Which State Produces the Best Bass Pros?

Which State Produces the Best Bass Pros?

So you want to be a bass pro? Where you live may play a role in your short-term and long-term success. Geography is not destiny, of course. After all, three of the greatest anglers of all time—Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli, and Brandon Palaniuk—come from Michigan, New Jersey, and Idaho, respectively. None of those locales offer much in the way of sweet tea, nor have they produced tons of top anglers or record bass. This just shows that talent and effort ultimately win out.

But, as in any sport, the difference at the top tends to be so miniscule that any advantage you can garner will matter. While you can’t control where you came from, you can control where you move.

Accordingly, if you want to be the next VanDam, Iaconelli, or Palaniuk, you might want to set the GPS coordinates in your favor. Perhaps make like Jacob Wheeler, the current enfant terrible of the bass tours, who’s won nearly everything there is to win. He left the comparatively non-bassy state of Indiana for the more tournament-friendly banks of Tennessee. Not terribly far as the crow flies, but a world away.

Traditional Bassin’ Clusters Throughout professional bass fishing history, little collections of pros have arisen in discrete locations. In the 1970s, the “Hemphill Gang,” including future Bassmaster Classic winners Larry Nixon and Tommy Martin, gathered at Toledo Bend (Hemphill, Texas) and formed a clique. Later, a wide range of pros made Kentucky and Barkley lakes their home. Then Lake Fork became the hot lick deal, drawing anglers as diverse as Kelly Jordon (from within Texas), Dean Rojas (from California by way of Arizona), and Takahiro Omori (from Japan) to live, learn, and guide there. More recently, Lake Guntersville in Alabama became a hotbed for pro angling excellence. At some point during the course of their careers, Classic champions including Randy Howell, Boyd Duckett, and Chris Lane all moved there. So did two-time Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle and multiple tour-level winner Justin Lucas.

Of course, angling excellence is not limited to those towns. Within every corner of Arkansas, Alabama, and Texas, it seems, there’s a town with a welcome sign that says “Home of [Bass Pro X].”

Is there something in the water that makes those towns produce great pros? Or do those locations boast more well-established tournament cultures? In other words, is it nature, nurture, numbers, or a mix ‘n match selection of each?

Go Where You Can Fish a Lot The old adage that “there’s no substitute for time on the water” became a cliché for a reason—because it’s true. Even if you discount the cleanliness of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, until you’ve seen all circumstances and cracked each puzzle multiple times, the dudes on tour are going to eat your lunch. So, if you’re going to relocate as a precursor to becoming a pro angler, pick a place where the water doesn’t get hard and where there’s no closed season.

Granted, reigning Bassmaster Angler of the Year Seth Feider hails from Minnesota, and VanDam and Palaniuk are likewise from northern climes, but they’re exceptions to the rule. Remember, there are baseball players from Canada and Maine, but far more are raised in Arizona, Florida, and California. Those are all places where the infrastructure exists to play year-round.

Seek Out Mentorship Angling infrastructure is not limited to tackle shops, lakes, and tournament circuits. People are a key element as well. Why do you think those historic clusters arose at Toledo Bend, Fork, Kentucky (Lake), and Guntersville? It wasn’t just that they were great fisheries (although that clearly played a role). There was also a human snowball effect at play. As more pros and would-be pros decided to make those places their home base, they could mingle and bounce ideas off of each other. They could also build a guide network, which added to their time on the water and their financial bottom line, which needs to be a key consideration in this day and age.

And remember—no one becomes a pro angler in a vacuum. Mentorship is necessary, whether that’s with one individual or a massive group. You need to fish with different people and learn from them. It’s simply impossible to learn it all by going it alone.

Go Where There’s Variety There are plenty of anglers who attribute their success on tour to the nature of their home state’s angling. Bill Lowen, reared on the stingy Ohio River, claims that his upbringing taught him to be scrappy and to maximize every single bite. Keith Combs, the three-time Toyota Texas Bass Classic champ, believes that the Lone Star State taught him to focus on the biggest bass in any fishery and the need to only get five bites each day—so long as they’re the right five bites.

Despite those divergent rationales, both anglers have been able to apply them to waters outside of their natural comfort zones. That’s critical. None of the major tours stay on one body or one type of fishery. They go north and south in search of largemouths, smallmouths, and spotted bass. They fish natural lakes, impoundments, and rivers. That’s why veteran Kentucky pro Mark Menendez believes that the Kentucky Lake area has produced so many top competitors.

“We have a pretty good diversity of water here to fish,” Menendez told MeatEater. “We have some great offshore fishing lakes, which means that local guys have to become adept with their electronics, but we also have small lakes where the best fishing is ultra-shallow. We have a lot of rivers, too—the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and the Ohio. There’s also the fact that we can fish for all of the species of bass.”

Still, he’s the first to admit that no one location has it all.

“The one thing we don’t have a lot of is vegetation,” he said. “I had to learn how to fish that on the road at places like Sam Rayburn and in Florida. But overall we’re lucky to have a lot of places to fish with different natural conditions. It all comes together to make for some pretty good fishermen.”

North Carolina pro Matt Arey doesn’t dispute that Kentucky and Tennessee produce great anglers, but he said that his home state has a claim to the title.

“I would argue that the proof’s in the pudding,” he said. “We have the most Bassmaster Classic titles of any single state.”

But he also comes back to the diversity issue.

“We have high current lakes. We have zero current lakes,” Arey said. “We have places where you have to fish 40 feet deep and places where you have to fish less than 2 feet deep. It’s not surprising that a lot of guys here honed their skills on Lake Norman. It’s super diverse and you can catch fish any way you want to. That means if there’s a technique you’re uncomfortable with, you can practice it.”

He added that the region also produced some of the greatest tackle innovations, like precision cranking, jig skipping, and, of course, the chatterbait.

Go Where You Can Get on the Highway Quickly The old joke is that professional bass anglers are long haul truck drivers who occasionally stop to fish. One tournament ends and you have to drive 12 hours to the next one, grab a few winks in the cab of your truck, and start practice the next day. You should love to drive, or at least learn to tolerate it.

That’s part of the reason why Alabama and Tennessee are so popular among this crew. You’re guaranteed to have a couple of tournaments near home each year, and while it’s far from Vermont and South Florida, it’s not unreasonably far from either one. If you’re going to stay in Idaho, like Palaniuk did, prepare to drive 40 hours to Lake Champlain, perhaps more to Okeechobee. That’s him pulling the fifth-wheel and his wife pulling the boat. The gas bill alone could knock your financial stability on its ass.

However, some places that might otherwise be gathering points for pros might also be geographically undesirable. After a B.A.S.S. tournament visited Lake Amistad on the Texas-Mexico border for the first time in 2006 and caught the absolute dogsnot out of big bass, numerous pros bought land, homes, or businesses there. Only a few remain. Why? Because it’s 8 hours just to get to Sam Rayburn, in the same state. That’s an extra 16 hours of driving to most locations, when compared to another pro in East Texas who may still have a long haul to Florida, New York, or California.

Go Where It’s Affordable Why don’t we see many pros from New York City? Well, besides the lack of safe and easy boat parking, it’s expensive. So are most major metropolitan areas. Unless you are one of the handful of superhuman talents who come along once a decade, you’re not going to make a lot of money tournament fishing right off the bat. Even if you win, it’s going to take time to turn that success into the sponsorship dollars you’ll need to make a career of it. So, unless you have another source of income, you’ll need to live somewhere reasonably priced. Ideally that’s someplace where you can also develop a side-hustle of sorts, whether that be guiding, something else fishing-adjacent, or something flexible that’s external to the industry altogether.

Zaldain’s Best of Both Worlds Chris Zaldain honed his angling chops in California, but now calls Fort Worth, Texas, home. Is that the ultimate combination?

“In California, the possibilities were endless in learning how to fish,” he told MeatEater. “The fisheries were very diverse. It was also very co-angler friendly, meaning that you didn’t need to have a boat of your own to learn. It forced me to be diverse, able to use everything from a shakey head or a darter head on 6-pound fluorocarbon for big spotted bass on Lake Shasta, up to 65-pound-test braid for flipping on the California Delta.”

However, he noted that there were some challenges. “It’s just easier to bass fish here in Texas. It’s less expensive, with fewer restrictions. It seems like anywhere you can find a concrete slab you can launch your boat.”

California lakes are notorious for weird hours and steep launch fees. What it has in common with Texas is that they’re both slap-full of big fish. Every time you go out, you’re likely to be in the vicinity of a bass in the 8- to 10-pound range.

Big fish alone don’t make for great classrooms, though. “The runner-up state for big ones is Florida,” Zaldain said. “I think Florida is overrated for bass fishing.”

Because Zaldain has fished in such fertile zones, one thing he’s had to figure out is how to compete when fishing is “grind-‘em-out” tough. He’s forced himself to learn new techniques and to go out in the dead of winter when the big Florida-strain fish are at their most finicky. He constantly pushes himself. That extends to his lure choices, too. He loves nothing more than to glue a swimbait stick in his hand and chunk a big tennis shoe-sized glidebait around all day.

“I pushed myself for years with that one rod to learn how 8, 10, and 12 pounders bite big lures like that. If I’d grown up in Texas I’d probably be more of a worm and crankbait fisherman. That swimbait fishing bleeds into other techniques—angles, little tricks—and it definitely applies to other reaction-style baits. But I’ll admit that there’s another side of it. Sometimes I can’t put it down. I can’t shake the stubbornness of it.”

That begs the question: Is the stubbornness part of the Californian in him? Or part of his Texan nature? The bass don’t know and neither do we.

Feature image via Bill Lindner.

So you want to be a bass pro? Where you live may play a role in your short-term and long-term success. Geography is not destiny, of course. After all, three of the greatest anglers of all time—Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli, and Brandon Palaniuk—come from Michigan, New Jersey, and Idaho, respectively. None of those locales offer much in the way of sweet tea, nor have they produced tons of top anglers or record bass. This just shows that talent and effort ultimately win out.

But, as in any sport, the difference at the top tends to be so miniscule that any advantage you can garner will matter. While you can’t control where you came from, you can control where you move.

Accordingly, if you want to be the next VanDam, Iaconelli, or Palaniuk, you might want to set the GPS coordinates in your favor. Perhaps make like Jacob Wheeler, the current enfant terrible of the bass tours, who’s won nearly everything there is to win. He left the comparatively non-bassy state of Indiana for the more tournament-friendly banks of Tennessee. Not terribly far as the crow flies, but a world away.

Traditional Bassin’ Clusters Throughout professional bass fishing history, little collections of pros have arisen in discrete locations. In the 1970s, the “Hemphill Gang,” including future Bassmaster Classic winners Larry Nixon and Tommy Martin, gathered at Toledo Bend (Hemphill, Texas) and formed a clique. Later, a wide range of pros made Kentucky and Barkley lakes their home. Then Lake Fork became the hot lick deal, drawing anglers as diverse as Kelly Jordon (from within Texas), Dean Rojas (from California by way of Arizona), and Takahiro Omori (from Japan) to live, learn, and guide there. More recently, Lake Guntersville in Alabama became a hotbed for pro angling excellence. At some point during the course of their careers, Classic champions including Randy Howell, Boyd Duckett, and Chris Lane all moved there. So did two-time Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle and multiple tour-level winner Justin Lucas.

Of course, angling excellence is not limited to those towns. Within every corner of Arkansas, Alabama, and Texas, it seems, there’s a town with a welcome sign that says “Home of [Bass Pro X].”

Is there something in the water that makes those towns produce great pros? Or do those locations boast more well-established tournament cultures? In other words, is it nature, nurture, numbers, or a mix ‘n match selection of each?

Go Where You Can Fish a Lot The old adage that “there’s no substitute for time on the water” became a cliché for a reason—because it’s true. Even if you discount the cleanliness of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, until you’ve seen all circumstances and cracked each puzzle multiple times, the dudes on tour are going to eat your lunch. So, if you’re going to relocate as a precursor to becoming a pro angler, pick a place where the water doesn’t get hard and where there’s no closed season.

Granted, reigning Bassmaster Angler of the Year Seth Feider hails from Minnesota, and VanDam and Palaniuk are likewise from northern climes, but they’re exceptions to the rule. Remember, there are baseball players from Canada and Maine, but far more are raised in Arizona, Florida, and California. Those are all places where the infrastructure exists to play year-round.

Seek Out Mentorship Angling infrastructure is not limited to tackle shops, lakes, and tournament circuits. People are a key element as well. Why do you think those historic clusters arose at Toledo Bend, Fork, Kentucky (Lake), and Guntersville? It wasn’t just that they were great fisheries (although that clearly played a role). There was also a human snowball effect at play. As more pros and would-be pros decided to make those places their home base, they could mingle and bounce ideas off of each other. They could also build a guide network, which added to their time on the water and their financial bottom line, which needs to be a key consideration in this day and age.

And remember—no one becomes a pro angler in a vacuum. Mentorship is necessary, whether that’s with one individual or a massive group. You need to fish with different people and learn from them. It’s simply impossible to learn it all by going it alone.

Go Where There’s Variety There are plenty of anglers who attribute their success on tour to the nature of their home state’s angling. Bill Lowen, reared on the stingy Ohio River, claims that his upbringing taught him to be scrappy and to maximize every single bite. Keith Combs, the three-time Toyota Texas Bass Classic champ, believes that the Lone Star State taught him to focus on the biggest bass in any fishery and the need to only get five bites each day—so long as they’re the right five bites.

Despite those divergent rationales, both anglers have been able to apply them to waters outside of their natural comfort zones. That’s critical. None of the major tours stay on one body or one type of fishery. They go north and south in search of largemouths, smallmouths, and spotted bass. They fish natural lakes, impoundments, and rivers. That’s why veteran Kentucky pro Mark Menendez believes that the Kentucky Lake area has produced so many top competitors.

“We have a pretty good diversity of water here to fish,” Menendez told MeatEater. “We have some great offshore fishing lakes, which means that local guys have to become adept with their electronics, but we also have small lakes where the best fishing is ultra-shallow. We have a lot of rivers, too—the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and the Ohio. There’s also the fact that we can fish for all of the species of bass.”

Still, he’s the first to admit that no one location has it all.

“The one thing we don’t have a lot of is vegetation,” he said. “I had to learn how to fish that on the road at places like Sam Rayburn and in Florida. But overall we’re lucky to have a lot of places to fish with different natural conditions. It all comes together to make for some pretty good fishermen.”

North Carolina pro Matt Arey doesn’t dispute that Kentucky and Tennessee produce great anglers, but he said that his home state has a claim to the title.

“I would argue that the proof’s in the pudding,” he said. “We have the most Bassmaster Classic titles of any single state.”

But he also comes back to the diversity issue.

“We have high current lakes. We have zero current lakes,” Arey said. “We have places where you have to fish 40 feet deep and places where you have to fish less than 2 feet deep. It’s not surprising that a lot of guys here honed their skills on Lake Norman. It’s super diverse and you can catch fish any way you want to. That means if there’s a technique you’re uncomfortable with, you can practice it.”

He added that the region also produced some of the greatest tackle innovations, like precision cranking, jig skipping, and, of course, the chatterbait.

Go Where You Can Get on the Highway Quickly The old joke is that professional bass anglers are long haul truck drivers who occasionally stop to fish. One tournament ends and you have to drive 12 hours to the next one, grab a few winks in the cab of your truck, and start practice the next day. You should love to drive, or at least learn to tolerate it.

That’s part of the reason why Alabama and Tennessee are so popular among this crew. You’re guaranteed to have a couple of tournaments near home each year, and while it’s far from Vermont and South Florida, it’s not unreasonably far from either one. If you’re going to stay in Idaho, like Palaniuk did, prepare to drive 40 hours to Lake Champlain, perhaps more to Okeechobee. That’s him pulling the fifth-wheel and his wife pulling the boat. The gas bill alone could knock your financial stability on its ass.

However, some places that might otherwise be gathering points for pros might also be geographically undesirable. After a B.A.S.S. tournament visited Lake Amistad on the Texas-Mexico border for the first time in 2006 and caught the absolute dogsnot out of big bass, numerous pros bought land, homes, or businesses there. Only a few remain. Why? Because it’s 8 hours just to get to Sam Rayburn, in the same state. That’s an extra 16 hours of driving to most locations, when compared to another pro in East Texas who may still have a long haul to Florida, New York, or California.

Go Where It’s Affordable Why don’t we see many pros from New York City? Well, besides the lack of safe and easy boat parking, it’s expensive. So are most major metropolitan areas. Unless you are one of the handful of superhuman talents who come along once a decade, you’re not going to make a lot of money tournament fishing right off the bat. Even if you win, it’s going to take time to turn that success into the sponsorship dollars you’ll need to make a career of it. So, unless you have another source of income, you’ll need to live somewhere reasonably priced. Ideally that’s someplace where you can also develop a side-hustle of sorts, whether that be guiding, something else fishing-adjacent, or something flexible that’s external to the industry altogether.

Zaldain’s Best of Both Worlds Chris Zaldain honed his angling chops in California, but now calls Fort Worth, Texas, home. Is that the ultimate combination?

“In California, the possibilities were endless in learning how to fish,” he told MeatEater. “The fisheries were very diverse. It was also very co-angler friendly, meaning that you didn’t need to have a boat of your own to learn. It forced me to be diverse, able to use everything from a shakey head or a darter head on 6-pound fluorocarbon for big spotted bass on Lake Shasta, up to 65-pound-test braid for flipping on the California Delta.”

However, he noted that there were some challenges. “It’s just easier to bass fish here in Texas. It’s less expensive, with fewer restrictions. It seems like anywhere you can find a concrete slab you can launch your boat.”

California lakes are notorious for weird hours and steep launch fees. What it has in common with Texas is that they’re both slap-full of big fish. Every time you go out, you’re likely to be in the vicinity of a bass in the 8- to 10-pound range.

Big fish alone don’t make for great classrooms, though. “The runner-up state for big ones is Florida,” Zaldain said. “I think Florida is overrated for bass fishing.”

Because Zaldain has fished in such fertile zones, one thing he’s had to figure out is how to compete when fishing is “grind-‘em-out” tough. He’s forced himself to learn new techniques and to go out in the dead of winter when the big Florida-strain fish are at their most finicky. He constantly pushes himself. That extends to his lure choices, too. He loves nothing more than to glue a swimbait stick in his hand and chunk a big tennis shoe-sized glidebait around all day.

“I pushed myself for years with that one rod to learn how 8, 10, and 12 pounders bite big lures like that. If I’d grown up in Texas I’d probably be more of a worm and crankbait fisherman. That swimbait fishing bleeds into other techniques—angles, little tricks—and it definitely applies to other reaction-style baits. But I’ll admit that there’s another side of it. Sometimes I can’t put it down. I can’t shake the stubbornness of it.”

That begs the question: Is the stubbornness part of the Californian in him? Or part of his Texan nature? The bass don’t know and neither do we.

Feature image via Bill Lindner.