For most 14-year-olds, choosing a career path is reserved for some point in the distant future. For St. Thomas sophomore Michaela Anderson, the decision was made the first time she saw a professional bass fishing tournament on TV.
A member of the St. Thomas Fishing Club, Anderson is one of only a few female anglers competing in collegiate bass fishing. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly and one that gained the attention of Bassmaster Magazine, the publication of the B.A.S.S. Federation, one of the professional competitive bass fishing circuits in the United States.
In an article titled “One woman, 109 men,” Anderson talked about feeling a bit of extra pressure to do well at the national collegiate bass tournament. “I want to make other women proud and show that we can compete with the men – even if there’s not as many of us in the sport.”
The task may seem daunting to the average angler, but Anderson is far from average. Fishing has been part of her life from very early on. She recalls visiting her grandparents, who would take her fishing at local lakes. “I remember being really young, about 3 years old, and we would catch sunnies off the end of the dock,” she said. “I just loved it.” By the time she turned 12, her grandparents built a cabin on Lake Moses near Evansville, Minn., and fishing became a serious hobby – one that sparked her competitive spirit.
“My dad bought a pontoon, and we would just drift across the lake and try to catch as many fish as we could,” she said. The fishing on Lake Moses is pretty good, according to Anderson, which helped fuel some friendly rivalries in her family. “We’d have competitions to see who could catch the most fish. It didn’t matter what kind of fish you caught, you just had to touch it – that was our only rule.”
Anderson always was a competitive person, having grown up playing softball and hockey. She knew she loved to fish but she didn’t know until she was 14 that there was an organized way to compete at it. It was then that she happened to see a bass tournament on TV. “Once I saw that there was a way to go pro at fishing, I started making my parents bring me to sportsman shows so I could talk to people who did this,” she said. “I wanted to know what I needed to do to become a professional angler.”
At such a young age, and perhaps because she is female, Anderson would often receive funny looks from the pros she would approach. But she was undeterred. Once they realized how motivated she was, they all gave her the same recommendation: Find some youth tournaments and start fishing. Living in the land of 10,000 lakes, she discovered that there were plenty of opportunities for aspiring young anglers.
Anderson entered her first youth tournament that same year. Soon after she discovered that if she applied herself, she might start bumping into the kind of people who could give her a break. That happened the day she ran into Mark Fisher during a tournament on Gull Lake. Fisher, who works for Rapala – a fishing lure company in Minnetonka – was digging in a rod locker on his boat when 14-year-old Anderson approached him with a question.
“Here was this young lady in braids asking me about a pretty specific lure. How did she even know about that stuff?” Fisher wondered at the time. “From the moment I met Michaela, she has always been really focused and known a lot about what she’s doing. But that day she had more questions than answers.”
The two became fast friends. As a result, Anderson became somewhat of a protégé of Fisher’s and began learning the ropes of the fishing industry. “We joked about her being my long-lost daughter in some ways,” he said.
By the time she was 16, her friendship with Fisher had turned into a more formal sponsorship by Rapala. Sponsorship is essential for young anglers, particularly in Minnesota, where fishing isn’t a varsity high school sport. She’s also sponsored by Kruger Farms, a sportsman outfitter. “Getting to the different tournaments and paying for equipment and gas gets really expensive,” Anderson said. “In fishing, it’s pretty tough without sponsors. They are really helpful.” They also can make things complicated.
Since she was still participating in high school athletics, Anderson had to be careful about accepting sponsorship support. “I was technically getting paid to fish, but I didn’t want it to get in the way of playing other sports I loved.” Fortunately for her and the many other youth anglers, the state of Minnesota offers exceptions that allow youth fishing participants to be sponsored while maintaining their eligibility. “She alternated between throwing a line and picking up a hockey stick,” Fisher said. “I always told her it was important to focus on school and sports, too, because fishing can be a huge outlet later in life.”
The same year, she won the state B.A.S.S. Federation youth title for her age division and was the first representative from Minnesota to attend the new national youth tournament in Pittsburgh. The trip coincided with her 16th birthday, which she celebrated by fishing alongside pro anglers brought in for the tournament.
While most 16-year-olds are clamoring for their first car, Anderson had her sights set on something much more essential to her goals: a fishing boat, which she received from her parents. “My parents have always been really supportive,” she said. “My mom always tries to come with me when I travel to my tournaments.”
As fishing began taking up more of her time, Anderson had to learn how to strike a balance among other activities she loved. While attending Centennial High School in Lino Lakes, she maintained good grades and earned enough college credit to start at St. Thomas a full semester ahead of her classmates. She gave up softball in ninth grade but found time to participate on a U19 hockey team, which won the state title when she was a senior.
At 17, she was named the inaugural Sports Person of the Year at the 2011 Minnesota Tournament of Champions. After competing in the national youth tournament for the first time, Anderson began to travel more outside of Minnesota to compete against anglers from other states – not only for tournaments but often for pre-fishing. “What a lot of people don’t understand is the amount of practice you have to do before going to a tournament,” Anderson said.
Like any sport, bass fishing requires a certain amount of strategy. “Fishing in Minnesota is a lot different from almost any other state. We have all natural lakes; other states have manmade lakes,” she said. “A lot of them don’t have any weeds, and the structures and types of fishing are a lot different.” This requires a lot of pre-fishing, which usually is allowed a week before a tournament.
While pre-fishing, Anderson looks for a lot of different things to help build her strategy. She likes to cover as much of the lake as possible and get a sense of what lies in the water below and where the fish are most likely to bite. She’ll often reach out to Fisher for advice the night before a tournament.
“She’s always prepared. She will tell me her plan of attack and talk about the lures she plans to use,” he said. “It has taught her a lot about problem solving. She identifies little battles and challenges and takes them on a bit at a time.”
Now as a St. Thomas student, she majors in marketing and dedicates herself to her studies, understanding that to be successful in the fishing industry she needs to know how to market herself. Anderson also gets to continue fishing through the St. Thomas Fishing Club.
“A lot of people who fish professionally don’t go to college. But college fishing is such a great experience for me,” she said. In 2012, she and teammate Bryan Billadeau participated in the B.A.S.S. Federation national collegiate tournament on the Arkansas River. She didn’t win, but the first-place finisher earned a spot in The Classic, a tournament regarded as the “Super Bowl of bass fishing.” “To have a chance to get into The Classic as a student is a pretty big deal,” she said. “There are some pros who don’t even get to do that.”
She travelled to 10 tournaments in 2012 in states such as Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Arkansas. But the life of an aspiring pro angler, while being a college student, also has its challenges. Many of Anderson’s tournaments outside of Minnesota take place during the school year. “It can be tough, because not many professors think fishing is a good excuse to get out of class – even though its through the St. Thomas Fishing Club,” she said. “It’s not the same as when the varsity basketball team needs to travel for an away game.” However, she doesn’t allow that to make her any less competitive.
In addition to being a fierce competitor, Anderson is also an advocate. “It’s unfortunate that, in the land of 10,000 lakes, fishing isn’t a high school or college sport,” she said, noting that several colleges in other states offer scholarships for the fishing team.
It’s particularly easy to get involved at a young age, according to Anderson, since most youth tournaments don’t require you to have a boat. “You just sign up and then you get to go fishing for a day – and who wouldn’t want to do that?” she said. “There are lots of programs trying to get kids out fishing; we just need to make them more public so more kids can find those opportunities. Especially girls. Everyone should try it at least once.”
Anderson continues to make a splash in the male-dominated sport. According to Fisher, “She has always grasped the barrier breakdown in fishing. I don’t think she is driven more because she is a gal; it’s just her nature to go after things full bore.” In an interview with Ron Schara on Minnesota Bound, Anderson said she doesn’t get caught up in labels but, “I’ve just always wanted to be a fisherman,” she said.
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