A great catch: Fishing vet vying for top prize in competition

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

BUFORD -- It's not the end of the world if Tom Mann Jr. doesn't win this one. But it sure would be nice.

Mann, the 26-year veteran of professional bass fishing, will be vying for the Forrest Wood Cup like 77 other pros this weekend, just another fish in the pond.

But starting Thursday, the Buford resident will be another fish in his pond -- "the Cup," bass fishing's annual spectacle of a championship, is being held at Mann's own Lake Lanier.

"I was elated, really (to find out the tournament would be held at Lanier)," Mann said. "This is absolutely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, no doubt."

Mann, a full-time professional fisherman since 1984, grew up fishing on Lake Lanier. After a childhood spent hunting and fishing in Warner Robins, Mann moved to the metro Atlanta area and began casting lines at Lanier at age 16.

A quarter-century later, he's a well-versed veteran of the professional circuit, pulling in plenty of sponsors and more than $1 million in earnings.

Last October, he won a tournament and was named FLW's Eastern Wrangler of the Year, qualifying for the sport's biggest event on his own turf.

"I'm ready for it, I'm prepared, I've done everything humanly possible that you can do to prepare for this tournament," Mann said.

"As soon as I got home last October, I fished every day I could right up to the cut off. I've done everything I can do, I'm really just leaving it up to the Lord now."

Home-water advantage?

Fishing is a funny thing, Mann will tell you. Sometimes it doesn't care who you are -- pro or amateur, visitor or local.

That, along with the obvious wealth of competition, has Mann downplaying any "home-water advantage" when things get underway Thursday.

"These guys are great fishermen," Mann said. "They're from all over the country, they all know what they're doing. They would have never qualified for this tournament if they weren't great bass fishermen. They've done their homework. I have a little advantage maybe, but certainly not a shoe-in to win this tournament by any means."

For years, Mann has worked with Gov. Sonny Perdue and his "Go Fish" program to try to bring the event to Lake Lanier and the Gwinnett area. This week, it will all come to a head.

"We have to have a community that's big enough to handle all of the wranglers, all of the support staff, all of their families and all of the media that's coming in," FLW Outdoors spokesman Chad Gay said.

"We need a suitable arena, and the fishery is obviously probably the No. 1 (factor)."

In this instance, the fishery is No. 1.

Lake Lanier is considered the top spotted bass location in the United States, with high quantity and high quality. Despite it not being the ideal time of the year for bass fishing, that bodes well for plenty of big catches for plenty of fishermen this weekend.

Mann, though, does have a few tricks up his sleeve -- including "local baits that we've got them on for years" and more than 500 potential fishing spots stored on his Ranger boat.

The biggest advantage, he said, will be the comfort of sleeping in his own bed.

"There's so much knowledge out there, with all the great electronics we have going on and the Internet, kids now can really learn a lake before you ever get to it," he said. "I've got a few spots I hope they haven't found, but they've found a lot of them."

In six tries, Mann has never earned a top-10 finish in the FLW Tour's premier event. Then again, he's never finished worse than ninth any major event held at Lake Lanier, just a couple of miles down Buford Dam Road from his home.

"It's just fishing man," he said last week. "I'm going to go out there, I'm going to put my head down, I'm going to go fishing. I'm not nervous, I'm excited about it.

"I hope it happens."

A culmination, not an end

When 78 fisherman make the trek from Laurel Park to Gwinnett Arena for weigh-in Thursday through Sunday, Mann hopes to be among the top harvesters.

The tournament, complete with free fan-friendly events each day at the arena, will be a four-day celebration of the area Mann has come to know and love.

And, hopefully, one he will never forget.

"To win this tournament would be a culmination of my career," Mann said, before quickly adding a caveat. "Not to say it would be the end, because it won't be."