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One Step Closer
At first glance, Sam Cooper’s victory at the first annual Sunshine State Crappie Trail Championship on May 27th and 28th may seem like any other fishing tournament win that is celebrated on social media – an angler claiming the top of the podium at an event situated well beyond the standard “Workin’ Man” tournaments that are fished by passionate part-timers from across the country each week but a few steps below the ultra-high-stakes, highly-publicized events considered the industry’s zenith.
Just a couple months removed from a Crappie Masters qualifier on Grenada that saw over fifty three-pound fish (and a trio of four-pounders) recorded on the first day, Cooper’s two-day bag of 24.55 pounds (12.89 and 11.66 respectively) at Sunshine also might not be the type of numbers that would typically garner national attention.
Behind the details, however, is a story familiar to the select handful of anglers who, for any number of reasons, ascend the tiered rungs of the fishing industry until they reach its precipice. For the majority of the nearly fifty million Americans who fish at least once per year, their experiences with the pastime often begin and end with local ponds, creeks, lakes, and rivers. A respectable number of those novices will assume the distinction of “weekend warrior,” spending one or two days per week on the water (and much of the remaining days of the week wishing they had the freedom and flexibility to fish more often).
A select few will eventually transition into the role of casual tournament angler and even fewer will fully immerse themselves in the circuits of the industry’s top tournament trails. Even when considering the handful of major freshwater sport fish in the country, the number of folks fishing competitively at the highest level for their respective species represents a mere fraction of the larger pool who purchase a license and make a cast.
The number of tournament anglers who legitimately find themselves in the running for national titles, then, extends so far beyond the proverbial “1%” that the significance of the fraction would likely be lost within all the requisite zeroes necessary to properly convey the deviation.
Also lost somewhere in those zeroes would be the story of Sam Cooper’s journey from local Florida tournament angler to one of the emerging names in the world of competitive crappie fishing and the reality that he is closing in on the doorstep of Olympus.
Plugged In and Changing with the Times
Throughout his four years as an active tournament competitor, Cooper’s journey and evolution as an angler have sent him to some of the nation’s top crappie fisheries. Cooper began fishing the Florida crappie circuit, winning smaller tournaments in his first two seasons before qualifying for the 2020 Crappie Masters National Championship on Ouchita River.
As many anglers have over the past year, Cooper committed to making the transition from trolling for crappie to using Livescope after Ouchita, noting that there is definitely a learning curve to successfully implementing front-facing sonar into one’s fishing arsenal.
“To be good at Livescope, you have to un-learn a lot of things you’ve been doing,” Cooper notes. “Boat control is totally different; bait presentation is totally different.”
The adjustment has served Cooper well, however. In the nearly two years since what he considers an underwhelming performance on Ouchita, he has steadily climbed the ladder and performed at a high level across the nation’s top crappie tournament trails: a respectable showing on D’Arbonne, a top-seven finish on Talquin, top three finishes on Rodman Reservoir, Crescent Lake, St. John’s River, and a Crappie Masters win on Lake Harris.
Just weeks before capturing the Sunshine State championship, Cooper also had a fifth-place showing on Mississippi’s Lake Washington. In January, he won a Crappie USA event on Crescent that carried a $3,600 prize with an extra $360 kicker for landing the event’s big fish.
Electronics alone can’t claim all of Cooper’s success, though. At the end of the day, he is an experienced and dedicated angler who has spent countless hours on the water honing his techniques, understanding feeding and spawn patterns, targeting potential staging areas, and noticing post-front behavior changes – all nuances of the game that electronics alone won’t teach.
Because of the intensity required to effectively blend technique with sonar, Cooper believes that most casual anglers will stick to traditional methods while competitive tournament anglers and guides will need to adapt if they have not done so already.
Does Sunshine Lead to a Bright Future?
With a couple tournament victories and numerous strong finishes under his belt – including a couple national championship appearances and, as of this writing, a top 6 spot in Crappie USA’s Angler of the Year race – what does the future hold for Sam Cooper?
“As it grows, I’ll grow with it,” Cooper says, noting that his status as a business owner affords him the freedom to compete in far more tournaments recently than he ever expected.
In some ways, Cooper’s goals are modest: he would like to fish more tournaments where white crappie are more prevalent since they are unavailable in Florida. Other goals are a bit more ambitious: winning a major tournament outside of Florida and, one day, bringing home a Crappie Masters, American Crappie Trail, or Crappie USA trail championship.
As Cooper is only sitting 22 points out of first place in Crappie USA’s 2022 trail, he will have another shot at a national title November 14-15 on Kentucky and Barkley Lakes. Before that, Cooper is also set to contend for the Crappie Masters National Championship on Grenada in September.
“It’s different winning regional tournaments and winning national tournaments,” Cooper states, but he is hopeful that all the extra time on the water over the past year might pay off.
It Takes a Village
While Cooper is required to bring fish into the boat during competition, he has built a strong support network around him over the past several years. He is especially appreciative of Scott Stephenson, the owner and director of the Sunshine State Crappie Trail, for the opportunities he has provided to anglers in Florida.
“Scott does a phenomenal job of promoting sport and the trail,” Cooper notes. “He’s got some major sponsors behind the trail and the enthusiasm is contagious.”
Cooper also recognizes the support of H&H Rods, Mad Crappie Jigs, ItzPro Fishing, Black Speck Fishing, Elite Crappie Jigs, MJ Jigs, and Tom Gibson at TNT Marine in Clermont, Florida, for helping support his journey over the years.