RIDGEDALE — Stacey King remembers the days when he was fishing's version of a starving artist.
Oh, he was good at his job — guiding bass fishermen to Table Rock Lake's bruiser largemouths. But he definitely wasn't getting rich off his chosen profession.
"It was a very meager living," said King, 63, who lives in Reeds Spring. "I was just living in a small trailer at the time, and it was a struggle to make ends meet.
"My family thought I was crazy, trying to do this for a job. I remember taking my grandma to the Bassmaster Classic (bass fishing's premier event) the first time I qualified.
"She was impressed with all the hoopla, but she still told me, 'You can't make a living this way.'"
Too bad grandma isn't around today.
King not only has progressed to become one of the pro tours' most recognizable figures, he has turned fishing into a lucrative job. Take a look:
- Fishing first the Bassmaster circuit and now the FLW (Forrest L. Wood) — the nation's two top pro tours — he has amassed winnings approaching $1 million in 23 years.
- He is a longtime symbol of his prime sponsor, Bass Pro Shops. Open the catalog and you'll see his picture on several pages. Flip on Bass Pro's television show, and you'll see him displaying different methods on how to catch bass.
- He also earns a good paycheck for helping develop new lures, making appearances and giving talks at sports shows.
No, he's not rich. But he's a lot better off than he was in the days when he was just eking out a living.
"Back then, I don't think I ever imagined the days when the sport would get this big," he said during a recent Tracker Marine Media Day at Big Cedar Lodge on Table Rock. "The big tournaments, the superstores like Bass Pro Shops, all the different technology, the varieties of rod and reels and lures — it's amazing how far fishing has come. Back when I was getting started, we didn't have all of that.
"But I was ate up by it from the early days. I just loved catching these bass, and Table Rock was a great place to learn."
King remembers his early days, when his father had tuberculosis and he had to rely on others to take him fishing. That surrogate became Frank Stacey, his dad's cousin. King recalls the day Stacey returned from a trip to Bull Shoals Lake and pulled a 5- to 6-pound bass out of a cooler.
"That thing looked like a whale to me," King said.
King started fishing with Stacey regularly at the Ozarks reservoirs and learned plenty about the ways of the bass. By the time he was 20, he was guiding for trout on Lake Taneycomo. Later, he was asked by the owner of Rock Lane Resort on Table Rock to fill in as a bass guide.
King jumped at the chance and soon became known as one of the best bass guides on the reservoir.
King no longer guides. He is too busy following the tournament circuit. He has fished from coast to coast at some of the best-known bass lakes in the country. But ask him to pinpoint his favorite and he still returns to his roots.
"Table Rock is still my favorite lake in the country," he said. "You have good populations of all three black bass — largemouth, smallmouth and Kentuckies — which you don't find many places.
"And it's so diverse. You have your shallow river fishing but you also have your deep structure fishing.
"It also has big fish. Right now, it has real good numbers of bass in the 3- to 5-pound range. And I've caught bass up to 9 pounds over the years."
How does King catch those fish? His first general rule of thumb is that he resists the urge to pound the banks.
"We don't catch as many bank-oriented bass as we used to," he said. "Typically, you have to be better at fishing off-shore now."
That means targeting ledges, humps, drop-offs and road beds — the type of midlake structure bass love.
That's where he situated his boat on a recent weekday. He fished along a bluff end, making a long cast to a point that loomed ahead. When his green plastic grub hit the bottom, King began hopping it across the rocky structure.
He felt a slight tap, quickly made a hookset and watched a nice-sized bass rocket to the surface. The bass made a run, but King was able to land the chunky largemouth and admire it for a second before plopping it back into the water.
"In the fall, we have segments of bass that will go deep and you can catch them on drop-shot rigs, spoons and jigs," King said. "But part of the population stays shallow, and we can catch them on lures like spinnerbaits and crankbaits.
"I've probably caught more bass on a Wiggle Wart than any other bait on this lake. But a lot of baits will work here."