Jimmy Cannon, the late, great New York sports columnist, once called fishing “an excuse to drink in the daytime.”
But fishing, fishing for bass in particular, has been far more than that for Laurel native Paul Elias, who has won far more than $1.5 million in prize money by fishing, not drinking, in the daytime.
At 65, Elias is one of the oldest competitors on the Bassmasters Elite Series, the PGA Tour for bass fishermen, which this week makes a stop at Barnett Reservoir. A field of 109 of the world’s top bass fishermen will shoot for the $100,000 top prize in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite, which begins Thursday.
One might surmise that Elias has a decided advantage on the competition since he fished Barnett often while a teen in Laurel and then as a student at Southern Miss. That’s not a good assumption, says Elias.
“This lake has changed so much since I fished it regularly all those years ago,” Elias said Wednesday, shortly after coming off the like after a day of practice. “I’ve fished three pro tournaments here over the years and for whatever the reason, I haven’t done any good. And it’s giving me a hard time this week. I haven’t found the fish.”
It doesn’t help any that his truck and trailer were robbed last week during a tournament at Chattanooga. The thief or thieves got away with “nearly $10,000 worth” of fishing equipment, some of which “they don’t make any more,” Elias said.
In practice this week, Elias said, he has looked for a specific lure he needs and “it’s not there.”
Fishermen learn to take the bad with the good, and there’s been a lot of bad lately for Elias, who hit bass fishing’s really big-time when he won the 1982 Bassmasters Classic, The Masters and U.S. Open of bass fishing.
Back then, the top prize was $42,000 and the residuals in endorsements were worth five or six times that. Now, the top Classic prize is $300,000 and the winner will realize $1 million or more.
That’s one reason Elias keeps fishing through his current, two-year slump – but it’s not the main reason.
“This is what I do,” he said. “I love the competition. I’ve won three or four big tournaments since I turned 50 and I believe I can do it again. I want to do it as long as I can.”
• • •
Jim Harrison, the late poet and novelist, once wrote: “Fishing tournaments seem a little like playing tennis with living balls.”
So true. And what fisherman, professional or not, really knows why fish bite or when?
Elias still holds the four-day record for bass tournament fishing from when he caught 132 pounds worth (with a five fish a day limit) at Falcon Lake on the Texas-Mexico border in 2008. Nobody has come close since.
But, for whatever reason, Elias has had nothing remotely approaching that kind of catch over the last couple of years. He has won only $10,000 and had one top 50 finish this year.
Most fishermen would blame it on the fish or the weather or just bad luck. Not Elias.
“It’s mental with me, and I know it,” he said. “I just can’t seem to get it all together. I’ve had some bad streaks before but not quite like this. If I don’t start catching them, they’ll run me off.”
Elias didn’t earn enough money in 2016 to qualify normally for the Elite Series, but was granted an exception because of his “legend” status.
“I gotta start catching them,” Elias said. “I’m gonna keep trying.”
Important to note: He was going through a similar slump before he set the weight record and won big at Falcon Lake in 2008 at age 56.
No matter what happens this week – or this year, for that matter – Elias has had an amazing run. If you had told him 50 years ago he would make a good living doing what he then did for fun, what would he have said?
“I would have said you were crazy,” Elias said. “Actually, a lot of people thought I was crazy for even trying.”
• • •
Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out other news at mississippitoday.org and follow us on Twitter @MSTODAYnews.