Church Hill angler David Mullins will begin living his lifelong dream when he starts fishing the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2014. (Contributed photo)
CHURCH HILL — David Mullins has enjoyed being a local hero on the Northeast Tennessee competitive bass fishing scene.
Now he’s ready to blast off into the majors.
The 31-year-old Mullins will begin living his lifelong dream when he starts fishing the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2014.
“I’m not married yet. I don’t have any kids. This is the time for me to do it if I’m going to do it,” said Mullins, whose Elite Series career debuts on Lake Seminole in Bainbridge, Ga., on March 13-16.
That will be the first of nine events — 10 if he accumulates enough points to make the top 50 for the Angler of the Year Championship.
Mullins is no stranger to competition in an area that boasts a lot of angling talent. In Northeast Tennessee, Mullins has won Walmart BFL, B.A.I.T., Toms Marine and Morristown Marine events. He’s made his share of out-of-state road trips as well, but nothing like what he’s now facing.
After the Lake Seminole opener, he’ll head to St. Johns River in Palatka, Fla. (March 20-23); Table Rock in Branson, Mo. (April 3-6); Toledo Bend in Many, La. (May 1-4); Lake Dardanelle in Russellville, Ark. (May 15-18); Chickamauga Lake in Southeast Tennessee (June 11-15); Delaware River in Philadelphia (Aug. 7-10); and Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, N.Y. (Aug. 21-24).
Last year, Mullins taught economics and finance at Volunteer High School and served as an assistant basketball coach. From here on out, bass fishing is his full-time job.
“The traveling schedule is so grueling. There is just no way I could do both,” he said.
The turning point in his angling career was a three-week hot streak that included a fourth-place finish in the PAA Series Douglas Lake Qualifier followed by a second-place finish in the BASS Southern Open, also on Douglas.
The latter qualified him to fish the Elite Series in 2014. Had he won the Douglas Open outright, he would have qualified for the Bassmaster Classic.
Mullins earned nearly $30,000 in that short span. In addition to funding his jump to full-time fishing, his strong showings in these highly competitive tournaments convinced him he was ready to compete at the sport’s highest level.
“I’ve always had success locally. Fishing with Charlie Rasch for almost 10 years was really big. I was about 20 when he took me under his wing,” Mullins said.
“The other person that really encouraged me was Aaron Martens (of Leeds, Ala.). He’d come up and fish with me during the Elites we had up here. He told me I could really do this if I wanted to.”
Mullins and Martens will probably be traveling partners on the tour, sharing some expenses and living out of Martens’ truck camper, which has two beds, a kitchen and a bathroom.
“It’s small,” Mullins said. “But you’re only spending five days in it at a time. It’s comfortable and it’s home.”
Comfortable or not, the touring regimen — which includes practice sessions and inevitable promotional stops — is inherently stressful. Professional bass angling is not a sedentary activity.
Mullins, a high school athlete who played on the Milligan College golf squad before transferring to East Tennessee State University, knows he needs to train his body to handle it better.
“My buddy Aaron runs miles every day. That’s something I’m having to get back into. You have to be in shape to compete,” Mullins said.
“Back when I played golf, we knew about nutrition’s role in physical and mental fitness. A lot of bass pros struggle with that. They’re out on the road and not eating right. I want to bring nutrition into this.”
When he’s not working out, Mullins spends much of his time seeking sponsors for his upcoming season. He holds a degree in marketing from ETSU — a big plus in professional bass fishing, as it turns out. But he’s still a rookie on the Elite Series Tour. That can be a pretty hard sell.
The sponsorship situation in the upper levels of professional bass fishing is not unlike that of NASCAR, where automotive product sponsors have come to play a relatively minor role.
“The money is not in the reel and lure companies. It’s in companies outside the fishing industry that have a lot more money to spend,” Mullins said.
“You have to get lined up with the right sponsors. It’s about team-building with companies,” he said.
“Trouble finding financial backing, that’s probably the biggest fear I have. But I think it’ll come. I’m just looking to go out there and do well and have the right people backing me.”