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Smith: For this bass angler, it's no mere pastime: 'Fishing saved my life.'

Professional fisherman Ish Monroe is scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. next Sunday at the 83rd Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show.
Professional fisherman Ish Monroe is scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. next Sunday at the 83rd Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show.

The value of fishing can be expressed a lot of ways: Time spent outdoors, meals of wild protein, fun with family and friends, financial support for fisheries management, contributions to the economy.

For pro angler Ish Monroe, fishing is all that but with a critical kicker.

"Fishing saved my life," Monroe, 49, said Thursday in a phone interview from his home in Oakdale, California.

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The course of a human life takes many turns. Sometimes we're oblivious to how close we come to the edge, other times it's in stark relief.

Monroe links his survival – and ultimate success – to a night during his senior year in high school in San Francisco.

Trouble was easy to find for youths in the city, Monroe said.

On this particular night a party was planned and many of his friends were urging him to go. But Monroe had a fishing tournament the next morning.

"I told them no," Monroe said. "I went home and one of my best friends died that night. I would have been with him. Fishing took me down a different, much better path."

It hasn't been a straight line – he's also worked in a bait shop, as a car salesman and a truck loader at UPS – but hard work, good judgement and finely honed talent led Monroe to a professional bass fishing career, including nine tournament wins and $2.4 million in prize earnings.

Monroe has also become a popular speaker and ambassador for the sport. He is among the fishing headliners appearing at the 2024 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show.

On Thursday Monroe was preparing to pack for his latest tournament, at Santee-Cooper in South Carolina. Over the coming days he'd fly across the country, practice fish to try to zero in on the best tactics and locations then compete against the best bass anglers on the planet to bring in the heaviest bags once the real show begins.

It's part of a high-pressure, high-profile career dreamed of by millions of anglers but achieved by few.

Pro fisherman Ish Monroe holds a smallmouth bass.
Pro fisherman Ish Monroe holds a smallmouth bass.

Monroe (Ishama is his full first name) was born into a family of fishers in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Monroe said his father, Gregory Simpson, and his grandfather introduced him to the sport while Monroe was "still in diapers."

After his family moved to California during his youth, Monroe said he began to fish the smorgasbord of waters in San Francisco, from the bay to city park lagoons to area rivers and lakes.

"I was really, really into it," Monroe said. "I have always loved fishing and that I found every opportunity that city had for me."

One of his favorite spots was in Golden Gate Park, Monroe said, where fishing was prohibited. He remembers being questioned a couple times by law enforcement officials but never being ticketed or disciplined.

"My dad and the cops agreed it was better having me fish than out causing trouble," Monroe said.

And fish he did. Monroe's résumé includes competing in his first tournament at age 14, buying his first bass boat at 17, turning professional at 19 and earning an associate’s degree in marketing at Contra Costa College in California.

Although his mother wanted him to go on to a four-year college, at 22 Monroe said he was working at a car dealership and fishing regional tournaments and earning more money than his friends who had just graduated from college.

That year brought another pivotal moment in his life when the Bassmaster series went out West. Monroe entered and qualified in the top 150, the equivalent of a golfer earning a PGA tour card.

"I had no debt, I had a new boat and I thought there was no reason for me to not go on tour," Monroe said. "From there I never looked back."

Success in professional fishing tournaments is measured in pounds and ounces. Monroe has consistently proved he belongs in the top bass circuits. Twice he has weighed more than 100 pounds of bass in a four-day event, a rare feat even among the world's best anglers.

His wins include the 2018 Bassmaster Elite at Mississippi River presented by Go RVing. The event, headquartered in La Crosse, earned him a $100,000 check.

Ish Monroe holds the trophy after winning the 2018 Bassmaster Elite tournament on the Mississippi River in La Crosse.
Ish Monroe holds the trophy after winning the 2018 Bassmaster Elite tournament on the Mississippi River in La Crosse.

Monroe's success isn't a surprise to fellow pro John Crews of Salem, Virginia.

"Ish is an incredibly hard worker," said Crews, who at one time roomed with Monroe on the tournament trail. "He's got what it takes on every level and has earned everything he's got."

Monroe is notable for more than his achievements – he's also one of the few Black anglers in the top levels of a predominantly white sport. Monroe fished in his first Bassmaster Classic in 2003, 20 years after Alfred Williams became the first Black angler to participate in the sport’s most prestigious event.

It's not unusual for Monroe to be the only Black angler in a field of more than 100 at a top event. He has no problem being different. Monroe lists his favorite food as sushi, his favorite music as hip-hop.

He doesn't dwell on any of his differences, though.

"Fish don't see (race)," Monroe said. "And I was able to work my way up based on results and the way I handle myself."

As far as being a role model, Monroe said he hopes he provides a good example for all young people, regardless of race.

The amiable Monroe has been able to attract and keep top sponsors.

Pro bass angler Ish Monroe talks to fans and the media at a fishing tournament.
Pro bass angler Ish Monroe talks to fans and the media at a fishing tournament.

Twenty-seven years after he joined the "bigs," he continues to work extremely hard and take nothing for granted.

In response to some anglers who criticized some aspects of pro bass fishing, in December Monroe posted a piece on the Bassmaster website titled "The Industry Owes Us Nothing."

"It owes us no guarantees and certainly no promises of wealth and fame once we get to the top levels of the sport," Monroe wrote. "We all earned our chance to be on the levels we compete on, whether it is the Bassmaster Opens, the Bassmaster Elite Series or another tour, but getting there was only step one."

"Instead of using (social media) platforms to try and create clickbait for more controversy, let's do our jobs and prove our worth to the industry. Then, we can have the kind of careers and businesses we can grow old and retire in. This industry deserves our respect for the opportunities it provides us, but it doesn’t owe any of us anything that we don’t earn."

On Thursday Monroe said he was "amazed and humbled" by the response to his article.

"I got a little protective about our industry and wanted to come to the defense of it," Monroe said. "The truth is we as professional anglers owe our sponsors and the industry everything, as well as the fans who consume our content and spend their hard-earned dollars with our sponsor companies. That's why I work just as hard off the water as I do on it."

In addition to competing about 20 weeks a year in bass tourneys, Monroe said he also appears at about a dozen sport shows.

His 2024 work agenda includes a trip to Milwaukee next weekend to share his wisdom and values with attendees at the 83rd Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show. He is scheduled to appear at 1 p.m. March 10.

And depending on how far he advances in the South Carolina tournament, Monroe just might have to take a red-eye flight to make it to Brew City.

Although nearly 40 years have passed since his fateful decision to stay home rather than go to a party, he said a life spent consumed by fishing continues to overflow with benefits.

"It'll be worth it no matter how I have to get there," Monroe said. "It's a real pleasure to meet with people. I can't thank them enough for what their support of me and my industry has meant over my career."D

83rd Journal Sentinel Sports Show starts Thursday

The 2024 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show runs March 7 to 10 at Wisconsin State Fair Park Exposition Center in West Allis. Now in its 83rd year, the show will include seminars, exhibitors, demonstrations, food and entertainment. Hours are noon to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, a schedule of events and more information, visit jssportsshow.com.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Professional bass fisherman Ish Monroe to speak at Sports Show