The Walla-beast

Steve Morgan | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 4
Another one falls to Carl’s casting skills.
Everything’s bigger-than-big in the USA – including professional bass fishing. And there’s an Aussie starting to make his name in that tough, competitive business.

You mightn’t see it nightly on the news in Australia – or ever for that matter – but there’s a young Australian angler who is making waves in the USA in the professional bass fishing scene.

Professional bass fishing?

Yep. It exists, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. Each year, more people fish for largemouth bass in the USA than live in Australia.

Of course, American largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass don’t even exist in Australia. The techniques for catching them are distantly similar, which makes Toowoomba’s Carl Jocumsen’s achievements all the more special.

In a period of four years, the determined 30-year-old has not only learned how to catch American bass, but has qualified for the pinnacle of professional bass fishing – the Bassmaster Elite Series – and now fishes the US national circuit with the best 112 bassers in America.

It’s been a roller coaster of highs and lows and a journey that’s attracted a legion of fans – both domestic and stateside – and there’s no doubting that the American bass fishing audience has some empathy for the journey that Carl has taken.

Fans of the Australian Fishing Championships TV show domestically may remember Carl’s domination on earlier series. He was the first angler to clean-sweep the bass events in the made-for-TV series, outclassing the best Australian bass anglers in the country, and even fished under the Club Marine Team banner in one season.

Competitors in the pioneering Australian Bass Tournaments (ABT) events may well be breathing a sigh of relief. Even with a near-five-year absence, Carl remains the highest all-time money earner on the Australian tour. It may well take another five years for someone to overtake him.

TO THE DELTA

History aside, we took an opportunity to catch up with Carl, in 2015, as he competed in a West Coast swing of the Elite series, following him through an event in the famous bass fishery of the California Delta, just west of San Francisco.

The rules are pretty strict in the Bassmaster Elite series. They have to be when hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash are given away at each stop of the tour. Even during the three ‘practice days’, Carl needed to get permission from BASS headquarters to take me along as an observer and photographer for a day on the water.

But I wasn’t allowed to have any input on the fishing side of things. Sure, Carl could talk all day long about what he was doing, throwing, thinking or wishing, but if I saw a 10-pounder swim past, it was zipped lips.

Seriously.

For the month before the event, all of the Elite pros aren’t even allowed to discuss the fishing in the local area with anyone who’d know – apart from other Elite pros. Publically available information on the internet is fine, but there’s no dropping into the local bait and tackle store and asking “what’s biting?”.

It’s harder to do than you’d think and was always in the back of my mind as I loaded some lunch and my camera gear aboard Carl’s 21ft Skeeter bass boat. Powered by a 250hp Yamaha SHO four-stroke outboard and with a 200lt fuel tank, this was a serious boat that ran comfortably at over 70mph (112km/h).

Carl’s tackle included around 25 Australian-built Millerods with Shimano reels, 30 boxes of lures (or ‘baits’ as the Americans call them), and as many accessories as he could fit in.

The boat sported two Power Poles that reduced noise (button-deployed poles that push into the ground and bring the boat to a dead stop with amazing stealth) and two Hydrowaves (baitfish-sound-emitting speakers that turn passive bass into active bass).

But even with all of the tools, it’s still a big ask to take an angler from Toowoomba and put him in a system that’s over 160km long from one end to the other, and expect him to catch fish.

Amazingly, Carl does it consistently.

BREAKTHROUGH

Carl was good enough to fight his way through the Bassmaster ‘Open’ events – where you and 200 other gun anglers fight for the five slots into the Elites that are offered in each region each year.

It took him four years.

And, although not consistent yet at this top level of competition, he gave his fellow competitors a glimpse of his skills at the second Bassmaster Elite event in 2015, placing sixth at Alabama’s big bass factory, Lake Guntersville, in April 2015.

Serendipitously, Carl’s performance at Guntersville coincided with the launch of live TV coverage for bass fishing. For the final few days of the tournament, not only did Carl have the Bassmaster Elite TV show cameras onboard, but those cameras streamed live footage to a web-based coverage, watched by hordes of hard-core bass fans across the planet.

That was Carl’s big break.

Instantly, audiences gained an insight into the boy from Toowoomba and were fascinated by the long road he’d travelled to get to that point.

At one stage, the world’s best basser, Kevin Van Dam, joined the live commentary team and helped dissect Carl’s productive pattern.

“That was ridiculous,” says Carl. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I’d be fishing the final day of a Bassmaster Elite event in my first season and have Kevin Van Dam commenting on me,” he continues.

“So many positives came from that event, including my new nickname.”

Bassmaster MC, a Canadian named Dave Mercer, coined the term ‘The Walla-beast’ during a live cross where Carl loaded the boat one morning and shot to the top of the real-time leaderboard.

It stuck.

PRACTICE DAY

Fast forward to the next event, thousands of kilometres away and I’m watching Carl practise, sitting in the passenger seat, camera in hand.

Carl’s skills have advanced in leaps and bounds since I last fished with him. He picks up a hollow-bodied, rubber frog and effortlessly skips it through a football-sized gap in the reed (called tules) on the edge of a California Delta canal.

With deft use of the rod tip, he swims the frog across the surface and pauses it in front of the patch.

A near five-pound fish blasts it on the pause and Carl sets the hooks hard, landing the fish in a couple of seconds on heavy, braided line.

“That was a mistake,” Carl says, “I shouldn’t have set the hooks on that, but it was more instinct than common sense.”

You see, by not hooking the fish, the chances that it’ll bite on the competition day are much higher.

“But at least I know that there are quality fish in here and that they’ll eat a topwater frog!” he concludes.

That was the last time he’d make a mistake like that for the day.

Time after time, and on a variety of baits, Carl would get bitten, but he refused to set the hooks. He’d either see the fish or guesstimate its size from the ferocity of the bite.

He ran around to check some spots he thought would hold fish and also checked new spots that he’d identified on his detailed bathymetric maps the night before. Most of them held quality fish.

In one instance, Carl ran into a small creek that featured weedy, shallow water at its top end. At this time of year, the largemouth bass spawn in these areas, moving from their deeper water wintertime haunts into shallow coves where they clear out a ‘nest’ and find a mate.

As the water warms, this ritual can happen overnight. Big female bass can move up onto beds and just as quickly, bedding female fish can depart, leaving the males to look after the eggs and fry.

Two Bassmaster Elite pros were already in there – drifting around and having a conversation. Carl said g’day as he slunk past and fired a handspan-sized soft plastic swimbait along a rocky bank.

Instantly a giant ate it. Again, not setting the hooks, Carl pretended that nothing was happening – he didn’t want the other competitors to see where this giant was sitting. But the fish had other ideas. It boiled and swirled as it swam back past the boat, refusing to spit out the bait that it had chased down.

The other pros stopped talking and looked across and Carl tried to pretend that his bait was snagged. He finally popped the plastic from the fish.

Did they catch on to what was going on? We’ll never know, but I did notice that Carl was shaking with excitement when he whispered, “that was a freaking giant!”.

So, with a solid game plan in place, it was back to the ramp to prepare the boat for the first competition day and the gruelling 70-mile run (yes, that’s over 100km) from the start line to his first fishing spot. Carl also had to attend the pre-tournament briefing where he would be paired with his observer for each day.

Elites carry an observer or ‘marshal’ each tournament day to act as a referee. It’s a great way for bass fans to get placed in a boat with a famous bass pro and a solid learning experience.

GAME DAY

Unless you’re a marshal, or watching it unfold on the internet, spectating a Bassmaster Elites event isn’t that easy.

Attending the start on the first day and watching Carl take off, we hot-rodded 90 minutes by car to a marina near Carl’s fishing spots where we’d left our boat. Even then, we missed nearly an hour of Carl’s session and he already had a couple of fish onboard.

We didn’t have to ask him to know what he’d caught. Each marshal carries a mobile device called Bass Trakk. They estimate the weight of the fish and instantly upload it to the live scoreboard. Of course, these estimates remain unofficial until the weigh-in at the day’s end, where the bassers bring the heaviest five bass – all alive – to the scales. These fish are subsequently released after weighing, therefore recycling the resource and maximising its value for the local communities.

So, until we had to make the long trek back to weigh-in, we watched Carl at work.

He threw the topwater frog with precision and swam it like a live one. And caught small bass. He punched through weed mats with a 40-gram tungsten sinker with a crazy looking tail and caught some small fish.

Long casts with an Australian-made Bassman spinnerbait yielded only more small fish and his favourite 6in swimbait got belted time and time again, but only by small fish.

Carl was frustrated, we could tell. The spots that showed their potential just 24 hours previously had changed. The big bass were obviously close, but Carl still lacked the skills to change with the fish and his small five-fish limit after the first day left him firmly in the bottom third of the field.

Despite this, Carl kept a positive attitude throughout the journey.

“I learn so much each and every day on the water and I’m getting better at adjusting to these fish,” Carl explained.

But Day 2 of the event was the same story.

Another small limit meant, on this occasion, a three-digit finish and a failure to make the Day 3 cut (of the top 50 anglers). Carl left the Delta event around US$8000 out of pocket – and nowhere near a US$10,000 cheque that’s awarded to the top half of the field.

ARMY OF FANS

Carl has an army of fans that help him celebrate his highs and keep him positive through his lows.

‘Team Jocumsen’ mobilised when Carl had to step up financially when he qualified for the Elite series, passing the hat around via a crowd-funding campaign that raised $20,000. Such ground-level support was unheard of through the ranks of USA-based bass pros.

Of course, being young and social media savvy doesn’t hurt his cause. With thousands of fans following his Facebook and Instagram feeds, he’s in constant contact with those grassroots anglers who love living his dream with him.

Carl promotes a couple of mantras that crystallise his commitment to success at the top level.

‘Whatever it Takes’ puts into three words the nights spent sleeping in the back of his F250, living on a shoestring and doing the thousands of lonely hours it takes to get to the top.

‘Fear my Heart’ is a subtle warning to those who’ve been lucky enough to be able to professionally fish for a species they’ve been familiar with their whole life. When it all clicks for Carl on a regular basis, you can be sure that you’ll be seeing – and hearing – more from the Walla-beast.

And we’re sure that it’ll be sooner rather than later on the biggest stage of all, the Bassmaster Classic.

Stay tuned …


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