry: My daughter could do any job at the tournament. She's smart. She's got it all together. My son is very intelligent also, but he never cared a lot about fishing because it took his dad away from him a lot.

Connie: He loves golf.

Jerry: He was doing check-in one time, one guy came in late and, because he was a kid, he was going to try and buffalo him a little bit. He said, "I've got my dad's watch. It says you're late. If you want to talk to anybody else about it you've got to go see my dad." And he was probably just about 13 or 14 years old.

Connie: He idolizes his father. They worship Dad. We're a very close family. They may have had some "missing Mom and Dad," but the fishing industry has been good for the family.

How much longer are you guys going to do this?

Connie: As long as we can.

Jerry: I can't see being retired. If you love something, why would you want to quit it?

Tags: jeff-schroeder  article 

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