Being a touring professional is the dream of so many anglers. Boston’s Gene Ellison is one of those anglers living this dream. Gene not only has developed his very successful The Fishing Machine brand but also has made a powerful impact on our sport. So when Gene agreed to the interview, I knew there was a lot to cover. This is a must read for all anglers with professional fishing aspirations. Gene offers a number of unique takes on what is required to be a successful full-time or part-time professional angler. I find Gene’s take on sponsorship particularly interesting. This is one of those interviews that you will want to read and reread. There is a lot here that will make you think.
Let’s start with a tough question. You have your choice of another Super Bowl Championship for the Patriots in 2017/18 season or Personal Best largemouth in 2017…which are you taking?
While I am always wanting to catch big fish, I was fortunate enough to catch a 13.5 pound Largemouth at El Salto a few years ago and I am not certain I will be lucky enough to ever Catch one bigger than that! The same day, my friend Marty Stowazynski and I caught 125+ Largemouth that weighed 8 pounds or more! So, I think would select another Patriots Super Bowl! Ha Ha!
If the Patriots can keep their “cheating ways” to a minimum, perhaps they can win another! I think their defense will keep getting better; next year’s offense will have Gronk back; and I am sure they will be adding players to their roster as the Pats have tons of room under the salary cap. Tom Brady is such a competitor and Coach Belichick will have his players ready to go again next season. That team really loves winning!
How long have you been a professional bass angler? And what was your journey to professional fishing?
I have been competing professionally for 16 years. My journey to professional tournaments was the result of years of hard work and thousands of hours on the water each season. I received great advice from fellow anglers, like my close friends Bill Lentine and Gordie Anderson, both of whom have passed away recently. I believe they helped me do things the right way! When I joined my first local bass fishing club I was a beginner and I was awful! However, I became a very active member at all meetings and NEVER missed our tournaments over the many years.
I began attending dozens of fishing seminars. I carefully selected ONLY those that featured FLW and B.A.S.S. tournament anglers. I wanted to learn ONLY from the anglers that were doing this at the top level and knew from experience exactly what
they were talking about. I took detailed written notes from each speaker, and refer to them often, even to today!
I signed on as a co-angler for FLW and BASS Top 150 events as often as I could. As a co-angler, I spent more time studying the Pro I was paired with than fishing. I requested and was granted permission to ask lots of questions and I really studied their tactics, their strategies and their techniques.
Before long, I achieved success at the Federation level and began to take on some Sponsorships. Thanks to a helping hand from my friends at Berkley, they were able to help me fish the pro side of a few BASS Open tournaments, and then onto to FLW events and PAA events as well. I enjoyed traveling all over the country, pulling my Nitro with my Toyota Tundra and searching fish on all of these new lakes! I still really enjoyed competing with my old fishing friends in the Northeast, and I have kept my hand in regional team events each year. Those Derbies are fun for me and I get to see old friends and reminisce.
What are your most proud moments as a professional angler?
One of the most exciting moments I will remember occurred in my first event as a co-angler at a B.A.S.S. event. I caught an 8 pound 13 ounce Largemouth and that was the big fish of the day! That was so exciting for me!
As you know, I put my own fishing on hold from 2004 through 2008 as I accepted the position as the Executive Director of the Professional Anglers Association. We had an outstanding board at that time, Kevin VanDam, Edwin Evers, Timmy Horton, Gary Klein, Alton Jones, Mark Davis, Jay Yelas, Mike Auten, Denny Brauer and many others who worked hard to make some important changes in our sport. I am very proud of our dozens of accomplishments, and I feel the sport is in a better place today, because of our efforts.
We grew from 26 dues paying members to over 800, and raised over $ 1.5 million so that we could run the first tournament ever owned by the anglers, the PAA Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Fork in Texas. The event was a remarkable success that aired on NBC television, with 160 of the world’s top anglers competing in a one of kind 4 man team tournament where the fish were weighed on board, approved by a marshal in the boat and released! Live scoring and well over 20,000 fans attended the final day. It was a lot of hard work but very gratifying. The event still exists, however the format has been changed to a regular man against the field format…too bad, as the fans and the anglers really loved the original format.
There are a lot of young anglers who are looking to do what you do. What advice do you have for them in developing a successful career in fishing?
First of all, I want to encourage every young person to figure out what their passion is and then set goals to achieve them! If pursuing a fishing career is the aspiration of a young boy or girl, I want to support them in every way I can.
Tournament fishing is a challenging, rewarding and exciting career for those who can achieve financial success along the way. However, young aspiring anglers, and their parents, should know that there is NOT as much money in this sport as there once was. Many outstanding professional tournament anglers, who I know well, have left the sport and are making a better financial living for themselves and their families pursuing other careers. Without major network television distribution, there is not nearly as much sponsorship money pouring into the sport as there once was. Many outstanding pro anglers have gone broke trying to make it on the pro circuits.
Secondly, professional tournament fishing is an expensive and lonely career. Entry fees are high, travel, food, gas and lodging are expensive, and the derbies are hosted all over the country, so travel by road is extensive. There are a lot of days driving your truck and boat across the country all by yourself. When you win, there are few to celebrate with as only 10 to 12 anglers fish the final day. And if you lose, you have no one to commiserate with while you’re driving hundreds or over a thousand miles home or to the next derby…all by yourself! To be successful you have to be mentally tough, and be able to bounce back from adversity, on the water, when traveling and when back at home. There is so much failure in tournament fishing, the nature of this sport, that you need a strong support group, a positive attitude, a tenacious work ethic and the ability to bounce right back.
Third, I would strongly advise aspiring anglers to stay in school and focus on getting high level grades. Get into good colleges and get a degree in business and/or marketing. Take courses on public speaking. Being able to stand in front of thousands of fans and being able to speak well and share ideas and promote products is very important. Most anglers who aspire to fish professional tournaments as their career are going to fail. There is not enough money in the today’s tournament payouts to support all of the anglers who are competing. So it is crucial that each angler has a bachelor’s degree to rely on.
Finally, it might be much wiser, and easier, to fish regionally, at lower levels, with lower expenses and less travel. I know several former top level pro anglers who are doing this now, and they are more profitable financially doing it this way than they did fishing at the top tour levels.
What have been your keys to “branding” yourself”?
The Fishing Machine has become a very successful brand! I speak well, am well prepared and always conduct myself professionally. I do A LOT of seminars in retail stores like Bass Pro Shops, and work very hard during the days I make
appearances. I will usually do 2 or 3 tank demos, 1 or 2 classroom seminars with PowerPoint, and sell a few boats, while hosting a kids event – all in one day. I am also willing to travel to remote areas of the country to appear at stores and shows that other pro anglers are not willing to do. I try to make a positive impact on every person I meet, and I am always willing to share “exactly” the techniques I use to catch fish…anglers and fans love this!
Using Social Media “effectively” are key to building your brand. I am now convinced that Social Media SELLS nothing…it does however, do a great job of stirring excitement and getting fans out to events…I use it that way. In addition, it is important that ALL of anglers’ presentations are truly relevant. By that I mean, present information that really helps other anglers learn to catch more fish.
Be sure to reach out to beginning anglers! I really get a “kick out” of getting young kids into fishing and other outdoor activities. I have been doing dozens of kids and family events each year to introduce fishing to those that have never done this before. Watching a child catch their first fish is awesome!
What are the hardest parts of what you do?
Traveling the many days a year that I am away from my wife and kids.
Was there ever a time that you thought about giving up your career as a professional angler?
NEVER! I love what I do and I love meeting our fans and teaching tactics and techniques about catching more fish.
Do you ever burnout from fishing as your work?
I don’t ever burn out from fishing, because the challenge of figuring the fish out every day, every hour, every minute is what makes tournament fishing so exciting for me! I do however, take time away from fishing to enjoy my family and other activities that I love. In the Northeast, the snow covered Winters keep me off the water, and out in the snow!
How do you recharge your energy and passion for the sport?
I am an avid outdoorsman! I love to hunt whitetail and study books, articles and watch videos on how to be better at this great sport.
My son Phil, spent a lot of time teaching me handgun and long gun techniques over the past few years, and I am grateful to him for sharing his knowledge and passion for shooting with me. I enjoy shooting with several close friends, Eddie Rivera, who really “dialed” me in with my rifle shooting, Robert Fogg and my close friend and mentor Fritz Weidergott, former World Champion – Skeet, who just passed away, and who worked with me regularly to improve my skeet shooting.
I had a very successful hunting season last Fall! I tagged two whitetails that scored 176 and 217! I went on a duck and pheasant hunt to North Dakota with my buddy Bob D’Auria and had a very successful hunt. Once the snow falls here in the Northeast, I love to snowshoe and going ski mobiling. I get a lot of enjoyment from that.
I am trying to spend more time with my wife, kids and grandson. I enjoy them all very much.
So many anglers are chasing after sponsorships. What is your advice for anglers who want to get sponsored?
All Touring Anglers need the financial backing of solid sponsorship. In order to attract quality, recurring sponsorship, it is important that you can win derbies and be a consistent top finisher at the level you are competing at.
If you are successful, then my first piece of advice is this…do NOT do anything for FREE. I don’t! Taking product in exchange for your time is counterproductive and is hurting the sport of tournament fishing.
Secondly, make a list of the companies that you want to have sponsor you and contact them for an appointment, perhaps a conference call with the head of their pro staff. Ask them how you can be of help to them!
Next, present a well thought out sponsorship package with your ideas of how to help them accomplish their goals, and include a list of what you are willing to do for them, and what the cost will be. Be certain to include appearances, logo placement,
demonstrations and how you will be able to help promote the sale of their products.
Finally, don’t agree to work for nothing. Too many amateurs are working for no
compensation…this will not get you far!
As you mentioned, social media has certainly affected the fishing business over the last several years. What do you feel are some do’s and don’ts for anglers using social media as a way to break into the fishing industry?
- Make regular social media posts that help others learn to catch more fish.
- Post photos of you talking to local younger kids, Jr High School, High School
And Elementary School students about fishing.
- Post photos of all the tournaments you compete in.
- Share as many Pro Angler tips and Seminar data as possible.
- Post tips that feature your sponsors…but be sure to explain to fans how this will help them catch more fish.
- Post photos and stories of all of your appearances.
- Post contests or products of companies that are not paying you to promote them.
- Post or share others’ rude comments.
- Post political or controversial comments.
What are 5 things you still have yet to do in fishing that are on your bucket list?
1) A 4 month sabbatical, free from obligations so I can travel around the country and fish all the great lakes in the USA and Canada.
2) A fishing trip with my Spoonplugging buddy John Bales
3) A fishing trip to Comandero, Mexico, with my buddy Denny Brauer
4) A fishing trip to Texas with my buddy Gary Klein
5) A fishing trip to Lake Champlain with my long time team fishing partner Tommy Marrs
I told you this was a thought provoking interview. Gene is a leader in the sport of fishing with so much to teach on and off the water. Thank you Gene for the time and energy you put into motivating and teaching others. I will be following to see if at least a few of those bucket list items get crossed off soon. And if you need a third person to go along on that trip to Mexico with you and Denny Brauer, I will be nice and volunteer.