Many teenagers don't know what they want to do with their lives. Zack Gagnard, a 16-year-old high-school junior, isn't one of them. Gagnard has his future all planned out.
He might have a hard time convincing his high-school guidance counselor that his career path is a good one, though, because he has his sights set on being a professional bass angler one day — a job nowhere to be found in the counselor's files.
If by some chance, Gagnard's counselor did decide to take some time him to help him map out his future, he better not plan any after-school meetings.
"I hit the lake as quick as I can after school," he said. "As a matter of fact, I caught the biggest bass of my life after Pineville High School let out at half a day. My cousin and I went out to Larto to have a little tournament, and we stroked them. We probably caught 30 or 40 altogether. My biggest five weighed 22 pounds, and my cousin's biggest five was around 17."
A 7-pound giant anchored Gagnard's limit that day. He had been fishing a cypress tree with a little 4-inch red bug finesse worm without much luck. Looking for another target, he spun his boat around while making one last pitch to the tree.
"When I picked up my line, it felt like my bait was lying on a root," he recalled. "That's when I saw my line slowly start moving off the tree. I set the hook, and thought I had hung up because she didn't even move. About that time she shot off the tree and started thrashing all over the surface. My cousin liked to have knocked it off with his first stab at it with the net, but we got her in on the second try."
Gagnard's fascination with bass fishing actually began many years earlier when his grandpa, Clyde Pennington, began taking him out on short fishing trips from his camp on Larto Lake.
"We would go out a couple hours, but he'd get bored," Pennington said. "We'd go back in for a while, but it wasn't long before he was ready to go back out. I remember one day in particular when he was about 10. I caught 24 fish one morning, and he had only caught one. He got so mad at me that he made me give him my rod every time I hooked one so he could reel it in."
Six years later, Pennington has found himself relegated to the back of the boat while his grandson does his own thing.
Gagnard joined the Big Bayou Bass Club when he was 14, and he eventually convinced his grandfather to join the club so they could fish the tournaments together. Big Bayou Bass Club members fish two to a boat, and each can keep five fish to keep up with points for the Association of Louisiana Bass Clubs (ALBC) Top 6 Tournament. The prize money is awarded based on each boat's largest five-fish limit.
"I love club fishing," said Gagnard. "Bass clubs are a good proving ground because all of those guys are really good anglers. When you beat them, you know you've done something.
"Some of those guys will actually take the time to help me, and I try to learn as much as I can from them. We won two club tournaments last year — one on the Red River and one on Saline Lake. I'm too young for the ALBC Top 6, though. You have to be 18 to qualify for that tournament."
Fishing with the Big Bayou Bass Club has also allowed Gagnard to experience all the different types of water that Louisiana offers. This year he will be visiting the Red River at Clark's Marina, Grand Bayou, Lake St. John, Black Lake, Toledo Bend, Cane River, the Red River at Colfax and Saline.
Gagnard's grandparents gave him a boat a few years ago, and they used to pull him to the lake and come pick him up later in the day. Since he's gotten his driver's license, however, Gagnard is now free to pull his 20-foot Javelin on his own.
"I'll go to all those lakes to pre-fish for the club tournaments by myself or with a buddy," said Gagnard. "And that means I'm going to be spending a lot of time on the road because I'm also fishing the non-boater side of the Louisiana Bassmaster Series Tournaments this year. I'm going to try to pre-fish for all of those too."
Gagnard got his feet wet in high-stakes tournament fishing last year when he decided to fish as a non-boater at the Red River Bassmaster Series tournament in Alexandria. He never dreamed that this testing of the waters would be so rewarding.
"That was the first one I ever fished," he said. "I remember I had been doing well on the Red River, so I figured I could do well in the tournament. I knew I'd have to stay in the back of the boat, but I figured the pattern I had established could work anywhere my boater decided to go. I showed up with a box full of 4-inch finesse worms and a few crankbaits."
Gagnard was greeted with rain showers the morning of his first big tournament. His boater decided to go to the back of an oxbow lake where he quickly put three fish in the boat.
"I tried not to let that get me down," he said. "I did have a topwater tied on to one of my rods, so I tried it a while early on. I wound up missing one about 3 pounds, but I eventually caught a keeper on it. Then I broke one off by a duck blind. I had lost two good fish early, and I couldn't help getting worried."
Gagnard's boater eventually moved to a sunken treetop in about 10 feet of water, and Gagnard knew what he had to do. He started pulling his crankbait through the maze of limbs, and quickly found that his pattern was still working.
"I caught one about a pound and a half," he said. "Then my boater caught what wound up being the big bass of the tournament out of that tree. We continued to beat on that tree, and I eventually picked up my third fish for my non-boater limit.
"After a short move to some flooded wood cover, I started culling by pitching my finesse worm behind my boater who was throwing a Brush Hog. He eventually wound up asking me if I had any extra I could give him, and I did."
Gagnard and his boater finished their day back at the sunken tree they had fished earlier. One pitch with his worm allowed him to cull up to a 6-pound limit thanks to the 2 1/2-pounder he slipped into the livewell.
"I won the non-boater side of that tournament," Gagnard said. "My check was something like $1,445 not too bad off a $100 entry fee. I'm fishing them all this year, and I plan on learning as much as I can about the new lakes and from watching my boaters fish."
If Gagnard's ambition seems like too much for a 16-year-old to handle, it shouldn't. He has a lot of support from his grandfather and his grandmother, Kay Pennington, who happens to be a competitor in the newly formed Women's Bassmaster Tour.
"I love him getting involved in tournament fishing," she said. "We support him as much as we can by giving him that Javelin and helping him keep it fixed. His dream is to be a professional angler, and we try to help and stay involved in an effort to help him reach that goal."
Kay Pennington said Zack has learned a lot of lessons tournament fishing that he can apply to other areas of his life. She believes the most important lesson tournament fishing has taught Zack is patience because the bass don't always cooperate.
"He's also learned to be courteous to other people," she continued. "And he's learning how to deal with and work with people that he just met. As a non-boater, meeting your boater for the day can be intimidating, but you have to learn how to get along and work together so that both anglers have a productive day."
However, being a junior in high school means that Gagnard has to be worried about more than just the lessons he learns on the water. He understands and values the importance of a good education.
"I plan on going to Northwestern and studying business and marketing," he said. "I also want to get involved with marine biology. Those are the kinds of classes that can benefit a professional angler because you have to keep up with the business side of fishing as well as being able to market yourself and fishing products.
"I don't have much trouble talking in front of people, but I imagine I'll take a speech class or two, also. My ultimate goal is to fish the Bassmaster Elite Series, and I see college as a way to help me get there and have something to fall back on at the same time."
Gagnard has also enrolled in bass fishing camps to try to expand his fishing knowledge. His most recent camp was hosted by bass pro Jay Yelas in Tyler, Texas. He had the opportunity to spend time in the boat with such pros as Yelas, Alton Jones, Todd Faircloth and Shaw Grigsby.
"It was a neat deal because we kind of had class time with seminars and stuff," Gagnard said, "then we went out on the water to apply what we had learned. Each pro had something a little bit different that he taught.
"I would recommend anybody interested in bass fishing in general, not just tournament fishing, to enroll in some of those kinds of camps."
Gagnard also shared some advice for other teen-agers looking to get into bass fishing. His best advice is to find a local farm pond and ask the owner permission to fish it. He believes there aren't too many people that would turn down a kid looking for a place to fish.
"Once you get access," he said, "tie on a small spinnerbait and start casting it. It's important to get a lot of bites early on to get your confidence up, and there aren't too many lures better than a spinnerbait to get those bites. It's easy to fish and bass love them. If you get it around one in a pond, he's going to bite it. They also don't get hung up too much."
Gagnard said that young bass anglers looking to break into tournament fishing should look out for bass clubs that have junior programs. One good one to look into is the Bassmaster Kid's Programs like CastingKids, which is the fishing equivalent to the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick events. BASS Federation clubs regularly sponsor such events and place information fliers in local sporting-goods stores.
Bassmaster also has a Junior Bassmaster Program that is run much like the Federation clubs in which anglers can qualify for the Bassmaster Classic. Junior anglers can qualify through the club level to fish their Junior Bassmaster State Championship from which point they can qualify for the Junior Bassmaster World Championship.
Kay Pennington believes it is up to parents or other concerned adults to get kids hooked on fishing. Her best advice is to make early fishing trips with kids all about them. Don't keep fishing if they get tired and want to do something else. Kids quickly lose interest, and making them stay on the water when they don't want to be there is a sure-fire way to make them not want to go next time.
"I passed many good bucks to let Zack get a shot at them," she added. "The same goes for fishing. If you know where a big bass lives, let the kid try to catch it first. Make it all about them and having fun. You'll hook them for life just like Zack."
For more information about Junior Bassmaster programs visit www.bassmaster.com and click About BASS then Youth. You can also visit the Louisiana Bass Federation at www.louisianabass.org for a listing of CastingKids events.