Mark Zona: The One

Photo of Mark Zona and his mounted smallmouth bass
The smallmouth hanging in Zona's man cave gets a wink and thank you every now and again.

I’m not a very sappy, sentimental person. Never have been. But there have been moments in my fishing life that changed my future.

There are certain catches where I can recall everything. I mean everything. The way the air felt, the look of the sky, the wind, the temperature and the smell.

There is one moment, one fish, I’m convinced changed my life. What’s interesting is almost everybody has a moment like this, where you can close your eyes and you can feel everything that happened.

I was 9 years old. I had already caught largemouth and panfish in southern Michigan, but I had never caught a smallmouth bass. I remember grabbing my pole and biking down to my favorite fishing hole, where I would always catch 11- to 13-inch largemouth. That was a daily thing. It’s all I did.

I used a little purple Plow Jockey, a pre-rigged plastic worm with three hooks. It was the only bait to use in the early 1980s.

I remember that day like it happened an hour ago. I am a psychotic, obsessed smallmouth fisherman. It’s all I think about. In all my thoughts through a day, 80 percent of them are about smallmouth. I can’t go into what the other 20 percent might be. (Oh, I hear ya’.)

Either way, I’m obsessed with smallmouth. My first one was unbelievable.

I remember going to my bridge and casting under it, hoping for another little largemouth. On this day, my brother and his friends were standing on top of the bridge and making fun of me because all I would do was sit and cast for hours and hours.

Photo of the bridge where Mark Zona caught his life-changing smallmouth bass
The bridge from which Zona pulled his life-changing smallmouth remains fishy looking

They would yell all sorts of things like “you’re a dork.” They were probably right the majority of the time. I remember staring at the one guy who was making fun of me the most. He was “Mr. Cool Guy.” His name was Tommy.

I remember casting and staring at him, and I had that pre-rigged worm with a little BB split-shot about a foot up the line. Boy, he was giving it to me.

I was a little kid, a 90-pound 9-year-old. I remember making one of those casts and all hell broke loose. It was stronger than any largemouth I had ever tangled with in my life. My drag was peeling. I was leaning on him, but I didn’t want to break my line.

I had never had something pull so hard. It finally came out from under the bridge and scared the bejeebers out of the four guys on the bridge.

I couldn’t breathe. My heart was in my throat. All of the sudden, here came the most beautiful brown bass I’ve ever seen in my life. To me the fish looked like it was 100 pounds. (Actually, I just measured it hanging on my wall; it’s a 16-inch smallmouth.)

What felt like a 10-minute fight was only 15 seconds, tops. I remember landing that bass, dragging it up on shore and those kids cheering and making fun of Tommy, who minutes earlier had been making fun of me.

I’ll never forget that moment -- when that smallmouth broke out of that shadow and I got to look at him. He made one giant jump. I was hooked.

I look at that day, and that cast, and it shaped me. I know this is going to sound sappy, and I’m not sappy, but I know that fish changed the course of my life.

I am convinced I would not be working with Tommy Sanders, fishing with Kevin VanDam, knowing Jerry McKinnis, if it were not for that one bass.

Back then you mounted those things and put them on the wall. Today, it hangs in my man cave. I’ll look at that fish every now and then, give it a wink and say “thank you.”

See ya’.

Photo of Mark Zona Mark Zona

BoatUS ANGLER Pro Staff member, Bassmaster Series co- host, and host of "Zona's Awesome Fishing Show"