Georgia Big Sticks: Q&A with BFL Bulldog Division Tournament Director Robert Evans
Do you ever think what it would be like to travel all over the country running bass tournaments for FLW, the world’s largest tournament-fishing organization? Well, as you’ll see in this month’s interview with FLW’s Bass Fishing League (BFL) Tournament Director Robert Evans, it’s a gratifying job but it’s not for everyone. Evans, a Kentucky native who grew up a stone’s throw from FLW, the world’s greatest fishing organization, now directs BFL tournaments throughout the eastern U.S.
Evans was raised on Kentucky Lake, which is a little over half an hour from FLW headquarters in Benton. After attending the University of Louisville and getting his degree in marketing at Murray State University, Robert worked in sales for a few years in other states. But eventually his love of both the outdoors and his community ultimately brought him back home to Kentucky. Now, as a full-time BFL Tournament Director, he has become part of the FLW heritage. He and the FLW Tournament Directors have helped the FLW‘s BFL become home to more than 30,000 anglers in 24 divisions across the United States. It’s a job that can sometimes keep him on the road for five weekends at a time–coming back into FLW headquarters in Benton, Kentucky only for a day or two to go over the details for the next tournament. Despite the travel and the pressures of the job, Evans says it’s a gratifying to put on a great tournament when everyone has a positive experience.
Evans had high praise from the man many consider to be the dean of American Tournament Directors, the FLW’s Bill Taylor, who is Senior Director of Tournament Operations for FLW.
“Robert is a true outdoorsman! His fishing and hunting skills are second to none, especially with crappie and water fowl, ” said Taylor. “He lives to do both and I feel it is a big factor in his ability to successfully communicate and work with our anglers as a Tournament Director.”
We caught up with Robert Evans as he was preparing for the BFL Bulldog event on Lake Oconee at Sugar Creek Marina on April 30th. We also had a followup conversation with him after the tournament, as he was preparing to hit the road for another series of tournaments that would take him to Mississippi, Wisconsin and ultimately the northeastern U.S. He was just finishing up five straight weekends on the road.
GBS: Robert, how do you handle all the travel?
Evans: It’s tough but it’s all part of it.
GBS: How did you get involved with FLW?
Evans: I grew up here in western Kentucky–we actually had a house on Kentucky Lake. Needless to say, fishing was a daily routine. I’d ride home from school and get off the bus and run down and jump in the boat and go fishing. I’ve had a boat since I was about 12 years old–my Dad got me into it.
GBS: What happened after high school?
Evans: I went to the University of Louisville and then transferred back here to Murray State University and graduated there with a business degree in marketing. After college I bounced around a few different places like St. Louis, Louisville, southern Illinois and never really found my groove. I always found myself wanting to get back to this [Kentucky] lake to go fishing or hunting, one or the other.
GBS: Is your family still in the area?
Evans: Yes, they are.
GBS: It’s a strong pull when you’ve got your family there and a place that you love.
Evans: Exactly. I was always aware of FLW being here in the immediate area. Their home office is only about 15 minutes from where I grew up.
GBS: Wow, that’s incredible.
Evans: Yes. My wife actually was working at FLW as a graphic designer at the time and I was working somewhere else in a sales position. Then I met with Bill Taylor in the fall of 2007 a full-time staff member position became available for the Everstart Tour [now the Costa Series]. I went to work on January 1, 2008 and on January 3 I left for five weeks to do five straight tournaments.
GBS: Sounds like you jumped right into it.
Evans: Yeah, it was fortunate that I grew up here and that the company was based here.
GBS: Now FLW used to be Operation Bass, isn’t that right?
Evans: Yes, and it was purchased by Irwin Jacobs and renamed FLW [after Ranger boat founder and fishing Hall of Fame member Forrest L. Wood].
GBS: Do you still find time to get out and do some fishing or when you have a day or two off or is fishing the last thing you want to do?
Evans: No, I still find time. Honestly, I was never a big tournament fisherman. I was always an avid outdoorsman. I fished all the time and waterfowl hunted all the time. I still find time and in fact I’ve taken my wife and daughter three separate times in the last four or five days. I still find the time, but you have to choose your times.
GBS: Tell us about your family.
Evans: We’ve got a six-year-old daughter and a two-year old son and they keep us going strong.
GBS: You’re running the BFL Bulldog Division this year–but you also have responsibility for two other BFL trails. Can you tell us how that works?
Evans: Sure. Each Tournament Director carries a load of four divisions–with the exception of two of the directors who have other duties here at FLW. I have the Bulldog and Mississippi Divisions in the Southern part of the country, and then I have the Great Lakes (mostly Wisconsin) and the Northeast Division. All of us carry two divisions in the South and two divisions in the North. The reason we do that is we can work the schedule out for the whole year.
GBS: How does that work with the Southern tournaments. Do you go back and forth between the Bulldog and Mississippi divisions?
Evans: No, it doesn’t really conflict–although one of the toughest parts of the job is scheduling all these tournaments. There are more than 200 of them each year. You know we try not to conflict anywhere, especially among ourselves, which is very difficult. Let’s take the Bulldog Division and the Savannah River Division: a lot of the guys fish both divisions. You don’t want to have those two divisional tournaments on the same weekend.
GBS: That’s right, and I guess the same is true for the Bama and South Carolina Divisions, where Bulldog Division anglers often compete. It seems a lot of the Bulldog anglers fished Bama last year since the regional was at Sinclair.
Evans: Yes, that’s true. The regionals really drive the divisions when it comes right down to it. So we try not to conflict with each other.
GBS: How does it work, creating that master schedule without conflicts?
Evans: Each division has five tournaments–so you decide which lakes you want to go to and what dates. Then, you’ll contact the hosts and marinas to see if those dates are available just to make sure there’s not another organization that has reserved that date. Now usually we’re ahead of the game on that–we’ve usually got our schedule set by August the year before, although not all of the details are worked out until a little later in the year. We work to ensure we put up the best possible schedule we can.
GBS: What depends whether you do weigh-ins at the Walmart stores vs. a marina? Is it a matter of time and distance or does it depend on the individual stores?
Evans: It’s a little bit of both, really. At some Walmarts the parking lots are not owned by that particular store and if that’s the case we’ll do it at the lake. But the actual Walmart and the distance are the key factors.
GBS: Most of the time are you going back to the same hosts?
Evans: Yes, most the time we do, but if there are new ramps that are built we might change the location. Like at Lake Oconee we pretty much go to Sugar Creek all the time because it’s the only real option.
GBS: What are some of the differences in the trails–and I guess travel comes into play a great deal.
Evans: You’d be surprised, there really are not major differences. I’ve run tournaments in New York, Florida, Texas and the extreme north. I won’t say that all the fishermen are the same, because you have different cultures in different areas–but when it comes right down to it everyone wants a good even playing field of competition. You could mix up the guys at any given time and you wouldn’t know where they are from.
GBS: How do the Georgia fishermen stack up against the others?
Evans: Well, the cream always rises to the top. At the Oconee tournament, I think we had five or six All American qualifiers in that tournament so that lets you know you have some pretty strong sticks in the Bulldog Division. The Bulldog division has produced some great people, including Troy Morrow. If you have to compete against tough fishermen like that everyday it will make you a better fisherman.
GBS: We joke sometimes that many of us are really more ‘contributors’ than ‘competitors’–we end up contributing to the college funds for the kids of our Georgia Big Sticks!
Let’s change gears for a minute. What are the toughest challenges you face as a Tournament Director?
Evans: On a personal note, the traveling time away from our families is probably the toughest part. On a job-related note, the biggest challenge we have is making the co-anglers and boaters even out by the start of the tournament. You may have it set Friday night, but things happen between Friday night and Saturday morning take-off.
GBS: So you could be getting text and phone calls throughout the evening?
Evans: Yes, people get sick, cars malfunction, whatever the case may be. You may find yourself in need of more boaters or more co-anglers on the night before the tournament and that’s why it pays to have certain guys that the tournament directors usually know and they can be a big help. For example, at Oconee, John Duvall [a GeorgiaBigStick and All American qualifier profiled here two months ago] had multiple co-anglers lined up. We usually know the top local folks who can help us even out a field. And it’s not just in Georgia, the same thing is true everywhere.
GBS: I’m sure they can make four or five phone calls and make your life easier.
Evans: Right, so having a network of fishermen like that to help make sure your field is even is really helpful. That’s always a challenge for the tournament directors.
GBS: Do you have many allegations of rules violations you have to deal with during the tournaments?
Evans: It happens–but it happens in most any organization. It doesn’t happen a lot. With our format, our co-anglers and boaters are strangers and they are honest people. If the rules are violated, you usually find out about it immediately. If you know a violation and don’t let the tournament director know then you are also in violation of the rules. That’s the best policing system we know is to put two strangers in a boat.
GBS: What should people know about a tournament director’s job that they might not know.
Evans: That’s a good question (pausing). I think a lot of people feel that the tournament director is out there to sort of police or boss people around–and that’s not the case. I have rules to follow and rules I expect our fishermen to follow the rules. I want everyone to enjoy themselves and have a good day fishing. If there is a problem, I want them to come to me and tell me about it first. I don’t want to have to read about an issue on the internet. We’re there to help you and make sure you enjoy yourself and that there’s an even playing field for the tournament.
GBS: And you guys know what it’s like.
Evans: Well, all these tournament directors, we’re all fishermen, and we understand the heat of the moment. If there’s a problem all we ask is that you come to us first.
GBS: Without naming names or lakes, have you had bad experiences like that?
Evans: Sure, it’s happened before, and not just for me but all tournament directors. You hate reading about it Monday morning on Facebook.
GBS: Tell me about your team that helps you set up for the Bulldog tournaments?
Evans: Dave & Terrie Mock are out of Tallahassee are the tournament assistants. Our field staff at Oconee were Jake Higdon and Ricardo Smith.
GBS: The Mocks do a great job.
Evans: Yes, and they’ve been in business a long time. They drive one of nine different [FLW] trailers scattered across the country. It just depends on where the tournament is and what their schedule is like.
GBS: Any tournament you’ve attended that sticks out in your mind as one of the best?
Evans: Probably the All American is the greatest. Those guys fish all year long the prior year to get there. They fish five division tournaments and then a regional. It’s one of the hardest tournaments to qualify for. They have to beat 20,000-30,000 other fishermen to end up being one of only 52 competitors in the entire country who qualify. One All American that sticks out in my mind was out of National Harbor in Washington D.C. We were playing the National Anthem that morning and you have military planes flying over you and you’re sitting on the Potomac River with the Capitol behind you and you are getting ready to have a national tournament where the winner gets $120,000. It’s an amazing sight.
GBS: That sounds pretty special–it doesn’t get much better than that.
Evans: Yes, it was really something.
GBS: This year’s All American is at Barkley. How will it fish?
Evans: This summer you’ll be able to fish any way you want to fish. You can shallow or you’ll be able to fish out on the ledges and fish deep. Those fish will be post spawn and maybe a few will still be in the spawn. Barkley is more shallow-oriented than Kentucky–but it does have it ledges. Kentucky has more defined creeks, maybe but the All American qualifiers will be able to catch fish almost every way. It will be interesting to see which pattern will prevail in that tournament.
GBS: What’s your next tournament coming up?
Evans: I’ve got a couple of tournaments in Mississippi coming, and then I’ll have a Great Lakes tournament on the Mississippi River [in Wisconsin]. Then some of my New York tournaments will be coming up.
GBS: What’s a week like for a BFL tournament director?
Evans: You come in Monday morning and you prepare for your upcoming tournament. Make sure you’ve got all your permits and touch base with the marinas and locations. You make sure your reservations are made and you’ve talked with your host. Make sure everything is in place. If you’re using a tournament assistant that just finished a tournament in another location, you find out if they are in need of supplies that might have been used up in their previous tournament. It’s two or three days of detailed preparation before you travel. On Thursday you travel to the location, registration and set-up is on Friday and then the tournament of course is on Saturday.
GBS: I appreciate you taking time to talk to us. You do a great job running these big tournaments and we appreciate it.
Evans: Thanks, Dave. You’re welcome.
WEIGHING IN: On a personal note, as a longtime BFL back-decker (a.k.a. co-angler), I can tell you that these FLW guys are true professionals. And they are focused on their customers. Robert Evans and his colleagues put the fishermen first. If you need them you can call them 24/7 and you will hear back. If you get sick the night before a tournament organization, they can’t make you feel better, but they will answer your call and find a replacement so the field remains even. And it’s just not the TD’s who are professional–there are others in the home office–like customer representative Wendy Timmons–who always respond quickly to emails and questions. Wendy, like Robert Evans and his colleagues, represents what separates FLW from it’s competitors.
The FLW organization always put the angler’s first–they’re the Ritz Carlton of tournament bass fishing’s customer service. These TD’s are the best in the business–and they’ve been trained by the top dog of U.S. tournament directors, long-time FLW Senior Director of Tournament Operations, Bill Taylor, undoubtedly one of the most liked and respected people in all of tournament fishing. And, unlike the other national bass fishing organization, B.A.S.S., the folks from Benton, Kentucky have always kept the co-anglers involved. While B.A.S.S. has eliminated the co-anglers from the Elite Series (and limited others to the demeaning, second-class status of three-fish limits), the FLW has never forgotten its roots–the weekend anglers. The FLW Bass Fishing League (BFL) is not only a chance for fishermen at any skill level to compete, but to see what it’s like to be involved in a big-time, professionally run tournament. Next time you’re at a tournament, tell those folks from FLW that they’re doing a great job: they don’t expect it–but they’ll appreciate it!