The Road to Becoming a Great Angler

A while back, I was involved in a discussion with a group of anglers.  The discussion ended up going a dozen different directions but the main argument being made was this:  Some anglers just have God-given talents that allow them to catch more/bigger bass.  There was no use trying to consistently beat these guys and this is why you typically see the same small group of anglers at the top of the standings.  

This discussion was one of the reasons why Game Over Angling was started because I wholeheartedly reject the premise that only a certain pre-ordained few will be the best anglers.

Are Great Anglers Born or Made?

To be sure this topic isn’t one limited to the sport of bass fishing.  Every sport has had and continues to have a debate about what makes one great.  Every sport has its stories of “can’t miss” talents that failed to live up to expectations as well as underdogs who seemingly overcame every obstacle on the way to greatness.

But bass fishing especially seems to have a real issue with identifying what it is that makes an angler successful.  Even more challenging seems to be the question of what makes the top 10% well…the top 10%?

If bass fishing ever aspires to be considered a legitimate sport, it needs to first deal with this issue of what makes the best at the sport great.

Let’s start off with the idea that great bass fishermen possess a talent that makes them the best.


So what exactly is talent when it comes to fishing?  Is it a set of physical traits that allow some anglers to cast with greater accuracy?  Is it a by-product of hand-eye coordination?  It would be hard to argue that a traditional set of athletic ability (running, jumping, strength) play an important role in bass fishing.

Endurance might be another issue.  Since most everyone agrees that “time on the water” is an important factor to becoming great then how long you can stay on the water would seem to correlate somewhat with success.  But I’ve never really heard this idea come up in regards to a talent.

When most anglers speak of greatness and bass fishing the conversations inevitably shifts back to a certain mental prowess.  Great anglers seem to know things.  They know where to go, what to use, how long to stay, how to operate their equipment and what the bass are doing and they have confidence in what they know.

So maybe this “knowing” is the real talent involved in bass fishing.

A Great Angler?

Knowledge seems to imply that there is a set of information that can be learned.  But bass fishermen are at odds on whether or not that special set of fishing knowledge can be taught or if it just has to be experienced.

Take KVD for example.  There is much less debate on his greatness than there is exactly what makes him great.  This inability to quantify greatness is a unique feature of bass fishing.  If we can’t identify what makes our sports greatest angler special then we are left with mystical catchphrases about being “natural” or “mentally tough”, or “competitive” without any real reckoning as to what any of that really means.

Other sports don’t have this problem of identifying what makes their great players great.  Their talent and their skills are broken down, analyzed, taught and replicated by nearly all other participants, young and old.

But bass fishing still seems to suffer from the lucky fisherman stigma.

Take two anglers sitting on the bank both casting a nightcrawler and a bobber.  One angler catches five, the other catches none.  What are we to make of this?  In some ways, bass angling is still saddled with this legacy of fishing being luck.  The vast majority of the general public can relate much more with a lucky fisherman with a lucky hat than any idea of fishing talent.

I’ve heard countless versions of this same idea.  When the topic of competition or practice as it relates to fishing comes up, someone inevitably asks,

Well, how can you practice fishing.  I mean, don’t you just throw something out there and hope a fish bites it?”


Very often you will hear that a great angler has great instincts.  Again, what exactly does this mean?  Usually, you will hear the following:

  • They know where to go
  • They know where to cast
  • They know what to use
  • They know when to change colors
  • They know when to leave
  • They know what the fish are doing.  They “think like a fish”.

Not sure if we aren’t confusing “instinct” with “knowledge”.  Just as we confused “talent” for knowledge.


Hands down, the number one correlation between angling success and angling effort seems to be the idea of “time on the water”. Makes perfect sense.  I mean, the more I’m out there fishing, the more I learn and therefore the more I know.  So let’s take a closer look at this idea by posing a series of questions regarding time on the water and experience?

Why aren’t the oldest, most experienced anglers always the best?

For a sport that seems to value mental abilities, knowledge, and experience, why aren’t the anglers that possess those things in spades the best?  It’s a legitimate question.  There should be no chance for an angler with 5-10 years of experience to compete with let alone beat another with 30-50 years of experience.  Yet it happens all the time.

Is it possible for time on the water to be a negative?

Is there a way to spend time on the water that makes an angler worse?  Is there a way to practice incorrectly?  All things to consider especially if you’ve ever been in a situation where despite having years of experience with a river or lake, you felt as if you were getting worse there.

Experience vs Change?

If change is inevitable, then can it work against experience?  Whether it be boats, baits or technology, every year presents new options.  Some of those options end up making a real difference in catching fish.

The bodies of water themselves change.  Everything from the cover, structure and forage base is in a constant state of change.  If experience is measured by a list of locations and baits that will work, then having an “out of date” list so to speak would be a negative and all that “time on the water” could backfire.

Let’s hear from you.  What’s the best road to becoming a great angler?

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  1. Passion for the sport must be on top the list. With passion comes desire, a quest for knowledge, which then leads to an understanding of the species. With passion, knowledge, and understanding in hand, a source of finances is needed to acquire the minimum gear to be a proficient fisherman. If greatness is only determined by a person’s rank and standing in the FLW (example), then community support and opportunity must be included. Young people are not generally blessed with the finances to become a “great” fisherman during their teen years even though they may have the strength, coordination, and stamina needed to compete a high level. Older fisherman, like myself, no longer have the physical attributes to compete on a regular basis. If tournament rankings are removed from the equation, then passion for the sport is king.

    1. Good point…How do we decide “greatness” when it comes to bass fishing? Or even “really goodness”? Maybe passion is the secret ingredient, the “talent”?

      1. Don’t know how greatness is defined, but we can all agree that from where someone starts, they need to improve considerably in order to get there. The biggest factor in my improvement is taking advantage of every opportunity to learn. I’m hardwired to be able to spend most of the day looking rather than fishing. I’m willing to bail on my plans if an opportunity for learning is presented. I will seek out difficult conditions to learn boat control. Clear conditions to see. Low water conditions to look at bottom composition..etc. I’m good with ruling out, as much as ruling in. Entire books could probably be written on this, but I bet the great ones are quite flexible in their plans and when they detect a learning moment, they get after it. This is where time on the water is not created equal in my opinion.

  2. I truly believe that some of these guys…..including Don Hogue…..have a gift from God. That does NOT mean that Don hasn’t built that gift up to astronomical proportions. He clearly put in hours and years and effort and defeat and MONEY in order to reach the highest capacity of that gift. Kinda like how Michael Jordan was one of the best “practicers” of all time. He reached his highest capacity…….even though he was given a 6’7″ body with extreme speed, dexterity, coordination and mental toughness. We all know the guys who seem to be able to catch fish in any mud-puddle they throw into. There has to be something different about them that can’t be practiced.
    With all of that said…..If I had to put my finger on one thing to make an angler better, I would definitely say TIME ON THE WATER!

    1. Plenty greater than me and my point is not really who is great
      but what defines it? What are the ingredients? I don’t think I would fit your description Dusty because there isn’t one thing I do that can’t be taught and learned. I know because I learned it all from somewhere.

      1. I agree with Dusty in one respect here… I see it in business all the time. The ability to see “all the angles.” Very few have it. God given? Maybe. To make sense of something or take advantage of something simple or complex. Often it is simple, such as taking the initiative to explore google earths features rather than just take the instant gratification that comes with what is obvious. When Ultrex came out, I couldn’t wait to get power poles. Why would a shallow water angler need spotlock? It is for that reason, that mentorship and networking is an important factor in maximizing potential. A solid foundation, typically rooted in club angling or co-angling in the federation combined with an explorer/learner mentality is a start. The mentor/network helps past the ruts and barriers.

    2. Dusty, The idea that infalable anglers exist who can catch fish out of mud puddles is an outright myth. I fished with Tag Watson at Osoyoos and we caught 1 good fish in 3 days in November there. I fished with Ron Hobbs on the Columbia River in the summer once and we caught 1 fish in the better part of a day. Tough conditions, and pre-fishing/ruling out stuff were the excuses, but its important that less experienced anglers understand that nobody catches them all the time. If you think that way, failures can start to get in your head and they shoudn’t.

  3. I believe there is a certain intuition and the ability for a person to listen to that inner voice, which could also be described as memory or experience. In the not so distant past, there was a really good article on this but I don’t recall in which publication it was published.
    I’ve had the opportunity to fish with some of the best in the area, and their ability to make subtle changes that produce big results is uncanny. When asked why, often times there isn’t a logical response, but something triggered that adjustment. I think a lot of guys do this when fun fishing or practicing, but fail to execute it at tournament time.

  4. All good stuff, and really fascinating to me. Interesting how we have opinions about what makes a great shortstop, or at least can argue why Omar Vizquel deserves to be in the Hall of Fame or not, but when it comes to bass fishing we are fixated on all the stuff around the edges but have little to say about the actual skills or talents involved.
    Imagine if the discussions around Vizquel centered on whether he used a Wilson or a Rawlings glove.

    1. Don- But we cant argue that KVD is Hall of Fame Good, he can do things and fish in ways no other can, just as Elite athletes can do things on the field that no other person can!

      1. Ron, I suspect you may be able to list some of those things that make KVD great, but for most, or most of what I’ve heard and read is mysteriously littered with phrases like “talent”, “mental toughness”, “casts per minute” as a few examples. The fact that you have specific skills in mind when you say “things” pretty much proves my point. You know of those things that make a difference and therefore put them into action. Most people still believe bass fishing is 3 parts luck, 2 parts bait color, and 1 part sublimated jersey.

  5. I honestly would like to dive into the time on the water, making you better or worse? Ever heard the term “practice makes perfect”? That term is over used and not at all correct, a wise coach once told me “perfect practice makes perfect” this has stuck with me for the last 25 years, and when I am fishing for fun or whatever I strive for perfect practice.
    This being said I see guys out fun fishing yet they are trying to “perfect anything” sloppy casts just going down a bank just flinging baits out there trying to get there baits close to a target, not trying to make a perfect cast, not trying to put pieces together, neither eliminating suspicion or confirming, it would be the same as if you went to basketball practice and practice half court shots the whole time, you get it, yes you are still practicing but something that is useless and never will be used during game time unless you want to ride the bench.
    I see too many guys not fishing with any “intent” during practice and during tournaments.
    All this being said I never saw the word “discipline” on what makes a great angler. Can discipline be taught or learned? Most of the time mind discipline would be top of my list, discipline to always cast with certain and specific intent, discipline to not let it bother you that the guy 100 yards away caught a giant, discipline when things aren’t going your way your head is still in the game and still fishing hard to the last second. Each person has a certain level of discipline it probably could be taught be certainly hard to adhere too.

    Aggressiveness is another thing that people are born with, can it be taught probably but each individual seems to fall back to a certain level. How do I relate this to fishing? Well I think it relates to how you attack a lake and how you fish, are you going to get complacent and kind of meander over to this spot kind of hit the “meat” but really just skim the edges, or are you going to get in skim the fat devour the meat and get the hell out to the next “meat”.
    I could blabber for hours on this topic because I find it very intriguing, Awesome article!

    1. It seems as though Ron has zero tolerance for complacency and laziness. I suspect that plays a big part in his continuous improvement and greatness.

  6. Jon-
    Don’t they say the best players play there best when the lights shine their brightest? Maybe this is the same for guys in tournaments. I know and knew guys that are absolutely amazing anglers outside of a tournaments, absolutely mop the floor, but put those same guys in a tournament setting when the lights are their brightest and bam they turn into an average Joe.
    What changes to those athletes that wilt under pressure and for this topic those anglers who are just amazing anglers to take a nose dive?
    Sports Psycologists have been working on this for years I presume, so as a bass fishing group can we really even put a small scratch in the surface?
    Great comments to everyone!

  7. A quick KVD story…
    At the Classic that I participated in, the 3 days of practice were especially tough on everyone. Snow, ice, and freezing temperatures are not normally associated with bass fishing in Alabama. Many, maybe most of the anglers had whole days of no bites. The first day we had to all report to the hotel where we were to stay for the remainder of the Classic, I stepped into an elevator and before the doors closed in walked KVD and Denny Brauer. They were in mid-conversation about how tough the fishing had been with phrases like “not a bite,” and “toughest days of practice I’ve ever had”
    After a quick introduction, which I didn’t need, they commented on how I was probably right at home with the cold weather as if this was playing right into my hands. I assured them that I didn’t find Alabama bass any more cooperative in snow and ice than they did. They got off the elevator before I did, and as KVD left, he turned to me and said with absolute certainty, “but it’s about to get a whole lot better.”
    That kind of predictive knowledge and understanding about bass is one of the things that makes him great in my opinion. Imagine fishing the Classic and after little to no feedback in practice, you know exactly where to set up and how to executed to win it.

    1. You sure he knew it was going to get better because he had knowledge that others didn’t, I don’t think he knew anything more than anybody else, he just has more self discipline which leads to more confidence than anybody on the tour. To some confidence is built through knowing or thinking they have an edge, others it’s just there they have convinced themselves and their minds that they will be at the top of regardless of the situation of prefish etc.

    2. Don,

      I’m new to your site and have really enjoyed viewing all the cool fishing experiences you have documented. I was reading through this discussion board and wanted to weigh in on a few things. Ron Hobbs mentioned discipline and competitiveness or “having an edge”. Although these things can be “worked on” or “strived for”, I believe you either posses these traits or you don’t (not naturally anyway). Notice I used the term “traits”. I’m very new to tournament bass fishing but have some education in business leadership. I was taught to identify traits in myself and in other people and address areas of weakness. Your story about KVD saying “its about to get a lot better” is him demonstrating knowledge. He knew the weather was setting up for a pre spawn bite in the creek where he won it. His confidence and discipline to stay in that creek and let the fish come to him were a demonstration of traits that he has. I truly believe that this is why so many people catch fish so many different ways. If you posses a calm and patient demeanor, you most likely have no problem fishing a drop shot in twenty feet of water. If your like me, your energetic, impatient, and want to make things happen. On that same body of water I will be throwing a spinnerbait covering water. How does this relate to the original question? The great fisherman know what traits they possess and use them to their fullest extent. I have followed KVD for awhile and I will tell you this, he gets beat pretty bad in tournaments where there isn’t a reaction bite (he placed 29th in the classic this year). Lucky for KVD his natural traits of discipline, competitiveness, impatience (I didn’t day all traits are good traits) play right into his strengths of being a reaction fishermen. Also, those tactics win a very large percentage of tournaments and he knows if he is going to win, he needs to fish his strengths. So how would I define what makes the best angler the “best”. As I mentioned earlier, I believe the top 10% of anglers utilize the natural traits they posses to the fullest extent. From your responses earlier I expect you will say “Traits” still don’t define what it is that makes them great. I would argue that is does, because its not the same “traits” for all the top 10% anglers. There is overlap for sure, but did you watch Jordan Lee very calmly (even said please I think) ask a spectator to back away as a 4 lb. fish he was fighting was trying to swim under their boat during this years classic? That demeanor of his is an expression of traits he possesses which are different then the traits KVD express’s. For the kind of fishing that had to be done to win the classic this year, Jordan’s traits were the “Best” for the job.

      I could start a whole new topic on how the best anglers are constantly trying to develop traits that are not natural to them to become better at adapting to different situations.

  8. Ron brings up a good point: Competitiveness. Maybe these guys are going to be winners in whatever sport or profession they do…..just because they love to win…..or hate to lose. Perhaps they just happened to get bit by the Bass Fishing bug along the way. KVD does not seem like the type of guy to lose in fishing or checkers or business or whatever he is doing. Palaniuk was a state champ wrestler too……I think.

  9. All interesting points – cool topic Don – One thing I will say is that many of the best fisherman I know are people who A.) have the passion for becoming good at it (just as Bob says) and B.) are good at other things their passionate about too. A combination of a lot of the things previously mentioned contribute to an angler’s ‘success’, but the ability to make good decisions is the center piece in my opinion. The same thing that makes good anglers successful at other walks of life, sports or not, is decision making and critical thinking skills. That applies to prefish, bait selection, fishing locations, technology, etc. With that said, there are a lot of obstacles that exist to angling success, regardless of their critical thinking skills. Lack of time on the water being the most obvious one. Time on the water might be a pillar to building a Great angler. Maybe one way to think of this topic is there being a few pillars that make up Greatness. Experience (time on water); Decision Making, Passion, Physical Fitness. Wow, the more you think about this topic the deeper your thoughts become, I just wanna go fish. 😀

  10. I agree with Rons point about self confidence and KVDs comment. When I started fishing with Bob Hogue the thing that sticks out in my mind more than anything is he always knows we were going to figure it out soon. Keep looking, keep trying different things, look for a sign, if they’re here and active they’ll let you know right away. My first two years were more like..keep checking spots that we had previous success. I finally started to listen and adjust, don’t keep fishing the same area that they already let you know they weren’t active, don’t keep fishing the same depth with no indication. Just last weekend I fished a roadbed that they shouldn’t be on quite yet. I caught one fish in deeper water nearby and suspected they were still in 25 feet of water near the entry to the shallower water. I didn’t try it…On the way home I had sent Bob a picture of the one fish I did catch and his response was “that looks like the roadbed, I wouldn’t think they would be there yet, I’d check the big rocky area in about 25 feet near where they are likely staged to come shallower. Good news is I’m thinking a lot more about where they should be, but don’t always have the self confidence to believe in what I know and try it. I believe to get to be good you need a lot of help, a father, friend, or mentor to teach what they know, the resources, the drive, the love of the sport and the time on the water to gradually put it all together. To get to be great you need to live and breath bass fishing, have time on the water, have at least friendly competition to push you, and to never stop trying to get better.

  11. I’ve been blessed to be able to fish with alot of good anglers being a back seater and one thing I have noticed that separates the angler that does average in tournaments versus the ones that consistently do well is they are more open minded to change. I have fished with, or against, stubborn people who will fish the same way day in and day out regardless of the conditions and regardless of how poor their results are. The guys I have fished with that are good and do well are the ones that pay attention to if they are getting bites and on what type of cover or structure they are getting bites on. And will make changes throughout the day to have more success. I think a guy could go fish every day and not learn anything if they are not open minded to change based off of results or lack thereof. And changes could be different lures, different parts of the lake that could be better for that time of year and how the weather could be affecting the fish. Like I said, I have been blessed to fish with alot of guys because it has helped me learn on what to do and not what to do.

    1. I think Cody and Greg are talking about good. Getting good is pretty easy to explain in my mind. Great is where the conversation gets much more subtle. It simply isn’t about “time on the water” or “being open minded.” All good anglers have those traits. Davey Hite and Chris Zaldain today on live Classic Coverage was talking about this very topic. They were pointing to “wasted casts” while watching Jason Christie live. There were none. All casts went beyond the target. None short. Every cast had a chance to get bit. I went fishing yesterday, and I made alot of casts that were never going to get bit. This is yet another example of many in which the casual angler can’t tell that difference. The difference between good vs. great looks like a fine line, but I think its a great divide that is subtle and involves many examples just like this one. As I’m watching though Jason Christie loses 4 or 5 fish in a row with a chatterbait and refuses to make any color, trailer or hook adjustment. A bit surprising to me.

  12. This is an interesting topic that can focus on so many different levels. I think everyone’s comments are valid. I know from past discussions Don and I tend to disagree a little bit on the God-given aspect, but in a lot of ways we feel the same too.

    A while back I was analyzing what makes a great angler. I personally came to the conclusion that, among other things, it’s a series of traits/qualities/attributes/factors that have been highly developed through time on the water, learning, passion, and self-discipline. Some of these traits come to some people more naturally than other people. For example, just as there are students who are poor at math and great in the arts, there are anglers who lack the prerequisite God-given characteristics to ever be great at their hobby. Those same anglers might be great Chemists or whatever, but angling does not fall within the skill-set they possess or were born with. Further, just as there are boys who are born from fathers who are passionate bass fisherman and mentors, there are other boys who were fathered from men who are passionate about rock n’ roll and drinkin’ beer (a whole different kind of mentoring!). Now, I do believe any bass fisherman can develop the requisite traits/qualities/attributes/factors to a certain extent, but for some it requires a great deal more effort than others…

    To illustrate, let’s look at the nurture side of life, and let’s analyze CONFIDENCE. We all know this is a very important trait in being a great bass angler. When a child is born, they generally develop their confidence and self-worth through their parents. A young boy who’s father was never around and was raised by an abusive mother and who’s siblings pick on him and put him down, etc, etc is going to experience greater difficulty in being confident, in a healthy manner, when he is older…On the flipside, there are individuals out there who were built to be confident; they had good dad’s and good families, and you know them because women (and potentially fish) are drawn to them like crazy. Can confidence be learned? Sure. But the guy who is 6’3” tall, genetically-physically strong, good looking, intelligent, who had a great dad and loving mom and wonderful relationships with his siblings—is likely to naturally have more confidence than most. The poor boy who’s dad wasn’t around and was beat by his mom is going to have to go through counseling and deal with a lot of issues before his confidence reaches a level that would enable him to be a great angler, if that would even be possible in some situations.

    Let’s look at this same trait on the God-given side…If you believe in God, then you believe that the way you were created was for a reason, and everything has a purpose. The fact that your mom beat you and your dad was not around may all lead toward God’s plan. Perhaps you were picked on your entire life because God gave you a deformed ear, or you were born blind, or you were born with a thyroid issue that makes you extremely overweight. These God-given misfortunes are things some are born with that cannot be changed, they all would likely affect an individual’s confidence, and one can only work through them and find meaning in them. And it may very well be that meaning is not bass fishing.

    Let’s take another example: those who were born with very little patience–as a God-given trait, in conjunction with how they were raised–will have a harder time being extremely patient than those who were naturally born/raised patient. Sometimes, the gap is impossible to make up.

    God did not design ALL OF US to be great bass fisherman.

    I made a list of the top “traits” I thought were extremely important to be a great bass fisherman. As mentioned earlier, some of us are born with higher levels (say, on a scale from 1-10) than others, and some of these traits have a higher factor in their importance as they relate to bass fishing.…Below is the list of traits/qualities/factors/attributes that make a great bass fisherman:

    Time on the Water, Natural Ability “fishy” aka Ron Hobbs Jr., Intelligence, Coordination, Stamina, Determination, Hard Work Ethic, Detail-Oriented, Analytical, Nature-Oriented, Confidence, Entrepreneurial, Mechanically-Inclined, Patience, Vision, Continuous Improvement, Flexible, Have a Great Mentor, Social-Networking Ability, Change-Oriented, 6th Sense aka Ron Hobbs Jr., Mentally Tough, Optimistic, Risk-Taker, Creative, Experience, Focused/Clear Mind, Money, Competitiveness

  13. I think obviously my list of traits is not complete. More could be added because it is a complex formula and mix of skills.