By Kevin Hawk
When the 2016 Elite Series field was recently finalized and published, I knew my name wouldn’t be on it, but I had to look anyway. I needed the closure. After finishing in 96th place in the Angler of the Year standings I’d failed to requalify, which left me feeling about as embarrassed and disappointed as if I’d been cut from my high school baseball team all over again. In both cases, I realized I lacked the skills to compete.
Growing up I loved playing baseball almost as much as I did going bass fishing. But when it came to baseball I spent more time on the bench than on the field. My fielding was solid, but I struck out—a lot. I knew in order to have a chance at making my high school baseball team I needed to become a better hitter, so I took batting practice nearly every day for a year leading up to tryouts.
My confidence at the plate rose rapidly like a thermometer in the Vegas sun. But after watching several of my classmates pepper the outfield with line-drives during tryouts, I had to admit my hitting skills just weren’t on the same level.
Agonizingly, I would see the same discrepancy this past season during the Elite Series when I was sandwiched between anglers like Todd Faircloth and Brent Ehrler at the holding tanks, waiting to weigh-in. After catching glances at their bags I was often left shaking my head in frustration. Sometimes it would only be a quarter-pound gap while other times it was five pounds. The point is there was always a gap—one I couldn’t figure out how to close.
It’s possible to recover from one, two, or even three poor tournament seasons with a successful one. It’s been done before but it requires unwavering desire and dedication, or it’s too easy to succumb to the physical, mental, and financial grind required to compete. I’ve always kept my body and mind sound by working out regularly and surrounding myself with positive-minded people. Staying in shape and keeping a positive attitude have given me the strength to continue picking myself up despite being knocked down after so many poor tournament finishes.
But the financial grind has worn me down the way sand slowly erodes on a beach as it’s pounded by wave after crashing wave. You don’t notice the sand disappearing on a daily basis, but when you step back and look at snapshots over time you can’t help but notice it.
When I hoisted the 2010 Forrest Wood Cup overhead it gave me an opportunity to pursue a career in bass fishing—one I dreamed of every day growing up. Two years later I finished on top of the B.A.S.S. Southern Open Division and qualified for the Elite Series. With my Cup winnings and the ability to provide considerably more exposure for my sponsors on the Elites I felt I put myself in the position to make a living tournament fishing at the highest level. I knew if I could consistently place in the money, qualify for Classics, and win the occasional event I’d be able to cement my path to a long, successful career.
Despite my work ethic, focus, and drive to be competitive I have not finished higher than 71st in AOY points, I have not qualified for the Classic, or come close to winning an event spanning three seasons. I realized I needed to take a practical look at my Elite Series career. I could easily continue forcing my way down that path I’m on but I know I may jeopardize losing the remaining winnings I have left from the Cup—winnings giving me the freedom to pursue bass fishing full-time.
So I’ve decided not to fish the B.A.S.S. Opens this year in an effort to try and re qualify for the Elite Series. Instead, like a gambler hedging his bet, I’m going to use my remaining Cup winnings to continue building the bass fishing guide service I’ve operated on a part-time basis over the past few years to ensure I can stay on the water doing what I love.
The potential for me to make a successful living guiding is greater than tournament angling, and I don’t want to lose the freedom I cherish so dearly—earning a living bass fishing.
I’m not one to never say never, and I may decide to try and qualify for the Elites again in the future. I don’t know. I’ve learned not to speak in absolutes anymore, because I’ve learned my experiences shape my feelings and thoughts, and I experience new things every day. If I do return, I’ll be physically, mentally, and financially prepared. Most importantly, I’ll have reached a higher skill level—a competitive one.