THE GUIDING ROUTE
Story by Matt Pangrac - Photos courtesy of Chris Dutton, PAA Communications
San Antonio, TX - From 2009 through August of 2012, Justin Rackley has made his living on the water as a guide on Lake Fork, the famed big bass factory located in east Texas. After three and a half years of building a respected reputation as a Lake Fork guide, Rackley made the decision to stop guiding and recently took a job at CarecoTV, a production company located in San Antonio, Texas that specializes in outdoor programming, marketing, video production, and advertising.
The BASS ZONE caught up with Rackley shortly after he stopped guiding this past summer to discuss the reasoning behind the change and explore the reality of breaking into the guiding business at a young age.
The guiding seed started to grow in Rackley during his senior year in high school when he went on a guide trip to Lake Fork. “That was my first time on the lake, and I was shocked at how beautiful and great the lake was,” he remembered. The experience opened his eyes to the fact that there was an opportunity to make a living as a guide. “I had always wanted to be a professional angler, and I noticed that there were a lot of guides on the lake who also fished tournaments.”
In 2006, Rackley attended Texas A&M University where he began working towards a bachelor’s degree in Fisheries Ecology while at the same time fishing at the collegiate level. In 2007, Rackley and his team partner, Trevor Knight, won the BoatUS National Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship (CBFC) on Lake Lewisville in Texas, and he followed up the 07’ victory with a 2nd place finish at the CBFC in 2008 as a senior.
“When Trevor and I won the championship in 2007, it really boosted my confidence that I had the ability to make a career somewhere in the industry between tournament fishing and guiding,” said Rackley. “I started picking up some sponsors in 2008, and one of those sponsors was Lake Fork Tackle (LFT). Through my connections with LFT, I was able to meet some of the best guides on Lake Fork.”
Having earned a berth in the inaugural 2009 PAA Tournament Series with his CBFC victory, Rackley started to formulate a game plan upon his graduation from Texas A&M in December of 2008. “I already had my schedule and was set to fish the PAA, so I figured that guiding would be the best opportunity for me to start making money and fish an upper level tournament series at the same time.
“I talked to a lot of different people including other professional anglers who had guided in the past and they gave me a lot of advice,” continued Rackley, noting Mark Pack, Rick Carter, Lance Vick, and Tom Redington. “I had some good instruction going in. I didn’t just jump into it without a nice platform already set. If I’d gone another route and become a biologist right after graduating, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to fish the tournaments that I wanted to fish right off the bat,” he concluded.
The first year guiding on Lake Fork was an eye-opening experience for Rackley. “I was learning the lake as I went along that first year,” he said. “Lake Fork is definitely a challenge, and it wasn’t an easy time. Mark Pack and Tom Redington took me out on the lake a few times and showed me some general things to fall back on, and that definitely helped me to figure out Lake Fork’s patterns a lot quicker than I would have completely on my own.”
Another challenge for Rackley early on was building a customer base. He spent the majority of the first year working off of other guide’s referrals before slowly building his clientele through word of mouth and return customers. Over the last two years, he averaged between 60 and 75 guide trips each year and spent upwards of 175 days a year on Fork.
As the work load increased, Rackley said that his passion for tournament fishing began to dwindle, and that ultimately led to his decision to step back from guiding. “It’s hard to turn away from guaranteed money guiding and go fish a tournament where you’re spending money without and guarantee of cashing a check,” he explained.
“Guiding and tournament fishing require two completely different mentalities. When you’re guiding, it’s really hard to tell your clients, ‘I know that we’re catching fish here, but let’s go gamble and see if we can figure out a new pattern even though we may not catch anything.’ It’s very easy to become set in your ways and do the same things over and over. I found myself fishing similar lures and general patterns day after day.
“As a tournament angler, you constantly have to be moving and bouncing around,” continued Rackley. “You go to a new lake, figure out a pattern, and then move on to another pattern. You try to piece together a web of things that will work for you. When you’re guiding, it’s really hard to fish that way because you want to put your clients on fish. Once you start catching them, you stay with that pattern. In all honesty, guiding made me a little bit lazy when it came to my tournament fishing.”
Just several weeks into his new job at CarecoTV, Rackley said that he has already begun to see the passion for tournament fishing return. “I’m already thinking about fishing a lot more and really anticipating getting back on the water and preparing for a tournament. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy the process while I was guiding, but I feel like now I’ll really be able to put my heart into it.” He doesn’t have his 2013 schedule set in stone yet, but he said that he’s planning on fishing some of the PAA Tournament Series events and cherry picking whatever comes along.
“I wouldn’t change a thing and I’m very glad that I decided to explore guiding,” he concluded. “One of the best things about guiding are all the interesting people that you get to meet. I learned a lot on the water, and I also got a crash course in the business and career side of the industry.”