Forestville, WI – There’s no doubt professional anglers and weekend warriors are both feeling the sting of inflation these days. With gas prices still hovering around $4 per gallon, and food and lodging significantly more costly than last year, you can bet just about every tournament angler is reeling from the bites taken out of their bottom line.
At the same time, many are rising to the challenge by increasing efficiency, cutting expenses, and plugging the leaks. That, says Patrick Neu, president of the National Professional Anglers Association (NPAA), is exactly what it takes to not only survive in the recreational fishing industry, but to thrive.
“In short,” he says, “you need to increase your professionalism to stay afloat. A great way to do just that is follow the lead of NPAA members who are making the grade.”
Consider 27-year-old Isaac Lakich from Richfield, Wisconsin. The full-time angler fishes traveling walleye tournaments–including the National Walleye Tour (NWT)–and is also a full-time guide.
“I got my start through the tourney world, but decided to diversify as the economy began to slip at the start of the pandemic,” Lakich says. “That’s an important part of being a tournament pro – keeping an eye on the horizon and reacting swiftly to changes in the game.”
As a relatively young professional angler, Lakich may not have the most experience among circuit regulars, but his age provides an advantage when understanding the latest electronic technology.
“In addition to guiding clients for walleye, I’ve started offering on-the-water electronics lessons,” says Lakich. “It has been a great move so far and I’m on pace to book 75 electronics trips for the year.”
In staying ahead of the curve, Lakich advises other aspiring angling pros to recognize that if your sponsor contracts don’t increase from year-to-year, you’re losing ground.
“Each year, I renegotiate my contracts and request a cost-of-living increase–plus a little extra–because I’m more experienced and better able to represent my sponsors. It’s early August now and I’m already cutting next year’s deals. That extra 5- to 8-percent you might get helps cover increasing costs,” Isaac says. “For me to stay in business, I need to maintain my standard of living. I’m a professional and I need to charge professional prices–so do you.”
While Lakich seems to be hitting full stride in his professional endeavors, NPAA member John Crews, 44, of Salem, Virginia, has been fishing at the highest levels for 20 years now. The full-time bass tournament angler has qualified for 14 Bassmaster Classics, won two Bassmaster Elite series events, and ran his own lure company, Missile Baits, for over a decade.
“I’m sure this economy is putting the most hurt on anglers who are new to the trail, but it stings for all of us to some degree,” reveals Crews. “No matter what level you fish in the tournament world, your expenses are always increasing. For a professional bass angler, entry fees are usually your biggest expense, with fuel costs generally number two – more than lodging expenses or truck costs on a yearly basis.”
To keep your head above water, Crews suggests cutting expenses wherever possible. “Rather than eating out every night on the road,” he advises, “Hit the grocery store and stock-up for a few days. Also, look for lower-cost lodging. You don’t have to stay in a flea-bag hotel, but there’s nothing wrong with midrange options.”
At the same time, it’s important to not skimp on tackle, lures or electronics. Those, Crews points out, are the professional tools you need to succeed – so bite the bullet elsewhere. You can also help keep things in check by being a little more selective as to which tournaments to fish, cutting down on travel, and by staying with friends or splitting a room with other anglers.
“We all go through some rough times when climbing the ladder,” says Crews with a chuckle. “When it comes to saving money, you name it and I have done it.”
Which is exactly what NPAA member Griffin Fernandes is trying to do. At 22, you might think of him as a newcomer to the tourney trail, but he started fishing the junior circuit at 13, excelled on his high school team, and helped lead Michigan’s Adrian College to the 2021 Bassmaster College Series National Championship. Chat with him personally and you’ll discover a surprisingly seasoned professional angler.
“I was fortunate to get off to a strong start in tournament fishing at the college level because Adrian College paid for a lot of our expenses. They covered our gas, lodging and food, and we had school trucks and school boats to use,” Fernandes says. “It was a great experience.”
Now that he’s graduated, Griffin is doing all he can to keep expenses low, while fishing regional Buckeye Fishing League (BFL) events.
“I’m saving money by living with my parents,” he says, “and I’m trying to keep my expenses under $500 per tourney. That breaks down to two boat and truck gas fills, plus entry fees. I usually lodge with a group of friends that travel the circuit together. We’ll buy two small pizzas for dinner and split up any leftovers for lunch on our boats.”
Fernandes says that fishing events that are close to home and on smaller waters equates to big savings on lodging, gas and entry fees.
“The larger tourneys can put you in the hole $500 to $700 dollars before you’ve even made a cast,” he notes. “They’re great if you can afford them, and I aspire to compete at the highest levels, but I’m just not there yet. I plan to take my time, building up an emergency fund, and monitoring my tournament performances before jumping in head-first.”
One tip Fernandes offers for anyone thinking about launching a professional career in the recreational fishing industry – whether joining the professional trail or some other fishing related occupation – is joining NPAA.
“I attended the 2019 conference at the suggestion of my college coach,” he recalls. “It turned out to be a great opportunity to meet and introduce myself to significant movers and manufacturers in the industry. Now I have those connections, so I’m not a blank page when I’m looking to jump to the next level. Talking to more senior members of the organization also helped me realize that I don’t need to rush. It opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about professional fishing and staying on track. That help has been invaluable, both in learning to be patient and in looking ahead to my fishing future.”
Lakich agrees with Fernandes’ NPAA assessment. “The NPAA has given me quite a few professional contacts over the years, and these have proved invaluable. I’ve met several people that have already gone to bat for me when I needed someone with more tenure in the industry to vouch for my abilities, strengths and character. Having that core NPAA group support is a really great membership perk.”
As for Crews, he’s enjoyed the benefits of being an NPAA member and is happy to be in a position to return the favor. “It’s amazing how much even veteran anglers can learn when comparing notes with other members. It’s also important to give back to the sport and fishing community by sharing your knowledge and experience with others who are chasing their dreams,” he states. “I try to support the NPAA as much as possible. It’s a terrific organization with the potential to help a lot of people succeed in this industry.”
For information on joining the NPAA and exploring the many benefits of membership, visit www.npaa.net.