While I am not a professional angler and do not have any plans to be, I have the utmost respect for those that make the journey. Anglers like Kevin VanDam, Scott Martin and Greg Hackney make it look easy when we see the outcome of their journey. But for every one of these guys, there are hundreds of anglers working hard to get to that goal.
Andrew Slegona, who goes by AJ, is one of those fisherman on the journey to professional angling. AJ shares with us honest thoughts about his journey. He has had quite a bit of success but he also opens up and tells us about some of the most challenging times and aspects of his fishing career.
When did you start fishing? Who were some of your earliest influences in fishing?
I’ve had a huge passion for fishing as early as I can remember. I would have to say my biggest influence in fishing growing up was my father. He always made sure he took me to places he knew I would catch fish. He taught me the basics. For example, being patient, and how to set the hook. Without him being an early influence, I don’t believe I’d be where I am today.
When did the desire to become a full time professional angler start?
My dream of becoming a professional angler started when I was in 7th grade. When I was young, bass fishing was all that I thought about.
Who are your professional fishing role models?
As far as role models go, I would have to say Greg Hackney and Tommy Biffle. The reason being, they are flippers. Flipping is my #1 strength in bass fishing and has always been my favorite way to catch them.
Scenario for you…you make it to the Classic or the Forest Wood Cup and you are going into the final day far ahead of the rest of the field but tied with one other angler for first place. Who do you dream that angler would be?
If I were going into the final day of an event like that tied with someone, I would have to say Greg Hackney. I would love to go at it head to head in a flipping match against that stick. That would be a special for me since he is someone I looked up to in this industry since I was a kid.
Where are you at in your journey to reach the goal of being a professional angler full-time?
As of right now I’m in the qualifying stages of becoming a full-time pro. Keep in mind, just because you qualify doesn’t mean you will be full-time fishing. Without sponsors, you would still have to keep your day job.
Last season, I earned the opportunity to fish the FLW tour, but had to turn down the invite because lack of sponsors. It is very expensive to fish professionally out of your own pocket. I now have the sponsors to compete on that next level, but I will have to have another solid season this year to gain “priority entry” for the FLW Tour for next year.
Since you first started journey, what have been the biggest challenges and hurdles?
Since this crazy journey has begun, I’ve faced a few major challenges and hurdles. Money is one of the biggest challenges of becoming a professional angler. Think about it, in order to compete against some of the best anglers in the world, you need the best equipment. My boat and truck combined cost about $100,000.
Entry fees for each of these events cost $1,600, and add on another $1,500 for travel fees for each event. Then you can add on missed time at work, and tackle expenses. Luckily now I have sponsors covering the majority of my fees. When I first started my journey a couple of years ago, everything came out of my own pocket.
Another big challenge for me was learning to fish all new lakes in the different States around the Country. Each lake has its own little quirks and differences. That took a lot of adjusting and getting used to. I’ve become a lot more versatile as an angler from fishing these different bodies of water. It has been a great learning experience.
How important are family and friends in this journey?
Along my journey, I’ve realized how important it is to have the true support of friends and family. Professional fishing will knock you down and hold you there, if you let it. It is a risky business.
There was one time I thought about packing it all in completely, going back to my secure job with benefits/retirement and “playing it safe” the rest of my life. I was telling Charlie Hartley about my situation after a tough tournament I had on Smith Lake in a Bassmaster Open. I was looking for advice since I was “on the fence” about it all.
He replied to me “Ok AJ, I have one question for you. When you are an old man on your death bed, would you rather say you worked your whole life or fished your whole life?” That little saying changed my whole out look.
I have some of the best support from my friends and family. They’ve reassured me many of times that I’m making the right choices by following my dreams and making the sacrifices that I have made. They are the backbone to my success.
What are your strengths as a professional angler?
One of my main strengths in fishing is my nonchalant mentality during practice and competition. You need to keep a level head in professional events. I’m not saying I kick back in my seat and just toss out a line. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grinding hard out there, but I keep a level headed mentally at the same time. It can be very easy for people to spin out and have the wheels come off during a big event. When you keep a calm mind on the water, you’ll realize how much more efficient you can be as a tournament angler.
Another strength of mine is fishing grass. I grew up fishing New York lakes and any one who lives in the north knows we have a lot of grass and many varieties of it. Flipping grass is something I’ve put a lot of time and effort in since I’ve started fishing. I would have to say my favorite technique would be pitching a Booyah jig or a 1+ ounce Woo Tungsten weight and a Yum baits Bad Mamma to deep grass, 8 to 15 feet of water. There’s something about them snatching that bait on the drop that really gets me going!
What has been your best tournament so far?
My best finish so far on the professional level was on 1000 islands out of Clayton, New York. After the 3 day event, I finished 7th over all.
In that tournament I was a little out of my element. What I mean by that is I was using 6 pound test line on light tackle. I found a big school of smallmouth on a shallow sandy hump in the middle of a grass flat. I had to keep my boat way back and make long casts to them so i didn’t spook them.
I was drop shotting a Yum warning shot on a Fitzgerald rods 6’9 medium Vursa series rod. One of the main keys to my success in that event was constantly rotating the colors out to give the fish something new to look at to keep the bite going.
Who are your sponsors?
I represent Yum, Booyah, Ardent Outdoors, Fitzgerald Rods, Vicious Fishing, Woo Tungsten, Hintze Belts, and MDS HVAC. I am very proud to have the opportunity to represent these great companies along my journey.
What are 5 pieces of advice you have for other Northeastern anglers who want to go on the journey as well?
If you plan to take the professional fishing route here are a few pieces of advice of love to give to you.
1. It would be wise to take classes in marketing and public speaking. In order to make it in this sport, you need to be a good salesman and need to know how to wheel and deal with sponsors. Also it helps to be very social and a good public speaker.
2. Try to get established first in life with a good paying job that allows you to take a lot of time off of work before trying to jump into the pro tournament scene. These tournaments will take up a lot of time and money long before the sponsors start footing the bills!
3. Don’t get discouraged after a bad tournament. There is always something to learn from a bad day on the water. It happens to every one! Learn from your mistakes and move forward.
4. Fish as many tournaments as a co-angler as you can before jumping in on the pro side. You would be very surprised on how much you can learn from watching the person in front of you. Watch how they pattern fish, watch the decisions and adjustments they make throughout a tournament day. Learn from their mistakes. It will take out a lot of the guess work for you. Take as much in as you can before diving in head first on the pro side.
5. Keep a level head through practice and competition! Don’t get over excited, and don’t get too stressed or flustered. It can only result in a bad tournament finish. Stay patient, and fish clean!
AJ, I think everyone reading this interview has just become of a big fan of you. I know that I have.