Mark Zona knows a thing or two about fishing.
We all know the The Bassmasters television show highlights the pinnacle of tournament fishing. The guy lucky enough to host the show is Mark Zona, an angler through and through. He’s a virtual bass encyclopedia, and that’s no joke.
Zona, or “Z” as he’s known in the fishing world, also hosts Zona’s Awesome Fishing Show and needs two hands to count the other various programs he’s hosted and appeared on. Unpredictable and funny, Zona is one of the personalities in the fishing industry that is doing his best to bring entertainment and information to the millions of American anglers who want the latest and greatest the angling world has to offer.
We interviewed Mark just before ICAST began earlier this week, and he had a lot to say about his path to television host, the gear he uses and why he hates the phrase “growing the sport.” Read on and step inside the head of one of the most prominent fishermen of his day.
Wide Open Spaces: When you were fishing as a youngster, did you ever set goals to reach the point you’re at now?
Mark Zona: You know, that’s a hard question to answer, because we lived on the south side of Chicago, and I remember telling my parents throughout junior high and then into high school that I was going to be a fisherman. And I don’t want this to sound the wrong way, because I’m a parent now, and when my kids tell me that they’re going to be a quarterback for the Patriots, you kind of know they’re not gonna do that!
It’s interesting, because the day that I graduated high school, that evening I moved, and I told my dad I was gonna go fish, and I really have done it since that day. I’ve had goals; a lot of them were tournament-based goals, but to be the host of my own show on the Outdoor Channel and the Bassmaster television show… Bassmaster was my Monday Night Football from my teen years on, and to be the host of that and then my own show, on the same network, I’m the luckiest guy on Earth. I’m very, very humbled talking about it. I actually struggle to talk about it, so no I guess I couldn’t have ever dreamed that it would turn into what it is now.
Telling someone you’re going to fish for a living is like telling them you’re going to party for a living. What’s been interesting to me is, outside of the folks that hunt and fish, when you tell somebody that you’re a professional fisherman, you kind of get looked at [differently]. Whenever I talk to guys that I went to high school with in Chicago, a lot of them know that I do that, but a lot of them do not understand what goes into it, and the time that goes in to get to that point.
WOS: Can you speak to how drastically changed the fishing industry is from your youth to today?
MZ: You know, it’s weird, I have twin boys that are 14 years old, and I have fished tournaments since I was nine. It’s funny, the biggest advancements have by far come, I’m fast forwarding, but it comes from the show that I’m heading to tomorrow, ICAST.
Technology has changed the entire game of fishing or hunting. I can go through the electronics on my boat, to the sound machines that I use to mimic bait fish, to the Power Poles that anchor me in shallow water. What’s funny is, I watch how my children totally take those things for granted. Where, 25 years ago, I lined up the telephone pole with the red barn, and that was my GPS.
Here’s the best way to put it: with what is available to fishermen now, the learning curve is so much faster than when I was a kid. I would have dreamed to have been where my children are at when I was 14 years old. And I shove it down their throat every single day! In fact, we’re going fishing later today.
WOS: Good for you! What will fishing look like in another ten years?
MZ: It is so impossible to say. By far, and I cherish and treasure it, but I’m able to work with the Shimanos of the world, and the Strike Kings, and the Power Poles and the electronics, it’s almost like I get a look into what’s coming. To sit here and even guesstimate, just from where we’ve been the last 20 years, no, I couldn’t imagine. Besides literally getting to see fish eat our lures, I could not guess what’s around the corner.
WOS: You could very well see some of the things that are around the corner at ICAST. Talk about the show, if you could.
MZ: One of the things about ICAST is, a lot of those things I had my hands on when they were in the beginning stages, and to work with folks in the industry is something that I dreamed about 15, 20 years ago.
To work with folks that are so incredibly intelligent, whether it’s the engineers, or the professional fishermen that I work with, to see those projects come to light, and see excitement in the general fishing world, the customers that buy those things, man that’s a cool feeling. It’s a different satisfaction than just doing fishing TV.
WOS: Tell us a little bit about what you’re going to be doing at ICAST.
MZ: The booths I hang in the most are the partners I have in the show, naturally I’ll be in 1887 and the Outdoor Channel booth a lot, but what I try to do is work with the Shimanos, the Humminbirds, the Strike Kings.
What it’s turned into for me is not a selling show. I don’t go to ICAST to sell Zona’s Fishing Show. I go there to take care of the partners I work with, and do videos and social media, and I try to pass on knowledge of the products that we’ve worked on the past two to three years.
Generally by the end of it, you’re a little talked out. But, I’m gonna slide down to do a little shark fishing right after, so a little bit of work this week, and a little bit of fun.
WOS: Do you have a favorite piece of fishing equipment that you couldn’t go on the water without?
MZ: It’s hard to pick one, but one of the most important things in the world, and I hate to say it because I take it for granted, but my motor is literally the most important thing. What’s the most important thing in your vehicle? It’s the motor!
I hate to be very simple on that, but when we’re making 100-mile runs on the Great Lakes, or 100-mile runs in the Gulf of Mexico, my Mercury motor cannot fail. You’re not on the calmest water on Earth, and the most important thing when I’m out, next to my family, is my crew, my camera guys. The responsibility to get those guys back safely is above and beyond anything else that’s going on. Granted, getting a TV show done is the icing on top at the end, but you want to do it safely even though we put ourselves, at times, in pretty drastic situations.
So I would have to say my Nitro boat and my Mercury motor, and I’m not giving you a goofy sales pitch, because that’s my homebase and my office. So those are the two most important things.
WOS: What about the advancement of the Internet, social media and other modern technologies? How has that changed fishing for the better, and on the flip side, are there any negative effects?
MZ: Yes and yes. The thing that’s amazing to me is how quickly techniques and lures and hot lakes get out. That’s the positive of it. The negative of it is exactly what I just said, for the simple fact that it’s so incredibly hard to keep a secret anymore in the fishing world. And the other side of it is, if there is a lake that is on fire, from a taping a show standpoint, we have to react incredibly quickly to go tape a show there because when a word gets out that a lake is hot, it’s not going to be hot for very long. I hate to say it, but I have the exact same answer.
I’ll tell you what’s interesting is, we tape the Zona Show for the Outdoor Channel, and we got word that Lake Fork is incredibly hot at the end of May. And I had a buddy call me and say “Look, you’ve got to get down here now.” And I said “I don’t think we can make it until the end of July.”
He said “Dude, when I tell you to get down here now, get down here in the next 48 hours because this lake’s gonna get throttled. It’s gonna get a lot of fishing pressure.”
I looked at my wife on Memorial Day weekend, and told her I’ve got to get down there. It was one of the best shows we have taped in the last eight years of doing shows. A buddy went down three weeks ago and he said you can’t get a bite on that lake right now there’s so many boats fishing. So that goes to the point I guess I was just trying to make.
WOS: If you could only fish for one species for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
MZ: I would have to say it’d be a smallmouth bass. I’ve been very, very fortunate to fish for lots of different things. I like to catch strange fish, sharks, and the “Boogey Man.” I like to chase big things that bite. But smallmouth, to me, number one they like to hunt in packs, and the best way to put it, they’re just a very pissed off fish when you find them.
They’re not finicky, they don’t go in long funks for a long time. When you find them, they don’t know that they’re 200 pounds smaller than you. They think that they’re as big as you, and I just generally like their attitude, They’re a very, very aggressive fish, and the best part about them is they’re constantly on the move. I like that. To me, a smallmouth is always a very big challenge, and is very gratifying after you find them.
WOS: And also the fact that they’re found all over the place and just about anybody can fish for them.
MZ: No doubt about it. What’s funny is, back when we used to go to a taxidermist and mount fish, my very first fish that I had mounted, I was 11 years old, and I caught a 15-inch smallmouth, and to this day it hangs downstairs. It means that much to me.
WOS: If you had one piece of unorthodox advice that you would give to the average weekend angler, what would it be?
MZ: As bad as you can tolerate horrible weather, whether it is snowing, sleeting, as long as you stay safe… I don’t care if you fish farm ponds, on a golf course, a river, or a lake. If it is safe, and it’s almost to the point to where it’s completely intolerable to be out, that’s when the magic happens.
If I’m really gonna look back on the years, the best days that we’ve had are the days where it’s almost to the point where you can be mentally broke. Looking back on the trophies that we caught, that’s when we caught them.
It’s funny because, my camera crew that I run with, they know that I’m addicted to bad, bad weather. I like snow storms, I like windstorms, and it creates a little friction at times, but it works in the end.
WOS: What advice would you give an aspiring pro angler, or somebody who wants to make a living in the industry?
MZ: There’s really two things, and I talk about that question a lot. I think, one of the most important things, and I’m not saying this to be cliche, but when I got out of high school, I wasn’t one of those guys that wanted to go to college. I just wasn’t. All I wanted to do was go bass fishing.
The most important thing I did was to go to school, and I took speech and communications. The one thing I was horrified of was public speaking, and go figure, 20 years later that’s what I do pretty much! If you want to be an aspiring angler, you have to be able to communicate. Whether it’s communicate like this right here, on television, working with companies, you have to be able to speak.
And the other thing is, don’t get the cart in front of the horse. One of the most asked questions I get is, “How do I get sponsors?” and I cringe when I hear it. Time on water, if you’re aspiring, that is the most important thing: learning your trade, not putting a patch on your shirt and saying “I’m sponsored.” Worry about that later on, worry about your craft first. I always try to pass that same thing on to my children.
One of the most overused terms on Earth is, “growing the sport.” It’s so overused. The way to grow the sport is, you put a rod and a reel in a kid’s hand. You help him start, and once you get the wheels turning, generally the folks that start fishing stay fishing.
WOS: What else would you like to add?
MZ: If anybody is coming to ICAST, I’ll be at the Outdoor Channel booth #1877, I’ll be in Shimano’s booth, and chasing my tail and running in circles. But anybody who wants to come up and talk fishing, that’s what I’m there for.
The Bassmasters appears weekly on the Outdoor Channel, and Zona’s Awesome Fishing Show isn’t being aired this quarter, but will return soon.
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Images via MarkZona.com