Sorry, I don’t mean to kill your dream, harsh your mellow, or pull the rug out from under you, but the title says it all: You’ll never be as good a bass angler as KVD.

I hear it all the time from weekend warriors, aspiring pros, and people who can’t tell a crankbait from a crankshaft:

“I could be a professional angler if I just…”
a) Had more money from mommy and daddy to fuel the dream;
b) Had more time off from work to dial in those fisheries;
c) Had big time sponsors to give me all the free shit I want; or
d) Didn’t have all these kids to feed.

Here’s the deal–the best in anything don’t let that stuff get in the way. Sure, it’s not an entirely level playing field, and fishing seems like it should be more egalitarian than many other pursuits, but it’s not. You may have won a few local derbies, but for the same reason that you can’t be Tom Brady or LeBron James or Warren Buffet, you can’t be four-time Bassmaster Classic Winner, nine-time Angler of the Year KVD, either. Or Mike Iaconelli. Or Aaron Martens. Or Brandon Palaniuk. Or recently-crowned Classic Champion Jason Christie.

I’m not telling you to trade in your glitter boat and flipping sticks for knitting needles, but you need to calibrate your expectations a bit. I’ve fished with dozens of top pros, including some first ballot Hall of Famers, and I can tell you they’re a different breed for the rest of us. You’ll never be able to run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, or which means you’ll probably never be an NFL wide receiver, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play at the high school or college or even recreational level. But if you still insist on trying to live out your Bassmaster Classic fantasies, here are some things to consider.

You Have to Fish on Days that Suck
A few years back I went to Lake St. Clair in Michigan for three days of muskie fishing. We cast giant soft plastic lures called “The Pounder” (because, you guessed, the sumbitches weigh 16 ounces each) for two days out of a bay boat, then decided to relax for a day of trolling out of the guide’s 33-foot Tiara. The morning of that third day he texted us and effectively said. “It’s gonna suck. I’ll still go if you want, but it’s gonna suck.” The wind was forecasted to blow 25-plus consistently, with gusts much higher. We let discretion be the better part of valor, slept in, had a big breakfast, and drove the nine hours home. That same day was the first day of practice for a Bassmaster Elite Tournament there and I can guar-an-damn-tee you that every one of the hundred or so anglers in the field went out and practiced. Hard. Until dark. They have two and a half days to find catchable fish or they don’t pay their mortgages.

It’s not just weather, either. Did your dog die? Your father have a heart attack? Kid graduating from high school? You’ll have some tough choices to make. You can head home and miss an event, which effectively ends your chance of any championship qualification (there are no backups in this game) or you can stay and feel terrible. Unlike the major professional sports, there’s no injured reserved list. There are also no guaranteed salaries. You don’t fish, you don’t earn.

It also comes down to making chicken salad out of chicken shit. Yes, you’ll visit some of the country’s greatest fisheries, but you’ll also compete on some that seem to have the biomass of a parking lot mud puddle. When fishing’s at its worst, that’s when you have to be most vigilant, because every bite counts that much more. You can’t just put it on the trailer and head home. You have to want to be out there one more hour, or one more day, no matter what has happened so far.

Winning Outside of Your Comfort Zone
Television host Mark Zona once wrote this about VanDam:

“For Kevin, good is not good enough; great is not great enough; only being the best will do. No matter what the activity, his approach is to identify the most efficient and effective way to do that activity and reach an outcome that is likely going to be much better than everyone else’s outcome. Please understand, this is not just in his fishing, it’s in everything he does: seminars, photo shoots, making commercials, tackle prep, cooking, grilling, planting flowers. (Yes, KVD does plant flowers and, yes, he is pretty good at that, too.)

“Here is a case in point: making s’mores at a bonfire. To me, it’s graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate and fire. Cram everything together, stick it near flame and bingo, it’s done, right? Not so with Kevin; he knows the best crackers, the best marshmallows, the best chocolate, the best order to put them in and, God’s honest truth, the exact spot in the fire that will produce s’mores that are not just brown, but brown and crispy.”

He’s the most focused angler I’ve ever dealt with, and most of them are pretty damn intense. I once fished with him for three days at the California Delta–from before sun-up to after sundown–and he never asked me anything about myself. Yes, he was courteous and helpful and friendly, but he was there to do a job. The job was fishing, not enjoying the scenery or making friends. I get it.

Another time, I joined him in New York City for a meeting. The other bass pro who was with us was completely flipped out. If he could have barricaded the doors on the taxi any tighter, he would have. Kevin? You would have thought he was the mayor, walking around, chest out. Nothing fazes him. I’ve seen him do some incredible things on the water, but to me that day said even more–even outside of his main venue, he was aware of his surroundings and undaunted by them.

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better
You want to be a pro angler? Can you flip like Denny Brauer? Crank like David Fritts? Throw a glide bait like Byron Velvick? Swim a giant swimbait like Oliver Ngy?

More importantly, can you do all of those things better than anyone else you know? Because that’s what it takes.

VanDam is known as a wizard with moving baits like a spinnerbait, jerkbait, and crankbait. When he first came up in the early ’90s he was all sinew and fast-twitch muscle, trolling motoring down the bank at the speed of light, so that makes sense. Last year I got the chance to fish with him for smallmouths in Northern Michigan with a spinnerbait, which is so far inside his wheelhouse that it’s not even funny, and we crushed ‘em. But you know what? We crushed ‘em just as well, if not better, back in 2007 on the California Delta (Well, he did. I pretty much watched the gun show from the back of the boat.) Sure, we caught some with a rattle bait and a spinnerbait over those three days, but he did most of his damage with a flipping stick. Ask 10 pundits to name the best flippers of all time, and it’s likely that Kevin doesn’t show up on the list, but I’ve fished with Denny Brauer and watched Tommy Biffle and Kevin’s definitely in the same league.

If that isn’t enough, as noted above, Kevin’s considered the best power fisherman who ever lived, someone who doesn’t need or want to use a spinning rod. Yet, when BASS went to highly-pressured Lake Lewisville in 2005, not only did he win the tournament with a spinning rod, but he also managed to catch an 11-pound, 13-ounce bass that broke the lake record.

All Business, All the Time (and Not Just Fishing)
So you like to fish and think it would be a pretty good way to make a living? Makes sense. Fish a little, win big bucks, live on easy street, earn enough money to retire so you can…fish more. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Well, there’s a flip side to that: “When you make your passion your business, sometimes it becomes a damn job.” I’m not saying that there’s not fun and glory in chasing little green fish for cash, just remember that the podium time pales in comparison to the drudgery–and while sponsors are great, they’re not exactly lining up at your door to pay you meaningful cash until you’re successful. Between now and then, it’s a lot of Spam-wiches and sleeping in the back of your truck.

And remember, the business you’re really in is not fishing, or promoting fishing gear, but rather being an apprentice long-haul truck driver. You just finished a tournament at Lake Mead in Nevada and need to be at the next one in Florida in a day. You could miss practice, but as we saw from the St. Clair example above, that’s not going to happen. Instead, you better daisy chain a bunch of 5 Hour Energies and haul ass across the country. No time for laundry, just lots of darkness and radio. If you’re lucky, you have a friend making the same haul to help keep you focused and awake.

Don’t forget, you’re driving a wrapped truck with your title sponsor’s logo all over it. When a Hyundai cuts you off in Cleveland you have to grin and bear it rather than giving him the one-finger salute or you’ll end up off the payroll when he calls the home office.

The Je Ne Sais Quoi
This last factor is the hardest to articulate and the hardest to prove, but certain people “get it” when it comes to fishing and certain people don’t–just like with golf and calculus and business. That’s harder to believe in fishing because there are occasional indications to the contrary. As a good friend of mine often says, “I could play Michael Jordan in basketball 100 times, and he’s going to beat me 100 times, but I could fish against KVD a hundred times and I might beat him once or twice.”

I’m a competent angler who has spent thousands of hours on the water, both in my own boat and fishing with some of the best who’ve ever wet a line, and I cannot tell you how frustrated I get at times. I’m educated and constantly evaluating, and then meet someone who can’t spell CAT if you spot him the “C” and the “A” and he kicks the crap out of me on the water. They just intrinsically know what to do, and they’ve spent the time honing those instincts. Put that ability in someone like VanDam, who is smart in so many other ways, and it’s debilitating.

Making it worse, they might not even be able to tell you what they’re doing better than you. Fish down the same bank, with the same lure, and you’ll catch three fish in the 2-pound class. Meanwhile, they’ll catch twice as many fish that are twice as big on average. It’s just unfair, but they’ve done it so long, and so well for so long, that it’s second nature.

But Here’s the Good News
If you’ve read this far, you’re likely either angry with me or disagree with me completely. You don’t need to take my word for it–if this has energized you to hit the road and hit the tour, I’m excited for you. This is America, man, everybody gets to play.

More importantly, don’t forget about why you started fishing in the first place. It probably wasn’t for fame or fortune. It certainly wasn’t for groupies. You did it because you loved the experience and the visceral thrill of fooling a sentient creature and yanking him into next Thursday. If you want to compete, get out there and do it–with your friends, in a bass club, or at the regional level. When you conquer that, move up a rung. When you’re the king of that level, move up again. It’s addictive. That’s why KVD, who started doing it professionally 30 years ago and could certainly afford to retire, is still out there.

— Pete Robbins