UPCOMING EVENT: Costa FLW Series - 2019 - Potomac River

FISHING LEAGUE WORLDWIDE

Making a Mark

Making a Mark
That's not rain on Shepard's face, those are tears of joy. He quit his job as a subcontractor last year specifically so he could fish the EverStart Series.

He gave up a steady job to cast his lot in competitive fishing; now Mark Shepard is living the dream.

Already drenched from a daylong deluge, Mark Shepard added a steady flow of tears down his cheeks when he realized that his 20-pound, 5-ounce limit of Lake Eufaula largemouths would not be beaten. The 35-year-old Florida pro, who left a steady job of nine years in 1999 to pursue a career in professional bass fishing, had just won the 2001 EverStart Series tournament on Lake Eufaula - only the second EverStart event he had entered.

Shepard's final-day weight beat out stiff competition on the only day in EverStart Series history when every angler - including pros and co-anglers - brought in a five-fish limit. Conditions were dreadful, with pounding rains and more than a little lightning. "I couldn't see 15 feet in front of me," Shepard said.

The bass were biting and biting well, however. Shepard's fish, which were holding in very shallow grass, were kicking up wakes "like sharks" when they went after his baits. "I just put up my hood and fished," he said.

Shepard knew he had a good bag of fish as he rode back to the ramp in a steady downpour, but he did not know whether it would be enough. The top-10 field included three former EverStart Series tournament winners, and all 10 anglers had brought in limits of quality bass the previous day.

"I was in total shock," said Shepard, of the moment he realized he had won. "It was a dream come true for me. I have always been fairly consistent and had a second and some top-10 finishes in Red Man tournaments, but I had never gotten a win."

Brother to brother

Shepard actually began fishing tournaments with his brother, best friend and lifelong fishing buddy, Chris. The Shepard brothers, who lived in Ohio when they got into competitive bass fishing, began fishing the Buckeye Division of the Red Man Tournament Trail five years ago.

Mark Shepard left a steady job in 1999 to pursue a career in professional bass fishing.After several high Red Man finishes, Mark qualified to fish the EverStart Series in 1997. He couldn't get enough time off work, however, to make the longer trips and invest the practice time that would be necessary for success, so he had to pass on the opportunity. Mark also had to have surgery, which kept him out of tournament fishing through most of 1999. But later that year, Mark and Chris decided to chase their dream. Mark left his job and Chris left a good business so the pair could move to Florida together and begin a new business installing hurricane shutters - a vocation that allowed them time off to fish the Red Man (now Wal-Mart BFL) Gator Division.

"I just left it in the hands of the Lord. I went ahead and got my subcontractors permit and began working with Chris," Mark said. "We enjoy working together, and he has been my fishing partner since I was old enough to fish."

Mark qualified to fish the EverStart Series a second time by ranking 19th in the Gator Division in 2000. This time he decided to take the big plunge. He left the contracting work in his brother's hands and devoted his time to the EverStart Series and to building another family business, Awesome Bait Company. So far, things have gone very well.

"I've really been blessed this year," Shepard said. "I want to continue to work hard and strive to do the best I can. I know this is the thing that I want to do."

Carving a niche

With his win at Eufaula and a No. 40 season ranking (despite missing one of four events due to illness), Shepard is carving his place among EverStart pros, but that's not the extent of his carving. For years, Shepard has enjoyed carving and painting crankbaits, and over the past five years, he and another pro, Kenny Pincombe of Ohio, have become much more serious about designing baits.

Shepard's stepfather, Paul Kaptis of Boynton Beach, Fla., took the lead in getting Awesome Bait Company off the ground in January 2000. Kaptis also fishes the Wal-Mart BFL Gator Division, and has fished the EverStart Series and Wal-Mart FLW Tour on the co-angler side.

While Shepard loves to carve crankbaits, he does not categorize himself as a crankbait fisherman. In fact, he does not categorize himself at all. "There's not a kind of bass lure made that I don't like to fish," he said.

"Even though I make crankbaits and enjoy fishing crankbaits, I really try to keep an open mind. I try to pick the best tool for the job. Look at the front deck of my boat anytime and every rod has a different kind of lure on it."

Spinnerbaits and plastic lizards were Shepard's mainstay baits at Eufaula. But he says that he starts out throwing everything and lets the fish decide. When he starts getting bites, though, Shepard isn't always content that he has found the right bait.

Shepard is now cashing in on the EverStart Series with quality bass like the ones he is holding."I try everything I have that's like a particular lure - in a different color or different size - to see if something else is even better."

Shepard is not worried about becoming a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

"I think that it has helped me a lot to never bet on a single bait. I also don't want to miss out on any style of fishing. It's all fun to do."

Beyond liking a big range of lure types, Shepard likes all kinds of water, which has been a big part of the fun of fishing professionally for him, especially since he began fishing the EverStart Series this year. Previously, he had mostly fished for bass in Indiana, Ohio and Florida, so legendary bass lakes like Eufaula and the Santee Cooper lakes have brought him brand new experiences.

"Every tournament is a steppingstone," he said. "We fish all different kinds of bodies of water, and each one helps me learn about different factors and conditions. There is never a tournament where I don't learn a lot, and I love seeing so many beautiful places. I also really enjoy the fellowship of the other anglers."

While Shepard is very serious about his fishing, tournament angling and the tour lifestyle are clearly fun for him.

Always learning

Born and raised in Fairfield, Ohio, Shepard learned to fish from the banks of a family farm pond. "My mom and grandfather loved to fish, so I was probably 3 or 4 years old when I started to fish," Shepard said.

Chris also loved to fish and, being 10 years older than his brother, he took Mark with him whenever he went. Mark and Chris spent every waking hour that they could "burning up farm ponds."

Mark Shepard receives an emotional hug from his pal, Frank Allen, after winning the EverStart Series tournament on Lake Eufaula.Shepard's family moved to Fort Pierce, Fla., while he was growing up and bought a small resort on Hutchinson Island. At the time, Mark's focus turned largely to saltwater for several years. He also gained access to some very good private bass waters while he lived in Florida. While the teenaged Shepard didn't know that he was studying for what would someday be his career, the private lakes' abundant bass populations made them very good training grounds.

Shepard didn't have any significant exposure to competitive bass fishing until he moved back to Ohio as a young adult. That's when he met some folks who fished Red Man and had the opportunity to try his hand at tournament fishing.

"It's been my whole world ever since," he said.

Shepard had acquired good technical skills by the time he began fishing tournaments and could catch fish much of the time. On the trail, though, the learning curve took a sharp upward turn. Other tournament anglers taught him a lot about how to locate and pattern bass and deal with ever-changing conditions. He also began learning about tournament strategies and about things like handling fish when money and points are on the line.

Shepard always looks for patterns before he worries much about specific spots. "I try to find what they are relating to, whether it's laydowns or grass or whatever, and then I seek out all the places I can find that are similar. From there, I'll try to pinpoint the stronger spots."

"If you love the sport, you never stop learning," said Shepard, who has an outstanding "classroom" just down the road from his home in La Belle, Fla. "I spend a lot of time on Lake Okeechobee. That's where I do my practice fishing. Time on the water helps everyone."

Most top pros have a fabulous bass lake close to home, and few waterways have spawned more great bass fishermen than expansive Lake Okeechobee.

Shepard has also found good opportunities to pass on some of what he has learned both on and off the EverStart Series. He enjoys doing bass fishing seminars and has even gotten to tap into his saltwater experience in some seminars he has conducted during the past year.

Shepard, who aspires to fish the Wal-Mart FLW Tour someday, stressed his appreciation for Operation Bass. He thinks the company's tournament trail structure is outstanding. "It gives the opportunity for a working man to change his entire life," Shepard said.

Shepard proudly holds the trophy he won in just his second EverStart tournament.After the Eufaula tournament, which clearly changed Shepard's life, he drove straight to his grandmother's house in Florida. Her home had been his last stop on the way to Eufaula, and he had dedicated the tournament to her in appreciation of her longtime support.

"I had told her that I hoped for a good finish, but that it would be a good tournament no matter what because I would learn a lot," Shepard said. "When I brought that trophy back, the tears really flowed."

Shepard's grandmother and many other friends and family members have in many ways shared the load as Shepard has sought to make the grade in professional bass fishing. And he gives them a big share of the credit for his success.

Tags: jeff-samsel  magazine-features 

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