Special to Mustang News
It’s 7:30 on a Wednesday morning and Cal Poly Bass Club President John Zeolla is maneuvering his boat, Betsy, around the contours of Lopez Lake. He guides her past the overcrowded nooks, around one bend, then around another.
He stops Betsy near a ledge and puts down her trolling motor. Without hesitation, he grabs one of his eight rods and casts his first line in the time it takes most men to open their tackle box.
The business administration senior lets it sink 20 feet so it grazes the bottom.
He waits. But just a moment.
He studies his fish finder. He reanalyzes his playing field — the water level, the wind, the temperature, the light penetration, the moon cycle, the barometric pressure, the location of his boat.
No bites. Within 15 minutes, he’s moved on. Patience? That’s the old song of fishing. Zeolla knows bass fishing isn’t waiting for a bite; it’s creating that moment.
He dons his lime green Cal Poly fishing jersey and wears his curls in a ponytail that’s been growing long before it became the latest fad. His beard, his attire, his assortment of rods and the ease with which he handles his boat all embody a man ready for his next catch.
“They’re such a game fish because even if they aren’t hungry, you can trick them if you trigger them correctly into biting a lure,” Zeolla said. “It’s a completely different animal than most fish. It’s all casting and technique. It’s very frustrating. You can sit out on a lake for multiple days and not catch shit. But it’s always worth it.”
The Cal Poly bass team consists of eight members who compete against other colleges in four teams of two. Each team needs its own boat and is only allowed to fish with artificial lures, as opposed to live bait. The teams keep their five heaviest fish. When the time runs up, the team with the heaviest weight among 10 fish wins.
Eight members makes this the biggest bass club Zeolla has seen in his five years and is a large step up from four years ago, when he and his fishing partner Kyle Greenlaw were the only members.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more kids who fish bass at Cal Poly because it’s a total hick sport,” Zeolla said. “But I guess there’s not a lot of true hicks out here.”
Zeolla found the bass team on Facebook, contacted the club and fished his first tournament a month later. He placed fifth and came home with $5,000. After his first season, he realized he didn’t want to waste his life doing something he didn’t like and decided to pursue a professional bass fishing career.
His partner, Greenlaw, a business administration senior, is also determined to turn his passion into his profession and understands the difficult transition between collegiate competitions and the professional fishing industry.
Their favorite tournament was when they competed in Georgia two summers ago. They spent a week driving there (fishing along the way, of course), a week fishing and a week driving back.
To have a decent shot at placing, the teams pre-fish before each tournament and use their fish finder to graft the water — studying the lake to note key structures such as rocks, ledges, submerged trees or creek channels.
“One thing that is overlooked by a lot of fishermen is their tendency to start fishing immediately,” Greenlaw said. “You have to go and look past that and be patient and actually chart out waters.”
Having a partner helps with analyzing the playing field, especially when time is an issue, Greenlaw said.
“It’s nice having someone there to collaborate with,” Greenlaw said. “You each have your own styles that you like to fish and if you put them together, you can have a well-functioning team.”
Luckily, the Georgia tournament was during the summer when they didn’t have the stress of classes in the backs of their minds. Last year, the duo traveled from Wednesday through Sunday for a tournament in South Carolina and had to put their schoolwork on hold.
“Despite the cold, it was fun,” Greenlaw said. “We didn’t have time to fish that lake before the tournament, so it was kinda rushed. We scored 32 out of 50. Not good.”
Greenlaw is graduating next quarter, and agricultural systems management sophomore Clayton Lauchland will be taking his place alongside Zeolla.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Lauchland said. “You get to travel around with a bunch of guys and go fishing and even the guys from the other schools are friendly.”
Unlike Zeolla and Greenlaw, who made the transition into bass fishing on their own, Lauchland knew nothing but bass from the beginning.
“I like it because it’s a lot more active than fishing for other things,” he said. “I don’t like standing there and waiting for a fish to eat a worm. You get to cast and you get to move around and it’s more competitive.”
The fishermen understand the obstacles they face entering the professional fishing industry, since most fishing tournaments are in the South and East Coast.
“The western guys don’t get a lot of love,” Zeolla said. “You have to compete in tournaments where that’s their home water and they know everything about that lake and you’re just showing up.”
“I think I have a good shot,” Zeolla said. “There’s a lot of luck involved, but there’s a lot of skill involved, too.”
Like catching a bass, Zeolla knows reaching his dreams requires more than patiently waiting for a lucky bite — it’s creating that moment.