By Pete Robbins
Want to become a doctor? Go to medical school.
Want to be an attorney? Go to law school.
What about pro bass fishing? Becoming a top Major League Fishing pro is more like becoming a pop star, requiring a combination of skill, marketing, financial backing and a bit of luck. And it's often a long road to the top if you want to rock and roll.
It might be easier if there was a recipe, but the lack of structure allows aspiring competitors to forge unique trails. You can hit every rung of the ladder on the ascent or you can toil in relative obscurity before reaching the sport's collective consciousness. Bass fishing pro Zack Birge took the former route while Fletcher Shryock took the latter, and both MLF competitors have become stars. Despite their differences, their routes aren't as disparate as they might seem. Both pros combined exceptional talent, passion for the sport, and business savvy to launch their careers.
DIFFERENT PATHS, SIMILAR BUSINESSES
Birge grew up fishing his local big river, a "river rat" who moved to a neighboring state at 14 and thereby gained access to a wider range of waters. Then he won a collegiate fishing championship. In 2014, he won a AAA-level title, and then in 2015 he was a tour-level Rookie of the Year. Step by step, he became a known commodity.
Shryock pursued a professional motocross career for many years, fishing only recreationally. When injuries ended that dream, he tried professional angling. Unlike others who toiled at lower levels before dipping toes in big league waters, Shryock won his second professional event and finished 11th in the next one. Those results qualified him for a major championship and a tour.
Of course, everyone wants immediate success, but there are downsides to it, too. While Birge gained some sponsorship support, Shryock barely knew anyone. Major events typically cost several thousand dollars apiece. Travel expenses can raise the annual bill to six figures. Fishing excellence is a non-negotiable part of success, but without financial backing an angling career is a non-starter.
Much of Birge's fishing education was free. "In college, we got to travel and fish all different lakes and all different times of year at the school's expense," he said.
Subsequently, he worked enough to "get by for a year on tour." His AAA-level win meant he didn't have to worry about whether missing a single check would put him behind the eight ball. It also allowed him to be picky adding sponsors.
Shryock experienced that trap during his motocross days. "I learned how not to do it," he joked.
He'd written letters as a teenager to motorsports companies and received product discounts. As he ascended the ranks, he saw that others were making bank with those companies, but he was stuck with a decal and a dream.
"That taught me that if you give it away, where do you go from there?" he noted.
On his first pro fishing campaign, he paid for his wrap himself (despite offers from several companies) and inscribed the names of his "partners" on the rub rail. "That's not playing hardball," he said. If you're desperate for a deal, you'll sell yourself short.
FISHING EXCELLENCE IS KEY
All the financial backing in the world doesn't help if you can't catch fish. Despite his extensive experience, as a rookie Birge felt disadvantaged fishing against veterans. "You just have to fish against the fish and keep it off your mind," he said. "You're already beat if you go out there with that on your mind."
The key is to excel where you have experience, strive to master new scenarios as quickly as possible, and build for the next campaign.
"You have to get knocked down before you start to learn," Shryock added. "There are so many different areas of the country and each place we go has its own little nuances of forage and baits and cover."
He added that it's critical to stay abreast of not only fundamentals, but each new strategy that emerges. At the same time, while you need to be able to drop-shot with light fluorocarbon and flip heavy braid, he feels that his weakness has been his "jack of all trades" approach. "Where I live, you just kind of junk-fish around, but that doesn't win you four-day tournaments. You have to be good at everything, but also excel at something so that when that bite is on you can expect to do well."
A THIRD PATH
Birge came up through the college ranks and Shryock endured a trial by fire, but there's another path that combines less financial commitment with tremendous opportunities to test yourself — fishing as a co-angler.
"It's not about being a winner — it's about learning as much as you can," Shryock said. "I wouldn't change the way I did it, but it would have been very beneficial. It costs virtually nothing and you gain valuable lessons just by being there, even if you don't catch a fish."
Many talented co-anglers make the transition to pro status when their skills and finances develop. Some of them travel with a pro for several years, spending practice periods in that pro's boat, helping him break down waters while gaining insight into how the best in the business excel.
Birge recommends that aspiring anglers get a college education, not just to fish collegiately but also to prepare them for the rigors of running a business. He studied wind turbine technology, but wishes he had majored in marketing
It's easy to become unbalanced without someone to take care of basic errands and tasks during the 200-plus days a year you are away. Birge's wife travels with him, and she's a "huge help keeping everything organized," he said. Shryock travels in a camper to avoid the hassles of hotels. Even if you travel "alone," it's important to have a network of friends. Some share information, but no matter what, having company and someone who can help in an emergency or help splitting expenses is critical.
Camaraderie can be a huge part of staying mentally balanced. Birge, who fished "every weekend, from daylight to dark" in his pre-professional years, said that the hardest part of becoming a professional wasn't fishing or finances, but rather learning to deal with disappointment.
"I'd always been good enough to get to the next level, but this year has been the worst year that I've had. I had two good events and won a tournament, but I had four bad ones. It's humbling. I still want to do better every time."
Physical fitness is also important. Birge noted. "You need to pay attention to what you eat. You need to think about it and plan ahead. We try to rent houses so we can cook healthy."
Shryock said that racing is more physically demanding than fishing, but he's found fitness to be key for both putting in long days of practice and in attracting sponsors, many of whom are not attracted to big-bellied good old boys. Most important, he said, you need to ensure that both your mind and body are fresh.
"I personally do better with less time on the water and more time sleeping," he said. "You may not realize it during practice, but if you don't get enough sleep, your mind becomes foggy come tournament time."
Ultimately, this is a career where success is born of passion. If you can't blank one day and then believe you're going to catch a big bag the next, this is not the career for you. If you see monster waves and would rather crawl back into bed than cross the lake in search of 5-pounders, then go back to fishing on the weekend.
"The guys that set out with the goal of becoming a pro sometimes have it wrong," Shryock concluded. "It can take the fun out of it. When you really enjoy something, that's when you're at your best. My only goal when I started was to see how far I could take it. I competed because I loved to do it."