Landing the Big Fish
The bumper sticker reads: "A bad day fishing is better than a good day at the office." If you are Ted Takasaki, that is not technically true: A bad day fishing is pretty much a bad day at the office, too, because for him they are one and the same. But the worst part is that fishing -- actual hook, line and sinker time -- just isn't that big a part of being a professional fisherman.
You want to live the easy life, float the lake, hook a few lunkers for your paycheck? Don't give notice just yet. Here's a typical weekend if you are Takasaki, the planet's most famous walleye angler: Get up while it's dark in Brainerd, Minnesota, to hop on the commuter flight to Minneapolis. Get bumped because the plane is full, then get in a car and make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Twin Cities to catch a flight to Denver. (A guy recognizes you in the airport -- "Hey, Mr. Takasaki, just wanted to tell you I'm a big fan" -- so that's nice. But a full plane from Brainerd to Minneapolis?)
Arrive in Denver, shuttle to the Northglenn Holiday Inn and check into your suite, where someone forgot to turn on the heat. Look longingly out the window at the mountains. (You love skiing -- used to be president of the ski club as a kid in Illinois -- but there's no time for that on this strictly-business trip.) In ninety minutes, it will be time to head downstairs for a little mingling with the 300-plus members of the Colorado Walleye Association, most of whom have shown up just to see you. "They are ready to go nuts when they see Ted," says banquet coordinator Rick Enstrom.
Hey, no pressure.
Sit in the chilled suite and prepare the handful of demonstration rods you shlepped from Minnesota. Go over the lecture in your head: "Structure and Visualization: The Key to Walleye Success." (It's something you could do in your sleep, but you are nothing if not a professional, so you make sure the details are exactly as solid as if you were giving a presentation for Hewlett-Packard -- which, come to think of it, is exactly what you were doing a decade and a half ago.) Remember to drink a little cold water so your throat doesn't get scratchy and weak in the high desert air. Because you, more than the others, understand that it's your voice, not your casting arm, that keeps this gig going.
The presentation is scheduled from 4:30 to 5:45 (the audience is shoulder to shoulder; extra chairs are brought in). Then it's on to the prime-rib/fried-chicken feed, fifteen minutes' worth of keynote remarks, and more mingling. Remember to pop up every couple of minutes to pose for a photo with anyone who requests one -- and everyone wants one -- because if you are Ted Takasaki, that is the drill. Be gracious about it. (It's not that you don't like it -- you do. But it isn't all love and roses.)
Finally, at around 11 p.m., blessed bed. Ease out of the Holiday Inn parking lot at seven the next morning, $800 richer. And it's the same thing next weekend. In fact, if you are Ted Takasaki, you will not spend a single weekend at home from January through the end of March, missing your wife of seventeen years and your thirteen-year-old daughter. And when the spring rubber-chicken circuit is done at last, you must load up your boat and go.
Now, if you are Ted Takasaki, you can finally go fishing.
There are different kinds of success on the professional fishing circuit. Ted Takasaki is not the best walleye angler in the country. That title belongs to a newly transplanted Coloradan and former crop duster named Ron Seelhoff.
Seelhoff (who grew up in Nebraska but recently moved across the border to Burlington) catches more big fish when it matters and wins more money than anyone else out there. He won the 1999 Professional Walleye Trail championship, and then, in an unheard-of feat, did it again the following year. For those skeptics who believe that catching big fish is equal measures skill and luck (hell, with enough boat and beer, they could cast with the pros), Seelhoff entered the 2001 tournament as the two-time defending champ -- and came in second.
He has won five national tournaments -- two more than his closest competitor. He has collected more than a half-million dollars in prize money -- more, by far, than the cumulative paydays enjoyed by the No. 2 career earner. At the '99 PWT championships, Seelhoff won in what for anglers amounted to a rout, landing nearly 27 pounds' worth of walleye over the course of the tournament -- 40 percent more fish than the second place finisher's 19 pounds.
But the fact remains that, unless you actually know (or, worse yet, care) what Stizostedion vitreum means, Seelhoff is the best damned walleye fisherman you've never heard of. Chances are, the best walleye fisherman you've ever heard of is Ted Takasaki.
None of this is to say that Takasaki has done poorly for himself out in the boat. He currently ranks seventh on the all-time purse-winnings list, at about $200,000 dollars. He won the 1998 PWT title, the year before Seelhoff went on his tear. He is tied for the longest string of consecutive money finishes, coming off the water in nine straight tournaments with more scratch than he entered with. (The prize values drop off drastically after second or third, explaining how Takasaki can finish in the top ten so often but still earn relatively little cash.) Yet catching big fish is only one way to measure angling success. For anyone who wants to understand the economics of casting for cash, you must study both men. For while Seelhoff may be the better fisherman, Takasaki is, by far, the better professional fisherman.
Takasaki frames his story as one of classic American self-determinism. He is constantly cheerful and relentlessly optimistic. "If I can make a good life as a professional fisherman," he seems to be saying, "is this a great country or what?"
His trip to the summit of the fish pile began four decades ago, when he started fishing as a boy. He was born in California, but moved at an early age to rural Illinois. It was there that he first followed his father to the nearest stream or lake or farm pond, threading a worm onto his hook and pulling out whatever grabbed hold.
His family was close, and when it came time to choose a college, Ted decided to stay nearby, at the University of Illinois. He studied engineering, but his most formative college experience was his friendship with a fellow frat member named John Campbell. The two shared a jones for fishing, and they became fast friends, bolting campus every chance they got to hunt crappies in nearby Kentucky Lake or pursue walleye in Iowa.
After graduation, Campbell found a job in Chicago with the computer giant Hewlett-Packard. A year later he got his buddy hired on as well, and the two picked up where they'd left off. They became more and more interested in the joys of fishing for walleye, a relative of the perch that grows to up to a dozen pounds and is common enough to be found in most any place the two young men decided to drop their lines.
When their interest began to outpace their knowledge, they signed up for fishing lessons with local angling guru Spence Petros, then editor of Fishing Facts magazine. "There's a lot more to fishing than throwing a bobber with a split shot," Takasaki remembers thinking. He and Campbell ended up attending Petros's eight-week seminars for the next six years running. They also kept fishing together, traveling to the rich walleye grounds of Canada, Michigan and Wisconsin several times a year. By 1989, the two young men were confident that they knew as much about walleye as anyone, and they decided to match their rods and reels against the pros. They signed up for a tournament in what was then the biggest game in town: the Masters Walleye Circuit.
For a couple of guys looking to make a mark in professional angling, casting for walleye had several things going for it. For starters, a national walleye fishing circuit was a relatively recent development. Compared to bass fishermen, for example, the number of walleye anglers competing for cash was tiny. And unlike in bass tournaments, walleye contenders on the MWC fished in teams -- and Takasaki and Campbell wanted to try this out together. Lastly, bass fishermen -- especially the pros -- have a reputation for being cutthroat competitors, especially to newcomers.
The two pre-fished the Illinois River location prior to the tournament, scouting for likely walleye locations. They went to bed confident. The day of the contest, however, it rained. The waters muddied and rose; fishing conditions shifted. The result: In their professional debut, neither Takasaki nor Campbell caught a single fish. A month later, they gathered their confidence and gave it another shot. They signed up for a walleye tournament on Lake Muskegon. Once again, though, they were entirely shut out. "And that," recalls Takasaki, "was my beginning as a pro: two tournaments, no fish."
Far from discouraged, however, the two redoubled their efforts the following year. They entered four tournaments, vowing to try harder. They pre-fished from dusk to dawn, interrogated local bait-shop owners, read up on the locations. The long hours of work paid off. At the end of the season, the two stood at eighth place overall, good enough to qualify them for the championship tournament. On the day before the tournament started, Takasaki's father died. "It's my biggest regret," Takasaki says today. "I would have liked it if he could have seen what I've accomplished in the past ten years. He always was rooting for me and encouraging me. But he never got to see me fish."
On a more immediate level, Campbell had to push off alone while Takasaki tended to his father's final arrangements. Having only one angler on the water meant that the team essentially halved the amount of fish it might have caught if Ted had been there, putting them at a huge deficit going into the second day of the tournament.
But Takasaki returned to the lake the following morning, and he and Campbell hit the lake like maniacs. Even despite Takasaki having missed the first day, they ended up finishing fourth. Two thousand spectators cheered them as the results were announced.
"And that's when I knew what I wanted to do," Takasaki recalls. "It was getting in front of all those people, the exhilaration of the tournament. And I thought, 'If there's any way I can possibly do this for a living, I'm going to do it.'"
The rest, as they say, is history. Takasaki and Campbell's rise was meteoric. In 1991 they won Team of the Year on the walleye circuit; they won the Top Gun award in 1995. Three years later, Takasaki took the Professional Walleye Trail championship, a pro-am, single-angler event that had replaced the WMC as the premier walleye fishing circuit in the country.
But what set Takasaki apart from his hard-fishing peers is his knowledge that true success -- quitting his day job -- meant working just as hard, if not harder, while off the water.
While employed at Hewlett-Packard, both Takasaki and Campbell had specialized in sales and promotion. As a result, what the two grasped immediately that many successful anglers do not is that triumph on the fishing circuit lay not in landing lunkers, but rather in sponsorship and promotion deals.
To an outsider, walleye tournaments look lucrative; many have top prizes of more than $100,000. Yet "only the top three finishers really get any good money in a tournament," Takasaki explains. "And that's tough to do; you're competing against 150 guys. So we knew we needed persistence, a business plan and a good professional proposal."
For starters, they called on their old fishing mentor, Petros. That connection paid off with their first endorsement deal, with Lindy, the fishing-equipment manufacturer. It amounted to about $2,000 a year -- barely enough to cover the cost of a year's worth of hotel rooms -- plus some product to use. It wasn't much, but it was a start.
The two set their sights on bigger fish. They had business cards made up: Takasaki/Campbell Fishing Promotions. Then they headed off to the 1991 American Fishing and Tackle Manufacturer Association's annual convention in Las Vegas and began passing them out. But business cards were just the tease, the worm on the hook. After all, what Takasaki and Campbell were aiming for was not simply to be fishermen: They were now in the business of professional fishing. To lure bigger financial catches, they'd also written up a sound business plan. "We laid out all the tournaments we'd be fishing in, how we'd attend consumer sports shows to sell product, and the number of articles we'd place in magazines," Takasaki recalls.
At first the deals trickled in. Most companies promised some free stuff -- line, lures, clothes, rods, a boat. Stren Fishing Line was an early sponsor, as was BottomLine (sonar). Then came Ranger (boats), Mercury (engines), Minn Kota (trolling motors). Eventually the cash deals began showing up, too.
Soon Takasaki added to his personal product line. (He and Campbell split up as a fishing team when they joined the PWT, though they remain good friends to this day.) In 1992 he teamed up with a local Illinois writer, Scott Richardson, who continues to help him write instructional articles. "Ted is a unique mixture of fishing talent and business acumen," Richardson says. "He knew how to apply business principles to the fishing industry."
In more recent years, Takasaki has snared videos, television shows, seminars and speaking engagements. Anglers are drawn to him because he seems so personable, so approachable. "People love to watch Ted on television because he's always in a good mood, always having fun," says John Hertensteiner, co-owner of Walleye Central, a Web site and magazine publisher.
Although Richardson says Takasaki's demeanor is "all genuine -- Ted is a great guy," Takasaki is too professional to leave such crucial marketing details to chance. It is precisely because he labors meticulously to make sure he is appearing not to be working hard that he appears relaxed and natural. "It's just like a seminar," he says. "There's some education and some entertainment -- you've got to smile, laugh, act like you're having a good time. The viewer has to feel like he's in the boat with you.
"You got a high-paid cameraman there waiting for you to catch a fish," he continues. "Once you catch it, you've got to be intelligent and articulate enough to talk about it. I don't have an exact script, but I have an outline ready in my head. As long as I have the first sentence of each paragraph, I'm ready to go on the air."
Today, Takasaki says, a good walleye pro can expect to earn maybe $50,000 a year -- barely subsistence level when you consider the cost of tournament fees; multiple rod and reel setups at $500 a pop, minimum; a $25,000 boat; several thousand dollars' worth of lures and bait; and a sonar machine. Add to that room, board and other travel expenses, and the cost of fishing professionally can add up quickly over a six-month, 20,000-mile tournament circuit. Fortunately, Takasaki says, he makes about double that. But, he adds, it's only because he continues to work at his fishing job as if it were, well, a real job. "I have a whole business plan segmented by television, radio, newspapers, Internet presence, magazines and seminars," he says. "Each year, I try to meet my goals." In 1999 he solidified one of his sponsor contacts, becoming president of Lindy, the very first company to back him.
Still, he says, when it comes to really lucrative sponsorships -- and even more generous incomes -- professional walleye fishing is in its infancy. "We're still hitting only the industry sponsorships," he explains. (More than other sports, fishing blurs the line between competition and industry advertising. The newest walleye circuit, the RCL, is named for its corporate patrons, Ranger, Crestliner and Lund, which all manufacture fishing equipment. The amount of prize money available to winners is based on whether or not they are using products made by those companies.)
Takasaki adds that there is a huge untapped sponsorship pool of wealthy corporate patrons like car and drug companies, and retail giants that could be persuaded to push product to professional fishing's rabid demographic of mostly young men. Someday, he says, "I'm hoping that professional walleye fishing will be like NASCAR," a model of aggressive sports/advertising partnerships.
It could be soon. "Right now it's very cool to be a fisherman," says Walleye Central's Hertensteiner. "Five years ago, you couldn't say you got up at 5:30 a.m. to watch fishing shows on television until two in the afternoon. Now you can."
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