Chasing away the sleep at four in the morning, handling bait, dealing with swarms of insects, smelling like fish, and stalking a moody and elusive adversary while dealing with everything a temperamental and tempestuous Lake Erie foists your direction — there are many more glamorous ways to make a living.
This is the career, and the life, that Ross Robertson has chosen. The Toledo native is a full-time professional fisherman, and that was a lot simpler occupation when the apostles were around casting in the Sea of Galilee.
Today, listing your profession on IRS Form 1040 as “fisherman” requires aptitude in sales, budgeting, accounting, scheduling, negotiating, communication, marketing, public speaking, engineering, mechanics, chemistry, electronics, biology, physics, hydrology, design, and navigation.
That should at least get you started.
You sure better know how to fish better than the other 99.9 percent of humanity.
“I don’t know what you call what I do,” said the 34-year-old Robertson. “But the fishing is the gravy part.”
Robertson’s “ordinary” work day will often include little that he did the day before.
He does regular promotional appearances and demonstrations for Ranger Boats, one of his primary sponsors, he field tests fishing tackle for some of his dozen or so other sponsors, tapes a cable television show for BCSN, writes regular pieces for outdoors magazines, competes in professional tournaments, guides clients on Lake Erie and other waters, and keeps up a steady chain of entries on social media outlets, and correspondence with his sponsorship.
“They’re essentially paying me to do the work they can’t do in a cubicle,” Robertson said about his sponsors, which include Mercury outboards, Reef Runner fishing lures, and Clam Outdoors, a leader in ice fishing equipment.
“In any business, everybody has a role — I just wear a lot more hats than most people,” said Robertson, who has authored a book on trolling for walleye that many consider the definitive manual on the nuances of that popular approach. “It’s a 70 hour week, easy, but I’ve kind of created the beast in what I do.”
Robertson said that in elementary school many of his classmates aspired to be an astronaut or president, and then in high school they all wanted to be professional snow-boarders or basketball players, but he got bit by something different.
“I’ve always liked fishing, and always wanted to do it, but I didn’t know how realistic it would be to turn fishing into a full-time occupation,” he said. “And in high school, you can’t go to the guidance counselor and say ‘I want to be a fisherman’. You’re supposed to go to college.”
So Robertson went, and earned a degree in business, but he kept on fishing. He interned with a major financial company, and after graduation was offered a job with great pay, a clothing allowance, and all the perks of the corporate world.
“They wanted to hire me, but they wanted me to lose the pickup truck because it didn’t fit their image, and they wanted me to do a lot of appearances,” he said. “It was really an atrocious amount of money, but I’m not a suit-and-tie, behind-the-desk kind of guy, and I never will be.”
Robertson found the ultimate guidance he needed from Lake Erie fishing legend Jim Fofrich, Sr., who taught the sometimes brash young angler a profound respect for the resource, while also sharing many of the secrets of successful walleye fishing.
“He just did it right. He was paying it forward every day, and I really admired him for that,” Robertson said about Fofrich.
“He was more like a father-figure to me.”
Robertson started selling boats, and that work provided connections with many of the people who would eventually be his sponsors, and his clients, when he went all-in as a professional fisherman.
“That was a stepping stone, and I knew it, but it served its purpose. But eventually, you have to take the jump. If you’re waiting for the golden ticket, waiting for the door to open up and someone to say ‘here, come fish for a living’ — you’re never going to see it.”
Robertson took on more work as a guide, continued to sell Ranger boats, and learned how to scramble, improvise, adapt, and morph into the jack-of-numerous-trades that it takes to make a go of it as a full-time professional fisherman.
“I was very selective about who I lined up with as sponsors,” Robertson said. “If something was garbage, I wouldn’t put my name on it. I’ve always wanted to use stuff that works.”
He took the sage advice of Fofrich, Sr., and Jim Fofrich, Jr., and also learned from many of the top pros on the national circuit.
He never misses an opportunity to credit those mentors.
“Ross was very good at a very young age, but he always paid attention to those guys he respected so much, and he picked up a lot of knowledge from them,” said retired Lake Erie charter captain Danny Tucker. “I’ve been fishing Lake Erie for over 50 years, and he’s one of the best around. He’s very dedicated, he’s a perfectionist, and Ross has probably released more fish than most people have caught.”
On very short notice this spring, just after ice-out, Robertson was called on by “Field & Stream” to put together a walleye fishing episode for the “Hook Shots” video series. In two days of filming, Robertson consistently tracked down huge walleyes — the show’s stars and crew caught and released more than 50 fish that were over nine pounds.
“He is very good at what he does,” said Tucker. “He’s made a science out of trolling, and he is the only fisherman around who knows how to tune a lure. He just doesn’t leave any room for error.”
Robertson estimates that he fishes 150-plus days a year, but it is not the kind of fishing most weekenders envision.
“Some days the lake is rough, sometimes it’s muddy, and sometimes the fish just don’t cooperate,” Robertson said. “But nobody wants excuses. People think fishing is a vacation, but the minute you take the wheel, everything changes. You have to worry about catching fish, about being safe, do we have the bait, is there enough oil in there ... and on and on.”
Robertson said he feels more pressure when guiding clients than he does when fishing against the best in the world in pro tournaments.
“I can only let myself down if I don’t do well in a tournament, but if a couple from Iowa spends their vacation time and a lot of money to come here and fish with me, that weighs on me,” he said. “I think I probably have as few tough days as anyone, but I still have them.”
Most days, Robertson is catching more fish and bigger fish than many expect, and always releasing the majority of them. The long days, the early starts, the conga line of sponsor commitments — it grinds on him, but Robertson is still very much at peace with the line he’s cast in life.
“There are days when it wears you out, but you still gotta go, go, go,” Robertson said. “But I could be wearing that suit and tie and be sitting behind a desk right now — instead of fishing — but that’s just not me. If I die tomorrow, I know I did it Ross’ way.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.
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