Speeding along the waters of Lake Erie, Ish Monroe scans his boat's GPS system intently, slowing and saving the location of anywhere he thinks may be a fishing hot spot -- navigating the world's 11th largest lake by creating his own bass road map.
What he's looking for, he says, are high spots or rises in the lake's floor where bass like to hang out.
"It's kind of like having the house on the hill," he explains. "When you drive into a subdivision, all the houses look the same except for that one big one, up on the hill -- that's where the big dogs hang out."
A 10-year Bassmaster professional, Monroe himself has become one of those big dogs in the fishing world. In 2006, the California native won two of the 11 Elite Series Bassmaster tournaments, becoming the first African-American to win an Elite-level event.
"Ish is a fishing god, I hope you know that," says a Lake Erie guide as he passes Monroe's boat out on the water.
Fishing god or not, Monroe is still feeling his way around Lake Erie. It's Monday, his first practice day and first day ever on the lake. The idea is to find all the bass hot spots he can during practice so when competition kicks off Thursday in the Elite Series Empire Chase tournament, Monroe will be ready to haul in 20 of the biggest fish over the course of the four-day tournament.
Each day, the anglers' five biggest fish will be weighed and counted to
ward their tournament standings. Only the top 50 will continue on after Friday and just the top 12 will head out on Sunday, the tournament's final day.
At 33 years old and the only black angler of 108 fishermen on the pro tour, Monroe has been hailed as the future of fishing and Sports Illustrated once said he was changing the face of the sport. That may be true, but what is most noticeable about Monroe is not his color -- it's his ever-present smile, and his distinct opinions about the sport of fishing.
"The only color I care about is green," he says. "The green bass and the green money; fish don't see color. All they see is how you present your bait."
So far in his career, Monroe has done well in the green department. Reaching the point where he can go to prospective sponsors with a minimum amount, Monroe's sponsorship deals alone will easily exceed his roughly $110,000 in expenses this year. His sponsors include Ranger Boats, Lowrance Electronics, Cocoon's Eyewear, Purolator and Cheetah Energy Drinks, to name a few. Should he win one of these tournaments, with a first-place prize of $100,000, it'd be a very good year for Ish Monroe.
"In this sport, you make your money off endorsements," he says. "This is your livelihood, you need to catch fish, do the promos and get the TV airtime to where the company needs you as an asset."
On this day, however, Monroe's bait must not be too appealing to the green Erie bass as he moves around the lake, catching only a few smaller fish during the morning. Each time it seems he's found a good spot, he gets few -- if any -- bites.
"Fish are like women," he sighs as he reels in moss from the bottom of the lake. "As soon as you think you've got 'em figured out, they change on you."
Meeting up with fellow angler and former star of ABC's "The Bachelor" Byron Velvick, Monroe realizes he is not alone in his struggles. The two agree to go out the following day and map out a different section of the lake together. It's a sort of "help me to help you" mentality that the anglers have for each other.
"Yeah, we're competitors but we're also friends," Monroe explains.
After roughly seven hours of frustrating fishing Monroe moves to yet another new spot -- but doesn't immediately mark it in his GPS system. Then this "fishing god" stops and asks an unsuspecting reporter, "you ready to try this fishing thing?" The novice helps the expert change his luck; between them they reel in six fish, including Monroe's biggest bass of the day -- roughly 3 1/2 pounds. He marks the spot and flashes a big smile. It's a small success.
But as exasperated as he may occasionally get with fishing and what he calls the hard life on the road, Monroe wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, he cites his dad, Gregory Simpson, getting him into fishing as the reason he kept himself out of trouble growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"When all my friends were going to parties, I was going to bed because I had to get up early to go fishing," he said. "My best friend in high school was found hanging from an overpass one morning, and I always thought that maybe I could have stopped him but maybe I'd be hanging right there with him.
"Emotionally, fishing might knock you down, but when you hook that fish, it's the fastest to bring you back up again and make you feel unstoppable."
What: Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase.
When: Thursday to Sunday.
Where: Lake Erie/NFTA Small Boat Harbor.
Fan attractions: Daily weigh-ins start at 3 p.m.; "Angler Alley" meet and greet with the Bassmasters from 4-5 p.m. today at Hamburg High School; Dock Dogs Big Air Competitions on Friday and Saturday; Kids fishing clinics and casting contests throughout the weekend. All events are free.