Pro angler and fishing show host Joe Thomas has put in the work.
Back in 1976, a 16-year-old Joe Thomas was eager to begin his bass fishing career. The Ohio native wanted to sign up for a local competitive bass fishing club, but there was one catch: members had to be 18 to join. So, Thomas told a white lie about his age and joined the club.
Little did he know, he had taken the first step towards becoming an iconic pro angler.
By age 18, Thomas won the Ohio B.A.S.S. Federation Championship. In 1980, he committed himself to becoming a pro. The rest is history.
Today, Thomas has reached the highest levels of success as a pro angler. He’s an established and successful competitor on the B.A.S.S. and FLW tournament trails, and he hosts two of the most popular fishing shows on television: Sthil’s Reel in the Outdoors with Joe Thomas and Ultimate Match Fishing, which both air on the Outdoor Channel.
Last week, I talked with Thomas before ICAST, the fishing industry’s annual showcase for the latest and greatest fishing gear.
Thomas and I chatted about what he was excited to see at the show, what it takes to become a pro, and what everyday anglers can do to step up their bass fishing game.
Wide Open Spaces: What are you excited to see at ICAST?
Joe Thomas: Humminbird is coming out with a lot of really cool things that have to do with their lake mapping systems. They’re doing some really interesting things that help fishermen pattern fish on the fly. In the old days, if we’d catch a couple of fish at a certain depth, you’d have to scroll around your map and find places that look similar. Now, they’ve got technology they’re going to unveil at ICAST that… if you find your depth range, it’s going to highlight multiple depth ranges in that area that you can look at. That’s one of the things that I’m kind of excited about seeing down there.
WOS: What’s the most underrated equipment for bass fishermen?
JT: The most critical yet underrated piece of equipment for fishermen, in general, particularly bass fishermen, is eyewear – from multiple standpoints. One, it’s just general eye protection. Every year you see people losing an eye to sinkers.
But the biggest thing for me is, I’m constantly looking into the water. I can see everything from the cover that I’m targeting to when the fish swim close to the boat. All of those things come from having good, quality, polarized eyewear. Your top level guys, they understand that. But your average weekend angler, they think they can go into a gas station and buy some $4 eyewear that makes their eyes feel better and think that’s okay, and it’s not the case.
Polarized lenses are critical, but also the color of the polarized. I like the amber. It really allows you to see contrast. I can’t tell you the number of fish I’ve caught because I was able to see them coming up on my bait.
WOS: What’s something most amateur anglers don’t do that they should do?
JT: I would say that the average angler tends to be bank feeders, meaning that they fish the shoreline and visible shoreline cover. In lots of parts of the country that works fine and that does the job, but being able to get offshore and learning to use your GPS and your electronics to be able to see what’s out there, whether it’s a ledge on Kentucky Lake, where you’re a quarter mile away from the shore where a creek channel ties into a river channel, or even if you’re out on Lake St. Clair being able to find those grass beds in 17 feet of water offshore. A lot of times, especially in the winter and summer, that’s where the big fish concentrations can be.
That’s why it’s easier to fish in spring, but man, sometimes the big catch fish are offshore. Start looking at your maps and your electronics and trying to learn to fish offshore.
WOS: When you’re fishing in unfamiliar waters, how do you key in on the perfect spot to catch bass?
JT: That’s the one thing that separates the young fishermen from the expert fishermen. You have to really rely on seasonal patterns. Bass, no matter where they are in the world, they’ll do certain things based on water temperature and time of the year. That’s the first thing you have to look at.
So when I go to – let’s just use a lake in Tennessee. I get there in March and the water is 48 degrees. I know the fish aren’t spawning yet, because they typically don’t spawn until it’s 68 degrees, so I know I’m going to concentrate [on] those pre-spawn areas. And I know that time of the year is typically your main link points and secondary points where the fish will move up first.
I try and do that everywhere I go in the country. I try and take a look at the time of year and the water temperature, and that gives me an idea of what the stage the fish will be in.
The next thing you have to look at is what kind of water color do I have, and what kind of cover do I have for these fish?
You adjust your baits to the type of cover and water colors you have.
You can take those same seasonal patterns and you go to Florida with the same conditions, and it may not be the same thing. So you have to ply the seasonal pattern for whatever lake you’re at.
I’ll try and attack a lake a piece at a time. If I have a tournament, I’ll take a lake a section one day at a time. I’ll take the central area of the lake one day, and the river area of the lake another day. You kind of break it up that way.
WOS: What’s one piece of gear you couldn’t live without on your fishing boat?
JT: The one piece of gear that I definitely could not live without on my fishing boat is my trolling motor. I uses a Minn Kota Fortrex. You can poke holes in my boat, and take my bow mount, but leave me my trolling motor. That’d be the piece of gear that I’ve got to have.
WOS: At what point in your life did you dedicate yourself to becoming a pro angler?
JT: The first time I ever knew there was such a thing was when I was 15 years old. I got into tournament fishing when I was 16. By the time I was 18, I won the Ohio state B.A.S.S. amateur title. I guess that’s when I knew. There were a lot of people in that state tournament, and there were a lot of guys with a lot more experience than me. I thought, you know, maybe I’ve got what it takes. From that moment on, I dedicated my life to trying to be the best pro fishermen I could.
WOS: What does it take to get that kind of a career going?
JT: It’s a kind of chicken and the egg. In the early days, even now today, it takes money to go out on the trail and fish at the top level. And it takes sponsorships. But you have to achieve a certain level of proficiency and notoriety before the sponsorships want to work with you. For me, that was the biggest challenge of starting the career, to try and survive to get the certain level of notoriety.
I worked odd jobs. I did drywall. I was a fishing guide. I worked nights at UPS. I did everything I could to try and support my goal.
Eventually, the tournament success came to a point when people actually started to pay me to endorse and promote their products. That point came at my mid to late twenties. It’s still a challenge to this day, even from the television end of it. You’re still vying for sponsors, you’re trying to get your show to be the best so you can get the best sponsors.
WOS: Is it easier for budding anglers to get their start nowadays with the Internet and social media?
JT: I think it’s easier now for young anglers to learn the trade. You can find tutorials on YouTube about any aspect of bass fishing. I definitely think it’s easier. The downside is that every smart guy and young lady is out there doing it too. But the curve is so much better. I equate it to college football. Look at what college football athletes could do 20 years ago versus today’s standards.
You can get really good really quick, but everyone else is too.
WOS: Can you offer any advice to aspiring professional anglers that are trying to push through?
JT: The best fishermen are the smartest fishermen. I’ve always felt that some college is important. I suggest trying to achieve a minimum of a two-year marketing degree. I think a marketing degree is the most important degree an angler can have, because it’s going to teach them a lot about selling themselves, and that’s important.
The other thing is – don’t put the egg before the chicken. Learn to fish first. Learn the skills. Learn the trade. I would definitely work on the fishing abilities first and let the sponsors come. Don’t try and just jump in and fish the elite series right off the get go. Start at a level you can handle and take a stair step approach.
WOS: Why do Americans love to fish?
JT: If I had to encapsulate it in one word, it’s anticipation. Every time you go out there – I don’t care if you’re with a pole and bobber on a pond or on a $70,000 Ranger boat out on the water – every time you make a cast and every time you drop your bait in the water, it’s that anticipation of wondering what’s going to bite. It’s one of the few things that people can still do where they get the butterflies in their stomach. That’s what keeps people coming back.