Elite Series rookie Cooper Gallant starting trend among Canadian competitors
Cooper Gallant has started something.
In 2022, the Bowmanville, Ont., native committed to fishing all nine Bassmaster Opens in the U.S. to qualify for the Elite Series, pro bass fishing's top circuit. The move paid off as Gallant finished third in the Southern standings to punch his ticket.
This year, five Canadians — Jamie Bruce of Kenora, Ont., Paul Bouvier of Kingston, Ont., Ryan Clark of Whitby, Ont., Evan Kung of Pickering, Ont. and Danny McGarry of Newcastle, Ont. — are following Gallant's lead. They're fishing the nine Opens for one of nine '24 Elite Series spots.
Kung was the top Canadian in last week's season opener on Alabama's Lake Eufaula, finishing 99th in the 223-angler field. Bruce was 105th, followed by McGarry (150th), Clark (201st) and Bouvier (218th).
"There's many good fishermen in Ontario and definitely people who're capable of doing it," Gallant said. "It will be super cool to see over the next few years who decides to put in the work and travel all of those miles to try and make it happen."
Cory Johnston of Cavan, Ont., agrees. Johnston, his brother, Chris, of Peterborough, Ont., and Jeff Gustafson, of Kenora, are all in their fifth Elite Series campaign. Before that, they all fished professionally on the Fishing League Worldwide (FLW) circuit.
"I don't think people down south realize how many good anglers we have or how diverse our fishery is," Cory Johnston said. "They think all we do is go to the Great Lakes and catch smallmouth.
"They don't understand we all grew up fishing largemouth."
For the first time, four Canadians will compete in the US$1-million Bassmaster Classic, pro bass fishing's premier event, March 24-26 on the Tennessee River. The Johnstons and Gustafson will make a fourth straight Classic appearance, while this will be Gallant's first.
"For guys who're really passionate about it like we are, I'm sure it's pretty cool," Gustafson said. "I guess we've proven you can do it and be competitive.
"I hope more Canadians can get in there."
So does Chris Johnston.
"It's great to see and I hope there's 10 Canadians here in the next few years fishing (the Classic)," he said. "It's nice we kind of paved the way and have showed people, 'Hey, there's a chance you can do it even if you're not from the U.S.'
"There are many good anglers in Canada who have the talent to do it and are now kind of giving it a shot."
Ninety-five of the Elite Series' 104 anglers are American. In addition to the Canadians, the circuit features four Japanese competitors and Australian Carl Jocumsen.
But there's more to being a pro than just competing. There's repeated border crossings and hours of towing a 20-foot boat across the U.S. while also paying expenses (like gas, food, lodging and entry fees) in American currency.
Many anglers secure sponsors to help offset costs. But with that come a) added pressure to perform and b) participating in sponsor-driven activities.
"I was lucky, I got some help financially when I started or maybe I never would've even attempted it," Gustafson said. "Either you save up so you can do it without that stress or you find good sponsorship but real money probably isn't going to come from the fishing community until you sort of prove yourself.
"I've seen many really talented anglers come and go who just didn't have much financial support. They signed up and put the whole season on a credit card, then you have two or three bad events that create this huge hole of debt. Then the fun goes away, the pressure mounts and you're not going to make good decisions and fish well. That's probably the most challenging part."
So, too, is keeping it fun when bites are scarce.
"It's kind of a ruthless activity," Gustafson said. "The highs can be very high and awesome but the lows are really low also.
"It's fishing, and no matter how well you know a place or how confident you are, there's going to be tough days and then there'll be times when results are better than you expected. Either way, I try not to get too high or low because weather and other variables could be completely different the next day and you've got to be able to adjust and change things up."
There's also honing one's craft. All four Canadian Elite Series competitors not only fish other events (before or after Elite Series schedule) but also on their own.
"I live on Lake of the Woods and fish there the most but when I go out, very seldom do I go where I know I can catch fish," Gustafson said. "I'm always looking for new places and new ways to catch fish, that's how you get better.
"When I come down here, we have a three-day pre-fish on many bodies of water you've never seen before or know much about so you've got to be pretty efficient on how to find fish and catch them."
Gustafson said perseverance is key for young pro anglers.
"If you can survive the first few years, I think it probably does get easier, from both sponsorship and routine standpoints," he said. "But just because you make it to the Elite Series, it's very easy to get kicked out.
"Every year, 10 new guys come in and 10 guys sort of go. It's based upon performance so you've got to maintain a pretty good level of consistency."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press