Luring fish (and sponsors)

As throngs of vehicles head into the central city along John Nolen Drive this warm August morning, Joe Okada, 29, reports to work at Olin Park.

It's 7:30 a.m., but Okada's day is already two hours old. As always, he spent about $100 at a local bait shop preparing for another day as a fishing guide. With ease, he backs his black pickup truck and sparkling red-and-black 20-1/2-foot-long Ranger 620 boat with a F250 four-stroke Yamaha motor into Lake Monona. Each piece of equipment, including the matching boat trailer, is emblazoned with his name.

This is Joe Okada's office.

Today's clients: Kate and Tammy, two Madison women who happen to be fishing enthusiasts and best friends. Okada whisks them off to a not-so-secret secret spot near Monona Terrace and provides each with a rod and reel. The women drop their lines over the boat and straight down to the bottom; almost immediately, the fish respond. They catch panfish first – bluegills and perch – using a vertical jibbing technique with jibs and live maggots. ("They're called 'spikes,'" he smiles. "They sell better that way.") Later in the day, to the women's delight, a new location proves the mother lode for much larger walleye and bass.

On board, about 20 rods are kept at the ready at all times, usually four to six rods for each fishing technique, though Okada owns about 200 rods in total. He says he doesn't know how much he's spent on rods and reels. "I'm afraid to know," he half-laughs.

Okada has been a fishing guide and pro fisherman since 2000, but his passion for the sport goes as far back as he can remember. "When I realized people did this for a living, I decided that's what I wanted to do," he says. He bought his first boat at age 18 and never looked back. "Fishing is in my blood, and I don't feel right when I'm not doing it."

But turning a passion into a business is a different matter. There is no such thing as a paid vacation, for example. No sick time. "You're only making money when you're fishing," he says, admitting that although he loves it, he no longer fishes for fun. These days, his livelihood depends upon his ability to build his own brand. The more success he has at that, the more business he generates.

"I fish to establish my credibility as a good angler so that I can promote my sponsors' products," he says. The guide service he provides "fills in the gaps," but is not the major income generator.

"In the Midwest, you can't make a living just guiding. The season is too short." That said, every year from October to December, Okada moves his guide business up to Escanaba, Mich., where he fishes for walleye – primarily in the dark of night. "That's where the big fish are," he smiles.

Okada seems to smile a lot.

While there is more money in bass fishing because bass are found nationwide, Okada's preference, the walleye, typically is found only between the Dakotas and New York, and he loves the challenge they present. "They could be in two feet or 80 feet of water," he says, "so you have to have all the techniques to catch them." But when he's guiding, he'll fish for whatever folks prefer.

Okada really has three jobs: promotions, guiding, and contracting. Agreements with sponsors keep him busy visiting retail stores, merchandising, and training staff on the use of various sponsored lures and other products. He promotes his own brand in all that he does, continually updating his website with instructional videos, tips, and tournament results, and he can make money selling his used equipment.

He's designed a new lure and has an idea for a boat product that is currently being floated. If a sponsor "bites" and Okada's ideas go to market, he could receive a cut of the proceeds.

Some sponsors offer retainers, paid monthly or quarterly, which is the only residual income Okada earns. In return, he submits reports to them detailing his activities to help build his (and their) brand.

"Sponsor support is the biggest key to making a living in the industry," he says, explaining why you'll find him at trade shows and boat shows between September and March. He's always seeking new sponsors and branding himself in as many ways as possible, becoming, in a very real sense, a marketing tool for hire. "Your dollars are generated off the water, whether at a seminar, training, or doing product promotions. In this job, more time is spent off the water than on the water. It's not at all what I expected, but down the road, establishing a good reputation is most important."

Okada admits pro fishing wannabes often don't last very long once they understand the realities of the business. But it works just fine for him.

Up to a dozen times a year, he participates in fishing tournaments, competing against the best anglers around and using sponsored equipment in hopes of landing the top prize, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars. He just returned from one such tournament in South Dakota where he didn't fare well ("That was an expensive trip!"), and will head to Green Bay later in the day for a favorite one-day tournament, where he's hoping to take his third championship title in as many years. (Update: He won!)

Anglers can spend four to five days pre-fishing for tournaments, canvassing the lakes and locating the "hot spots." They consider things like weather conditions, the moon, and water temperature to gauge fish activity. The best fishing, Okada says, occurs just prior to an approaching weather front, but in the absence of such an event, fishing is all about experience, fish-finding equipment, and a strong knowledge of the body of water being navigated.

Okada can spend upwards of $20,000 a year on travel, with tournament entry fees averaging $1,500, but he can earn thousands more if he brings in the winning catch – measured in pounds – or at least falls into the payout pool. While a necessity for pro anglers building credibility in the industry, tournaments are, in Okada's words, "a terrible way to make money," comparing them to making a living by playing the lottery. "You don't count on that."

Okada credits his family for supporting his passion. Still single and living at home, he says he's in the perfect position to do what he does, since half the year he's on the road. "I've got great friends and family support," he sighs, "but no time for them."

Okada says he nets about $50,000 a year, and one gets the distinct sense that there is no place he would rather be. "I could find better ways to make money or get a retirement plan," he smiles again, "but I'm living the dream."


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