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Taking Boyhood Enthusiasm Pro

Keith Poche, a sophomore on the Bassmaster circuit, gives insight into the big ambitions and lucky strikes it takes to stay in the paid fishing game. Recent trophy: a sponsorship by the nation’s largest wholesale gardening distributor, Bonnie Plant Farm.

Photo by Seigo Saito

For most Alabamians, time spent casting fishing lures is time spent relaxing. Even if a meal is the eventual goal of a fishing trip, it’s the whole experience that causes us to spend time and money in the pursuit of outsmarting some fishy prey. In a world filled with connectivity, a fishing trip is a retreat from the front lines of the information wars.

But for Alabama’s Keith Poche, time spent on the water is time spent in a movable office, seeking a target as elusive as any sales figure. The Natchitoches, Louisiana native (his last name is pronounced “Poe-shay”) is seeking to become a member of the few who make a living on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour.

Only in his second year on the Bassmaster circuit, Poche is caught between a youthful enthusiasm for the sport and a hard road ahead.

When Poche spoke to Business Alabama, he had just come off a day of practice on Lake Tohopekaliga, near Orlando, in preparation for the Bassmaster Southern Open. “This is the only way you can qualify for the Elite Series,” he explains. “You have to go through the Open to get to the Elite Series. A lot of the pros that do fish Elite now still fish the Open, because it’s another way to make the Bassmaster Classic.”

If the Elite Series is the major league of bass fishing, the Bassmaster Classic is the World Series. Angler Kevin Van Dam took home $500,000 for winning last year’s event, held on Alabama’s Lay Lake.

Poche recently crossed an important hurdle in his campaign for the big time and keeping himself in the black, in the meantime. He landed a significant corporate sponsor—something that’s getting harder to do these days.

Bass fishing might be big business now, but that doesn’t mean the sponsorship dollars are easier to snag than an overhanging branch. A tight economy means companies are less likely financially to support an up-and-coming angler like Poche.

“All the fishing companies, like companies that make baits or boats or rods, anything that has to do with fishing, they’ve all been locked in by the pros that have been fishing for 15 to 20 years before I got in. Those companies aren’t going to drop those guys to get me,” he says.

Because of that familiarity factor that works against him, Poche has taken a savvy marketing approach to obtaining sponsorship. He approaches companies outside the fishing industry and recently secured sponsorship from Bonnie Plant Farms. Based in Union Springs, Ala., Bonnie is the nation’s largest distributor of seedlings for home gardening, distributing plants to big box stores throughout the U.S.

“I’m going to visit a lot of stores that they sell their products in, which would be Lowe’s, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and places like that,” Poche says. “I'll go by, put my boat out, meet people and sign autographs.”

Bonnie Plants President Stan Cope, an avid fisherman himself, says, “We look forward to working with Keith and having a very successful season in the garden and on the water.”

Poche may have a fishing disease that he can’t get rid of, but he still doesn’t sugarcoat it when it comes to describing his chosen vocation. “It’s more hectic than people think,” he says. “It’s not a lazy day on the water, relaxing and having fun. The fishing part is as stressful as the sponsorship angle is.”

Growing up, Poche didn’t concern himself with tournament rankings. He was just a Louisiana boy surrounded by water who loved nothing more than the jolt of a largemouth bass strike.

“I just loved to bass fish,” he says. “Not a bream, not a crappie or a catfish. I loved to bass fish. I’d spend summers and weekends with my daddy, or I’d go off with my cousin and bass fish.”

Poche came to Troy University to play running back, but a shoulder injury during his second season at Troy ended his football career. That’s when, as he puts it, tournament fishing found him.

“I had brought my boat over from Louisiana, and while I was fishing this little pond, I met an older gentleman who invited me on a tournament. That’s when it all started,” he explains.

Tournament fishing ramped up Poche’s already fervent love of fishing. “I fished that first tournament, and it was like an added excitement to bass fishing. Not knowing what the other anglers were doing, the competition aspect of it, the thrill of it. It brought a lot more to bass fishing. It was like a disease, and I couldn’t get rid of it.”

Poche not only had to learn how to fish lakes instead of ponds, but he also had to navigate the endless combinations that make up modern fishing tackle. From rod stiffness to line diameter to lure color, every decision now carried the impact of gaining or losing a monetary reward.

“On my boat, I keep about 15 rods. I have that many just in case something happens like something breaking off. You never know. When I show up at a tournament, I have eight to 10 rods while I’m practicing, then I start narrowing it down.

“I had to learn a lot about fishing lakes, because I had just fished ponds. I had to develop techniques as far as finding fish and patterns. Patterns are the most important factor in catching fish in a lake. In a pond, a bass is confined. It can’t go many places. But you get into big water, and you’ve got to find out what the fish are doing at that time of year.”

Jim Dunn is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Alabaster.

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