Bass pros fish for a living. What could be better, right? Sit down with a professional angler at a boat show, and it comes out that they do enjoy their gig, mainly because they genuinely love to fish. One perk of the job is that the tournament season doesn’t run all year long, so they do have a true offseason. Part of that offseason is preparing for next year’s season, but there’s also time for getting on the water for fun.
We talked to several members of the Mercury Pro Team to discuss the offseason and what it means to them.
When is the Offseason?
Top-level tournament seasons kick off in late January to early February, usually in the warm Florida or south Texas climates, and run through August of September. That scheduling leaves a good four to five months without tournaments.
Typically, the offseason period for professional anglers is from September until January.
The Key Offseason Fundamentals
Organizing all the gear and properly rigging the next season’s boat is an important step. According to Bassmaster Elite Series pro Brandon Cobb of Greenwood, South Carolina, professionals at this level have this process down to a science.
“Off-season tackle organization is one of biggest tasks that pay huge dividends throughout the following season,” notes the two-time Bassmaster Elite Series winner. “Starting the year out with everything restocked and ready is critical. To do that, I pretty much inventory everything I have and make a list of staples I need to re-order.”
The following year’s schedule is published toward the final month of the current season, so at that point, anglers begin their preparations for the next season. New lakes on the schedule are often visited in a “pre-practice” scouting trip.
Map study and internet research also take up a lot of time for the pros. Once a tournament destination is known to the angler, information-gathering opportunities are limited to publicly-available data. Tournament rules prohibit calling up local anglers or guides is against the rules. These restrictions have elevated the importance of map study and research over the years.
Boat Shows and Seminars
As the calendar turns to the next year, boat show season gets into full swing. The pros had a couple of years off from them due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’re back in relative full swing now. Most boat company contracts call for a certain number of work days, and local and regional boat shows are the primary focus of those days.
Staying in Shape
Many pros adhere to a fitness routine when not on the road. David Dudley of Lynchburg, Virginia, four-time FLW Angler of the Year, focuses heavily on staying in shape during the offseason, both physically and in his fishing.
“I play a lot of racquetball and do Zumba classes at the YMCA in the offseason. These have nothing to do with fishing, but they keep me in physical shape. I take my racquetball equipment with me on the road, too. We deal with a lot of stress in tournament fishing, so these activities not only keep me in shape, but they help me decompress.”
To keep his fishing skills sharp, Dudley goes fishing, but not for bass.
“If I go bass fishing, catching 10 to 15 is a good day, but if I fish the Outer Banks in North Carolina, I can catch 100 fish a day, whether that be trout or drum. If I go crappie fishing on Kerr Reservoir, I might catch 150 in a day. I believe crappie are the best fish to train on. Figuring out what they want to bite, feeling the bite, and setting the hook really keeps me sharp in the offseason.
Fishing “Old School”
Brandon Cobb is a pro who definitely enjoys his time off but is constantly learning by fishing, too.
“During the offseason, I fish in saltwater some, mostly in-shore. I prefer to take it easy on those trips, sleep in, and then fish some. I realize this is my off time, so I purposefully do not try too hard.
“I do a lot of small boat fishing around home. I have a 15-foot aluminum boat with a custom plywood deck and a Mercury 15 hp tiller on it. I fish in it more than my big boat, and I fish in a lot of places you can’t reach in a fiberglass rig. The boat doesn’t have a depth finder, which has made me understand shallow water fishing much more. I have learned there are fish living in very shallow water.“
Several pros maintain a YouTube channel, and their content mirrors the type of fishing they’re involved in during the year. Two-time Bassmaster winner Brandon Lester of Fayetteville, Tennessee, posts bass content during the season, but his favorite videos to self-film are crappie fishing in the colder months.
“I agree with David Dudley about the benefits of crappie fishing to stay in fishing shape, but I also just really, really enjoy fishing for them. We love to eat them, too. It’s funny, the subscribers on my channel prefer the crappie videos over everything else. I try to offer tips on techniques I use for catching them and how I use my forward-facing sonar. They’re my favorite videos to make, too.”
Fellow Tennessean Ott DeFoe of Knoxville also films for his channel during the offseason and, in recent years, has added hunting to his list of offseason pursuits.
“I didn’t grow up hunting but have picked up waterfowl, deer, and turkey hunting through taking my kids, and now I love it. I am obsessed,” explains the 2019 Bassmaster Classic Champion and four-time Bass Pro Tour winner. “My aluminum Tracker and Mercury 60 hp jet drive motor comes in really handy when waterfowl hunting.”
Of the pros we talked to about their favorite offseason pursuits, hunting was the top response, so DeFoe is in good company.
Anglers at this level tend to be adept at hunting as well as fishing, and many feel like they feed off each other.
“Deer and bass tend to move in similar fashions with the seasons and patterning them is important for success,” in Lester’s opinion. “Time in the woods helps me fish better and it helps me clear my head after a long fishing season. Once deer season is over, I am about ready to fish tournaments again.
One of the hardest-working anglers in the game is veteran Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour angler Randy Howell of Guntersville, Alabama.
“Fishing competitively is what I have always wanted to do for a living,” recalls the 2014 Bassmaster Classic Champion, “I learned early in my career that fishing is indeed a job and must be treated like one, or else things get out of balance. There’s a balance between enjoying a day of fishing and realizing a bad day of tournament fishing can let a lot of people down. Friends, family, sponsors, and fans are rooting for me out there, and when I do well, it makes them proud and makes the sponsor’s products look good. So, to be the best I can be takes maximum effort – all year.”
Howell has a particular group of people with a vested interest cheering for him to do well, too.
“Of all the activities of the offseason, the most rewarding and most time-intensive is our annual Kings Home Boat Giveaway, which Mercury supports in a big way. Each season we auction my tournament boat, and the proceeds go to support this non-profit that provides homes and services to meet the needs of abused women, children, and families. I make sure the boat is ready to go to the winner and work as hard as possible to raise awareness for Kings Home through the giveaway. It’s a lot of work, but it is absolutely worth it.”
Many pros are in high demand for guide trips once they return home from the tournament trail. Often the only guiding that touring pros do are promotional trips with sponsors or fishing with fans that won giveaway trips. But, there are several who are also professional guides. One such angler is Mercury Pro Ryan Salzman of Huntsville, Alabama. Salzman holds a 100-ton master captains license with the U.S. Coast Guard.
Salzman guides on the Tennessee River, primarily Lake Guntersville and Pickwick Lake, and runs trips on Wilson Lake and Wheeler Lake.
“I got my license and started guiding in 2011; I just threw myself into it. I started fishing tournaments in 2008, got my first boat in 2010, and then began guiding. It has made me a much better angler. Guiding and tournaments are both about finding fish every day, so I say guiding has helped my tournament success.”
Case in point, Salzman earned a Bass Pro Tour win in 2022, fishing the Watts Bar dam, a few lakes upstream from Guntersville, also on the Tennessee River.
“When I guide on the Tennessee River, we fish a lot above dams and in the tailraces. That Bass Pro Tour win is in many ways due to all the hours I have spent guiding on this river. I like fishing around concrete!”
Salzman also guides during the season, when not on the road fishing a tournament, in addition to guiding after the season. His only slow month is typically January, when he has two or three trips.
So, how “successful” are the offseasons of these Mercury Pro Team anglers in terms of preparing them for the 2023 season? We will find out as the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour and Bassmaster Elite Series seasons kick off their new seasons in February in Florida. For more, visit www.majorleaguefishing.com and www.bassmaster.com.