November 15, 2012
What's it take to make it on the bass tournament stage? Meet two Florida anglers who are looking to find out.
Donny Bass on the shallow grassflats of Lake Okeechobee. He's a Naples, FL handyman by trade.
Florida bass fishing is back in the national spotlight. Over the last few years, televised tournaments in Florida delivered footageof big fish and record weights across the country. The state is home to well credentialed professional anglers, including Roland and Scott Martin, Shaw Grigsby, Terry Scroggins, Chris and Bobby Lane. However, for every Roland Martin, there are thousands of anglers looking for their big break in the tournament scene.
What motivates many of these guys goes beyond cash and prizes; it's a passion for fishing and a thirst for challenge, nurtured by Florida's unique fisheries and seasons. As a journalist and competitive bass fisherman for years, I understand that passion. Recently I met up with two up-and-coming Florida anglers to reflect on the lifestyle and the future of competitive bass fishing.
If you were to examine tournament results from Lake Okeechobee for the past few decades, you would almost always see a McMillan near the top. Brandon, his father, siblings and uncles have been a force to reckon with on the Big O for years. Brandon is now preparing to fish his first season as a full-time professional on the 2013 FLW Tour (named for Forrest L. Wood, founder of Ranger Boats). His rise to the top has been filled with hard work, dedication, tragedy and an every-guy mentality.
The McMillan family has been in the Lake Okeechobee area since the 1930s and much of that time was spent on the lake fishing for bass. When asked about his first tournament, Brandon, 29, said, “It must have been when I was eight or nine years old. I have been doing this for over 20 years now. It's just something we always did.”
His education on the water made him realize that he wanted to be a professional angler more than anything. “It's something that has always been a dream of mine, but I honestly never thought it would come true,” he said. This last year has been one of the hardest years of Brandon's life. On January 2, 2012, Brandon's father, Jimmy McMillan, was murdered in an attempted robbery while working at the family convenience store. The loss was obviously a huge blow to family, friends and the Belle Glade community, but in a way, the experience pushed Brandon to reevaluate priorities and move forward with his dream of becoming
a professional angler.
“With everything that happened this year, I started to think that now is the time,” he said. “I also wanted to find a way to kind of get away from everything that happened here.”
Brandon had tasted victory on a national level in 2011 when the FLW Tour Open visited Lake Okeechobee. He won the tournament, fishing against some of the world's best bass anglers and took home a $125,000 prize. He also set a record for the heaviest winning tournament weight in FLW Outdoors history: 25 pounds, 7 ounces, for a five-bass limit. This, along with the prize money gave him the confidence that he had what it takes to fish against the best. In 2012, he had tremendous success on the EverStart series, which is one of the qualifying routes to the FLW Tour. He finished 2nd in points for the Southeast Division and won an event on Lake Seminole on the Florida-Georgia border. His finish for the season earned him entrance into the big show. The coming season, 2013, will be his first on the national tour, but Brandon had already qualified last year but chose to pass on the opportunity.
McMillan with Lake O Winnings,2011 FLW Open
“Now is the time to go for it. My wife is behind me and I feel like I am ready,” he said.
Professional bass fishing is an expensive venture. Brandon estimates that to fish the entire national tour, it will cost sixty-five to seventy thousand dollars to fund entry fees and expenses. He has a sponsor list that includes Ranger Boats, Evinrude, PowerPole, Halo Fishing and 4X4 Jigs, but the majority of the season will be funded out of his own pocket, with money saved up from past tournament wins. In a way, he is gambling with house money and going all-in.
Brandon works for UPS and delivers packages in the area surrounding Lake Okeechobee. He has been there seven years and is contemplating what to do with his career. Tournament bass fishing can be a feast or famine profession and Brandon is torn between a life of stability and the risk of going for it. He plans to try to work with his employer so he can get the time off that is needed, but ultimately fishing is his dream and he believes now is the time.
You may not have heard of Donny Bass, but no doubt you've met someone like him: the guy who launches on your local lake, competes in monthly bass club tournaments, and talks in certain circles about fishing for a living. Donny Bass, of Naples, has the drive to make it happen.
Donny grew up in Cross City and has fished his entire life. Bass fishing and saltwater fishing were twin passions, until he started tournament fishing for inshore species and fished for bass less and less. A common theme among inshore tournament anglers is that many of them grew up fishing for bass and often competed in bass tournaments before heading to the saltwater circuits. Donny did it the other way around and started tournament bass fishing after having success in inshore tournaments along the Gulf Coast.
“I immediately loved the challenge of tournament bass fishing,” he said. “You can catch them so many different ways, unlike saltwater fishing where it's usually just a few techniques that produce.”
Once Donny decided to focus on bass fishing, he went for it. “I sold my saltwater boat, bought a bass boat right away and then joined a bass club. My wife thought I was going crazy.”
A handyman by profession, Donny operates his own business called Han-D-Man that caters to helping homeowners in Southwest Florida with projects large and small. This work has given Donny a flexible schedule, and he spends as much time as possible on Lake Okeechobee. He completes every one of his jobs as soon as he can, often working extended hours. The extra time and effort allow him to spend more time on the water pursuing his passion.
Donny Bass finds a nice fish.
Success has followed Donny along ranks of tournament bass fishing. Dominating club and federation events has given him hope that he can tackle the next step. Now, he must figure out how to make it work financially at the highest level.
Friends and fellow club members—the Big O Bassmasters of Moore Haven—recognized Donny's potential after seeing him win many of their tournaments.
“The guys wanted to see what I could do in a bigger tournament on Lake Okeechobee and started a collection to help me raise the $1,000 entry fee,” said Donny. He took the jump and ended up cashing a check in his first EverStart Tournament, within the national FLW structure.
The boost of confidence and the payday encouraged Donny to continue on the FLW trail and fish Lake Seminole, a lake he'd never even seen, much less fished. He traveled to the event the day after his wedding and nearly won it, ending up in fourth place. Once again, he won just enough money to make it to the next event. This continued all season and he had success along numerous lakes in the southeastern U.S.
Unlike many of his fellow competitors who had planned to fish the entire circuit and paid their entry fees in advance, Donny was depending on winning enough money to get him to the next event on the schedule, which also meant he had to hope that he was able to get into the tournaments at the last minute. Often, tournaments fill up or there is a lack of non-boaters, leaving some anglers at home instead of competing. Somehow he was able to get into the two remaining events that year and continue on. One bad finish and his season would have ended.
Donny's success at the local, state and regional level has only fueled his desire to compete at the higher level. He continues to fish as much as he can, runs his business and goes to sleep at night—like many other Floridians—dreaming of becoming a professional bass angler. FS
About Florida BASS Tournaments
Florida is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of bass fishing tournaments each year. They vary in size as well as entry fees. Formats also vary; there are team tournaments, individual tournaments and a pro/am style. With the numerous options available there is something for everyone regardless of experience or income.
The best way to get started is by joining a local bass club. Most cities have their own clubs that compete in lakes within a few hours from their city. Among the bass fishing clubs there is another distinction
that allows anglers to move up through the ranks. B.A.S.S. and FLW Outdoors both have their own version of bass federations, which are collections of bass clubs that aim to give the weekend angler the chance to compete at the next level up from the local clubs. To find a local club, interested anglers can search the Internet or find a listing of affiliated clubs on the B.A.S.S. or FLW websites.
FLW Outdoors is home to The Bass Federation (TBF), which is a national organization. B.A.S.S. has the Federation Nation. Both of these organizations have state chapters and hold tournaments designed to select the annual state team.
The state team is a collection of the best bass anglers from the federation each year. The organizations hold qualifying tournaments and have a state championship each season to choose the team, which then moves on to the regionals to compete against other states as well as to decide which two anglers from each state will make it to the nationals. At the nationals, the best two anglers from the region will advance. This could be the Bassmaster Classic or the BFL All-American. Both organizations also grant a berth into the professional ranks to the overall winner. With a good run of tournaments, anglers can advance from their local club all the way to the top.
The Bass Federation (TBF): bassfederation.com
FL TBF: floridabassfederation.com
B.A.S.S. Federation Nation: bassmaster.com/federation
FL Federation Nation: floridafederationnation.com
Both B.A.S.S. and FLW have their own weekend angler tournament series: the B.A.S.S. Weekend Series and the BFL (Bass Fishing League). Both have five qualifying tournaments and then advance the top anglers to the regional tournaments against divisions from other states. The top finishers at the regionals move on the nationals that can qualify weekend anglers for the Bassmaster Classic or BFL All-American.
Weekend Series: www.americanbassanglers.com/BWS/
Originally Published Florida Sportsman Oct. 2012
By Tyler Brinks