The notion of ditching the desk job and pursuing a career as a full-time professional bass fisherman is an inviting one for many anglers. What could be a better way to make a living than by fishing in high-stakes tournaments on lakes and rivers throughout the country? It’s a great job, admits John Crews, but it’s not quite as glamorous as it may seem.
“There’s no guarantee you’ll earn a dime fishing tournaments, but you are going to spend a lot of money trying,” he said. “It took me a couple of years before I really started making enough money through tournament winnings to pay my bills. During that time, I found myself wondering if it was really worth it.”
Crews, a fixture on the Bassmaster Elite series tour and a four-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier, eventually did start earning some good paychecks. Now works with several sponsors who supplement his income. But life on the tournament trail is a hard one, and many anglers don’t make it.
The cost of running a professional fishing business is expensive. Tournament entry fees alone can run anywhere from about $1,000 for mid-level events up to $5,000 for the highest and most prestigious tournaments. Crews figures he spends an average of $1,000 to $1,500 per tournament for various expenses like motels, food, gas, and vehicle and boat upkeep. The cost of a high-quality boat alone can run $40,000 or more.
“I might not even get a check even though I spent all that money,” he says.
When a professional angler does win, however, the pay-off can be impressive. For most top-level tournaments, the winner can receive as much as $200,000. Last year, Arkansas angler Scott Suggs won $1 million in the Forrest Wood Cup. But for every angler that wins a tournament, there are hundreds more who go home with less money in their pockets than when they left. Crews figures fewer than 100 professional anglers actually make an honest living—enough to pay all their bills and have a little left over. Countless others fish until their bank accounts run dry and their credit card are maxed before calling it quits and going back to their former lives.
Others simply realize what the life of a professional bass fisherman really entails. The grueling schedule, the lonely hours on the road and the time away from families can take its toll. During the height of the tournament season, it’s not unusual for an angler to be away from home a month, even two, at a time.
Crews figures he drives 40,000 miles per season to tournaments all over the country. He said he doesn’t mind the road time, unless the event he’s traveling to is two or three days away. Once he gets there, however, he realizes why he does it.
“I really love the fact that I get to fish new water and go to new places all the time. I think one of the things I really like is the challenge of figuring out how to catch bass under different conditions,” he said. “I’ve also been to Europe twice to fish in tournaments over there. That was a great experience.”
He also likes meeting new people, especially fans who follow his tournament results and enjoys talking about fishing with like-minded people. He has a loyal following among young anglers, and Crews gladly spends time talking to children about his career.
“I also get to hang out with and fish against the people I idolized when I was growing up. It’s really cool to compete against the best anglers in the world,” he said.
It’s even better when he beats them, something he’s able to do more of these days as he gains more experience. Professional bass fishing is highly competitive and it can be a tough way to make a living, but Crews says it’s a good life for those who succeed.
“There’s always room for good anglers on the professional circuits, but it’s definitely getting more competitive. The anglers who consistently place high in tournaments are very good fishermen and so are many of the anglers who are just getting into it,” adds Crews. “I always tell people to go for it, especially if there is no family or career that has to be sacrificed. If you don’t at least try, you’ll never know what could have happened.”