Tournament fishing satisfies the love of both competition and the outdoors
John Hunter grew up fishing Shelby County farm ponds with an uncle. When he caught his first bass, he was addicted.
“I would set my alarm to watch FLW or Bassmaster shows on the TV and then run out to the lake or the ponds and try to re-create everything,” he says.
When he was 17, he traded his dirt bike for a bass boat and started fishing in tournaments. He went to Georgetown College on a baseball scholarship, but after a year switched to the school’s bass fishing team.
Now, at 27, he has been a professional bass angler for five years. His winnings top $200,000. He is living the dream.
“What I love about it is not only do you get to be in the outdoors and experience such beautiful places,” he says, “but at heart I’m a competitive person and I get to express that.”
Now the boy who watched bass fishing on television has a YouTube channel—John Hunter Fishing—where others can watch his well-produced Limitless videos.
“A lot of people told me that professional bass fishing was never a possibility, but if you go at it with a limitless attitude, it’s amazing what you can accomplish in life,” he says.
Terry Bolton of Benton in Marshall County, a West Kentucky RECC consumer-member, has been a pro for almost as long as Hunter has been alive. He started entering tournaments in 1996. His career winnings top $1.3 million, and he has sponsors who have been with him during good times and bad.
One of his worst years was 2018. He says he spent too much time thinking about the $5,000 entry fees and the $2,000 in travel expenses and how he needed to take home a $10,000 check to make any money. He considered quitting, but decided to give it one more try. He expects 2019 to be his best year, with winnings topping $200,000.
“I just enjoyed the sunsets and sunrises,“ he says. “I had lost that, but this year I got it back.”
Not everyone who takes part in a bass fishing tournament makes a living from it, but the tournaments are increasingly popular.
“From Oklahoma to the East Coast, competitive bass fishing is a growing sport,” says Bill Taylor, senior director of tournament operations for Fishing League Worldwide, commonly known as FLW, which is based in Benton and bills itself as “the world’s largest fishing tournament organization.”
Competitiveness, camaraderie and careers
Ralph Feldman of Lancaster in Garrard County, who retired from Inter-County Energy after 32 years, is a good example of an amateur competitive bass angler.
“Yeah, I donate, I pay the fee,” Feldman jokes. “I don’t make money off of it, but I love to competitive fish. It’s the challenge of catching fish. They’ve got little brains, but they’re pretty smart.”
Greg Hansford of Liberty in Casey County, another Inter-County consumer-member, is director of the Kentucky South Central division of a Christian-based charity tournament group, Fishers of Men. On the Friday night before tournaments, participants meet at a local church, go over tournament instructions, and have a devotional and a meal. Hansford doesn’t fish in the tournaments he organizes, but he and his 14-year-old son, Taylor, compete in other Fishers of Men tournaments.
“There’s a lot of reasons I do it. I love the camaraderie, the Friday night meetings, I love hearing the speakers,” Hansford says. “It’s brought my family closer to God.”
Brad Adkins, who lives in West Liberty in Morgan County, has fished competitively for seven or eight years and has a decent record, but he is not a professional.
“I tell everybody I’m a wannabe,” he says. “To be a professional, you’ve got to do it full time. It’s a huge financial commitment. You either have to have money yourself or sponsorships.”
Adkins coaches the bass fishing team at Morehead State University, one of at least eight colleges and universities in the state that field teams.
Adkins says most students on the team are marketing or business majors. They might aspire to being pros, but going to tournaments puts them in touch with representatives of companies that sell fishing-related gear and knowing those people could lead to employment.
“There’s a lot of opportunities, business opportunities, other than being a fisherman,” he says.
Kentucky also has 118 high school bass fishing coaches and has held a high school state championship tournament annually since 2013.
Michael Nethery, a lineworker with Shelby Energy, grew up fishing.
“It probably kept me out of a lot of trouble,” he says.
He now fishes competitively, but only in local tournaments. He is in his third year of coaching the bass fishing team at Shelby County High School.
Nethery’s daughters, Madeline Nethery and Bella Bramlett, both 17, are on the team. His son, Paul Michael Nethery, was on the team and graduated last year.
A large majority of anglers who participate in bass fishing tournaments are men. But there are a few women, especially among those who are just getting started.
Several are on the Campbellsville University team, including Morgan Miracle, a sophomore from Lancaster in Garrard County, who has fished in high school and college, picking up honors along the way.
“It’s something I definitely fell in love with,” she says. “When people think of bass fishing, they think of it as a male-dominated sport, but the fish doesn’t care who’s on the other end of the line. You get to be yourself. You get to get out there and compete. The time on the water for me is my happy place. I get to enjoy God’s beautiful Earth and do what I love.”
Hanna Wesley, a Campbellsville University freshman from Junction City in Boyle County, was twice named high school female bass angler of the year. (Miracle also won twice.)
“I wanted to be involved in high school so I tried it and really liked it,” she says. “I honestly plan to take it as far as I can.”
Teammate Abbie Greynolds, a senior from Liberty in Casey County whose family is a consumer-member of Taylor County RECC, says she’s into competitive fishing because she grew up fishing with her father and “mainly because I love it.”
She says there is a big difference between fishing competitively and just fishing.
“I don’t want to say that competing is work,” she says, “but you’re out on the water every day for about a week, and we get up at the crack of dawn and sometimes don’t leave till dark.
“But at the end of the day you know you’re having fun.”