For those of you new to the sport of competitive bass fishing, the name Mark Davis probably rings a bell as being the angler who’s leading the 2014 Bassmaster Elite Angler of the Year race. For those of you who have been around a tad longer in this cast-for-cash sport, you may remember Davis came to B.A.S.S. from FLW around 2008 after qualifying for the Elite Series via the 2007 Southern Opens. If you’re old enough to have been in the sport pre-2005, though, you recognize Davis as a three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year winner and 1995 Bassmaster Classic champion.
Davis first dipped his toes into the B.A.S.S. pond in 1986, when he was 21 years old, and also qualified for his first Classic that same tournament year, 86/87. Seventeen Classics and 50 top-10 finishes later, Davis is having a season reminiscent of his tear through the 1990s.
Yes, Davis has been here before a number of times and is no newcomer to the winner’s circle. This should worry those younger guns out there as it no doubt is on the minds of those who fished against him in eras past.
But this story isn’t about those earlier years when Davis was as apt to show up in the money as often as he showed up to an event. This story is about how he got his start in tournament fishing and about some of the folks who fed that fire as a young teenager. A fire that is evident again today.
Buckets of ‘Gills
Davis’ career in bass fishing is the product of his father’s love of fishing and the outdoors. Like many anglers, his earliest memories are filled with trips to the lake with his father.
“My earliest memories of course are with my dad,” he said. “I can remember back when I was four or five years old going to the lake a catching a 5-gallon bucket of bluegill and then playing with them in the front yard.
“I was a lucky kid. When I was in 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade I remember my dad would wait for me in the school yard on any nice spring day with the boat hooked up, ready to fish the evening. He’d have a sack full of roasted peanuts, coca cola on ice and I’d jump in and off we’d go to the launch ramp and fish until dark. We did that so many times when I was young and that’s what got me started with my love for fishing.”
Asked if this is what got him interested in the possibility of fishing professionally, his answer was:
“I was too young then to know any better. This was before Bobby [Murray] won the first Classic and Ray [Scott] was just starting his thing.
“I did realize at an early age, guys were making a living at fishing,” he said. “I guess I was maybe 10 or 12 years old.
“Bobby was from Hot Springs, AR and after he won the first Classic he came home and opened up his own tackle shop not far from where I lived. Because of that I had a better awareness than maybe a lot of other kids my age.”
The bass world would wait another couple years before Davis was introduced to what would become his chosen line of work. And he has close friend and colleague Allan Ranson to thank for that inevitable turn of events.
“I really got bit by the tournament bug when I was 13,” he said. “That’s when I fished my first tournament.
“Allan Ranson, who is now CFO of Strike King Lure Co, and I grew up and hung out at the local tackle store together. He worked at the shop and was old enough to drive and I was this big kid that was always in there buying worms. We got to talking and he said, ‘We ought to fish this team tournament they have on the lake out here. So we did and on about our third one we won. It’s kind of all come full circle now, you know, Strike King is one of my sponsors.”
Introducing Davis to tournament fishing wasn’t all Ranson did though.
“Allan actually took me for a ride in my first bass boat,” he said. “Dad had a big green tub, you know an aluminum boat with a 40 horse. It was great at the time and we fished out of it for many years.
“But Allan’s dad had a big MonArk McFast 17 with a 115 Evinrude and I remember going back home and telling dad, ‘man we gotta have a bass boat.’
“Dad was a contractor and worked hard but he loved to hunt and fish and he said, ‘Well we’ll see.’
“Of course ‘we’ll see,’ means ‘probably not’ but I just kept on and kept on bringing it up.
“But dad believed, as I do, that if you keep a kid hunting and fishing you’ll keep him out of trouble. So he looked at it as an investment – he even told me that later.”
Davis’ dad ended up buying a boat.
“He bought a 1974 Allison. It wasn’t the balsa wood model, it was the other one, but it was still fast. The boat was the 17-foot model and had a 115 Mercury inline six on it. He bought the thing with two Super Sixty Humminbirds on it and a Shakespeare Trolling motor with the old universal mount and put it in a slip down at the lake.
“Here I am, 14 years old, I have a motor cycle and I would grab my rods, ride my bike out to the slip and throw them in the boat. I was in heaven.
“That’s what really opened it up for me to really learn how to fish.
Two-a-Days and Bill
Davis wasn’t your normal high school student. At 6-feet 3-inches in height with a frame that resembled more an SEC offensive tackle, it isn’t surprising that the gridiron beckoned his call. Because of that, his high school years were a juggling act between football and bass fishing.
“I loved playing football but it just killed me when two-a-days would start in the late summer,” he said. “I couldn’t fish the little night tournaments because I’d be out there on the field grunting and groaning, dying for a drink of water, while my buddies were driving by with the boat in tow. I played football all through high school but fishing has always been first.”
But high school wasn’t just about football. There was plenty of fishing – and the local club provided not only more opportunity, it provided another form of school.
“Here’s funny little story. You know I was a big kid – 16 years old, 6-fee 3-inches tall and 240 pounds. I had a big Ford truck and the Allison. No one knew how old I was – everyone always thought I was older than I really was.
“I was talking to these guys one day and they said, ‘Hey you oughta join the bass club. We got this great club, have had it for 15 years, blah blah blah.’
“So I go to a meeting and they vote me in. You had to be 18 but I never said a word. They didn’t know.
“I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot,” he said. “You talk about a fast learning curve – you’re like a sponge at that age. I had to learn fast because it was the first time I was fishing with knowledgeable, adult anglers.
“Everyone in the club had boats and you’d draw a good angler one time and a not-so-good angler the next time but I drew a lot of good anglers.
“I can remember the first time jigging a spoon in deep water. I’d never fished like that, I was like 16 years old and I get this old grizzly fisherman and wonder, ‘how’s this going work?’
“We were in 42 foot of water so I asked, ‘how’s this work?’ He said, ‘you drop it on down and jerk it up and down.’
“I said, ‘well, do you feel them bite it?’ He said, “You dang right you’ll feel them bite it.’
“It was about my third pump and I felt the thump and I brought up about a 3-pounder. I said, ‘I’m liking this.’
“Then there was one guy – Bill Keener – in particular that was ahead of his time on the offshore stuff. This was huge at the time. What he showed me lit a fire in me – it showed me what I wanted to do. Offshore was the frontier – a paper map, a flasher and a compass. My big advantage during that time and through my early career was that style of fishing. Until these things [referring to the GPS units] came out.
“The bass club days were great looking back,” he said. “I look at these kids today – they have different ways to learn. Back then it was all hands-on learning. I learned about deep crankbait fishing that way – by hand.
Learning How to Attend
The 2014 Classic was Davis’ 17th adventure to the big show. He compared it to his first experience in 1987.
“The first year I fished BASS I made the Classic,” he said. “We went to Ohio River at Louisville, KY. It was a terrible fishery, a horrible tournament.
“I was 22 or 23 at the time and the Classics for most people, and I put myself in this category, you almost have to go to one to learn how to be in attendance. You just don’t bust out your first time.
“I was so jacked up and in awe that tournament. It was a fast paced week – even more so than they are now. In those days you didn’t bring your boat you showed up with five rods and your tackle box, which they’d weigh. You didn’t have time to do anything. You’d sleep, get up and they’d march you here and take you there, it was so different than today’s Classic.
“The Classics today are more like our normal routine. You get to practice a few days, get to feel the lake – it wasn’t like that then. It was a real whirlwind. It was harder then. Basically there was no practice. You weren’t in your boat and you only had a few rods and a little tackle, of course it was by design.”
Asked if he’d like to go back to that format he said, “No, I don’t think so. You can restrict things down to whatever and I don’t think it’s necessary.”
His first Classic was his biggest disappointment of them all.
“That first Classic was pretty much a nightmare. I went way back up in this tributary, caught some fish and actually planned to fish it during the tournament. It was a canyon with big trees lining the shoreline and you couldn’t see anything on shore. As I was leaving these guys started chunking rocks down at us and you could hear the them coming down through the trees and beating the boat. You can’t run. I at least had the console to hide behind but my partner didn’t. They chunked rocks for at least a half a mile at us. Finally I hollered out, ‘I won’t come back. Quit throwing those rocks, I’ll never come back.’
”I don’t know if it was kids playing or if there was some sort of still back there. Needless to say I never went back.
“I also remember the opportunity I had, but didn’t know it, to win that tournament. It was so vague that I disregarded it and Cochran actually wound up winning the tournament out there. I had no idea it was only going to take 14 pounds to win. George had enough sense to hang out there and win. That was another part of the learning curve.”
It’s obvious that Davis has been on both sides of the curve over his 28-year career. The way he’s lighting up the standings, though, I’d say he again is on the right side.