DENHAM SPRINGS — When professional bass fisherman Derek Hudnall opened his visit with the Denham Springs High School Fishing Team by asking how many of the young anglers wanted to be a professional bass fisherman one day, about 20 hands went up into the air.
Hudnall congratulated the aspiring fishermen on their desire to excel in the sport and then launched into a lecture on what the students should learn if they are serious about chasing bass around the nation for a living. Hudnall didn’t start his talk with tips on how to catch fish, rather, he told the gathering the other aspects of what it takes to succeed in the fishing industry at the highest level of competition.
Hudnall, of Central, competes in the Bassmaster Elite Series, the top echelon of professional bass fishing tournaments. The professional anglers compete all year for the opportunity to win points toward the Bassmaster Angler of the Year Award and to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic held each year on different bodies of water throughout the United States. Hudnall earned sufficient points in preliminary tournaments to qualify for the 2019 Bassmaster Classic, winning a spot among the very top bass fishermen in the world.
“Getting to the elite level of bass fishing is a long, tough road," Hudnall said. "I started fishing with my father, Roger, when I was old enough to stand up in a boat. He was a great fisherman and a respected bass fisherman but a tough teacher. ... I thought when I was growing up that if I was ever given the opportunity to become a professional fisherman, I would never turn it down. It turns out that it wasn’t all that easy. I had some hard lessons to learn.”
Hudnall said he obtained his first boat in his early 20s and started fishing in local bass tournaments. He started honing his craft with the dream of someday becoming a full-time fisherman when his life was suddenly changed.
“I went through a very difficult divorce and lost everything that I had ... my boat, other things, but especially my will to continue my dream of becoming a professional bass fisherman. I did not fish for five years. This was a dark time in my life and there were times when I didn’t know if I would get through it. But God knocked on the door and he woke me up. I straightened my life out and decided that it was time to see if I could become the fisherman that I wanted to be.”
He met and married his wife, Anya, and with her encouragement about five years ago he decided to begin fishing open tournaments — events where aspiring professional anglers can earn points that can lead to moving up to the elite series. Over time, he began to win tournaments. In his fourth year, he finished high enough in the Central Division Tournament to earn the points he needed to move up to elite status.
Hudnall said that when he decided to devote all of his time to fishing, he decided to take his time building his career before attempting to qualify for the elite status. He said he had many things to learn along the way and is now grateful that he made it to the top of the fishing community one step at a time.
The business side
Young fishermen who wish to someday become a professional should first learn the business side of the sport, Hudnall said. Participating in the Bassmaster Elite Series is an expensive proposition, he said, pointing out that participants have to pay high fees to enter the 11 tournaments on the Bassmaster trail.
In addition to the entry fees, fishermen must also pay travel costs and the expenses of maintaining a highly efficient boat and all the tackle necessary to successfully compete. To help defray the expenses, almost all pro bass fishermen have to enlist the financial support of what most refer to as sponsors.
Hudnall said, with emphasis, that he does not use the term “sponsors.”
“I don’t call those who have helped me my sponsors," he said. "To me, they are my partners, and that is what I call them. A sponsor means that someone is giving you money, but a partnership means that you are an ambassador for a business. Our industry needs more ambassadors. I am proud that one of my major partners is the state of Louisiana. I’m super happy to represent Louisiana. I love my state and all that is so special and unique about our great state and all that it has to offer,” he said.
The state tourism motto, “Louisiana, Feed Your Soul,” is emblazoned on the side of his boat and on his fishing jersey.
Developing partners takes time and patience, Hudnall said, adding, “Nobody is going to come up to you when you first start out and offer to financially support you. You have to show them that you have value, that you can help them expose their brand and give value to their enterprise. You have to be ready to meet people and convince them that you can be a valued partner.”
Hudnall said being a professional fisherman is more than just participating in the tournaments. He said he spends much of his time visiting with groups such as the Denham Springs High School Fishing Team, attending promotional events, fishing in local tournaments and visiting with tackle and fishing gear manufacturers.
Hudnall said that research before a tournament even starts is mandatory. He said information about the lakes and water bodies where major tournaments are held is readily available through social media. He explained that he studies the water and conditions in detail before he makes the first cast in a tournament.
Learning how to use electronic depth finders is also critical to success, he said. He utilizes different scanning devices to find cover and areas where fish are most likely to be feeding.
Knowing what the fish are feeding on is also important, he said.
Hudnall said finding levels of water with the highest concentrations of oxygen is also important in catching fish.
Hudnall said he doesn’t stock up on a huge number of different lures. He said he tries to match his lure to what the fish are feeding on and that he keeps his selection of lures basic and relatively simple.
“Fishing at the professional level is demanding both physically and mentally and you have to learn to make good decisions if you are going to be successful. Sometimes you make bad decisions, but you have to persevere. I am a dreamer, and my dream is coming true. The profession I have chosen is rewarding and fulfilling, and I count myself blessed to have achieved what successes that have come my way.”
Answering a question from one of the high school fishermen, Hudnall said he was not superstitious and that he doesn’t rely on luck.
Fishing as a team sport
Kenneth Lang, faculty adviser to the school’s fishing team, said 21 two-person teams have signed up to be members of the group. High school fishing is a new sport in Louisiana and the Denham Springs High School Team was started three years ago. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association has adopted bass fishing as an official sport and began organizing the sport for the first time this year. High school fishermen compete in state tournaments and, if successful, can advance to regional and national tournaments.
“For our team members, it’s a generational thing. Most of these kids started fishing with their fathers, and they can only compete if their family has a boat. Being on our team gives our students the opportunity to participate in a sport they truly enjoy,” he said.
Lang said the team is now seeking “partnerships” with local businesses and individuals. Partners will have their names on the jerseys worn by the fishermen. For a $500 donation, a partner will have their name placed on the front of the team jerseys. For a $250 donation, the name will be placed on the back of the jersey.