He caught his first largemouth bass at age five. Nineteen years later, Cooper Gallant is aiming to join the world's top professional bass circuit.
The articulate 24-year-old from Bowmanville, Ont., is preparing for the opening Bassmaster Open event Feb, 3-5 in Kissimmee, Fla. It's the first of nine tournaments Gallant will fish this year in hopes of qualifying for the Bassmaster Elite Series.
A win would give Gallant a spot in the '23 Bassmaster Classic, the Series' premier event. But that's not his aim.
"I just want to have a consistent year to try and make the Elite Series," he said via telephone from Florida. "That's all I'm thinking about."
Three Canadians are currently on the circuit — Jeff Gustafson, of Kenora, Ont., Cory Johnston, of Cavan, Ont., and his younger brother, Chris, of Peterborough, Ont. Dave Mercer of Port Perry, Ont., the entertaining host of Dave Mercer's Facts of Fishing TV show, is its master of ceremonies.
Gallant feels the Canadian anglers have paved the way for others in their native land.
"Ten years ago I feel like people felt it was impossible for a Canadian to go down there," Gallant said. "And Chris, Cory and Jeff are not just getting by, they're all doing very well and I think that's a big eye-opener for people in the U.S. and even in Canada.
"Watching them do well certainly fuels me even more."
Mercer isn't betting against Gallant.
"He's an incredible natural talent," he said. "If Cooper was a kid in hockey doing what he's doing now in fishing, we'd all be talking about him.
"With that being said, now he really gets tested because just like in other sports, if you do well in high school now you have to find out if you can do the same nationally or internationally. But I believe 100 per cent he has the ability to do this. I'll be shocked if he doesn't."
Competing in all nine events is a huge commitment for Gallant as all are in the U.S. and the schedule runs through October. That will mean plenty of driving and paying for expenses in American currency.
"I travel super cheap, I sleep in the truck probably 80 per cent of the time," Gallant said. "The hard part is finding a plug to charge my boat.
"I'm lucky because I still live at home, I don't have a girlfriend so I can hop on the road, go all-in and try to make it work. It's harder for a regular-working person or someone with a family."
Gallant is coming off a successful '21 season that saw him capture the Competitive Sport Fishing League (CSFL) Canadian Open on Lake Simcoe. He and Danny McGarry of Newtonville, Ont., then won a CSFL team event on Rice Lake before Gallant returned to take a Shootout Fishing League tournament there.
In September, he led the Bassmaster Northern Open at St. Lawrence River/1000 Islands heading into the final day. Gallant finished fourth as Cory Johnston secured the win.
"Last year was my best fishing tournaments because I spent more time on the water and fished more than ever before," Gallant said. "I think I missed two days over the summer and I'm pretty sure I worked on the boat both times so I literally didn't miss a day.
"I think that was a big part to catching them. Fishermen always say you have to be on the water."
And nothing beats time on the water and learning from mistakes.
"You need to make those mistakes, apply what you've learned and not make them again," Gallant said. "Something I learned last year was being adaptable while I'm out there and not necessarily sticking to a plan because sometimes that can burn you.
"Things can change and basically you have to scrap what you had going, follow your gut and just fish."
Gallant vividly remembers his first bass, a solid four-pounder caught on a worm and bobber at a cottage his family rented on Paudash Lake in Central Ontario. But the dream to fish full-time didn't come until 2013.
After capturing the Ontario Bass Nation High School Angler of the Year crown, Gallant combined with McGarry to win the B.A.S.S. Nation Regional Championship on the St. Lawrence River.
"Growing up I always loved fishing," Gallant said. "But winning that tournament (regional championship) was probably when I said, 'Yes, I want to do it for a living."
But Gallant has had help.
It was through Bob Izumi, the affable host of the long-running Real Fishing television series and a diehard tournament angler, that Gallant secured his first major sponsorship with Mercury Marine.
"If it wasn't for Bob, who knows what would've happened, he definitely helped me out," Gallant said. "My dream is to fish professionally but I also have another dream, to have my own TV show.
"I love being behind the camera but seeing Bob do it all and how successful he has been, I really look up to him. Same with Dave Mercer, too, JP DeRose (World Fishing Network host), all the Canadian guys with shows."
Gallant produces and edits content for his website (www.coopergallantfishing.com) and social media platforms. Some revolve around tournaments but others, especially in Gallant's The Road Trip segments, record expeditions for species he has never caught.
Last year, for example, a show documented catching Fraser River sturgeon. Gallant will document his Elite Series quest in a series dubbed, "The Elite Series CHASE."
Even as a seasoned angler, Gallant admits he's been humbled by losing quality fish. But he takes a philosophical approach to dealing with that.
"Honestly, it's the worst (feeling) at that moment," he said. "But I've always said the sooner you shake it off, the better.
"It's hard and sometimes takes me longer than I'd like … but if you shake it off, get hungrier for that next bite then you're always going to be better off. You're going to lose more than you win in this sport and if that doesn't make you hungrier then you're not in it for the right reasons."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2022.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press