Jimmy Houston is one of the few anglers who needs virtually no introduction. A stalwart on the Bassmaster trail for decades, a tournament angler on the FLW Tour since 1997 and a television fishing show icon for the better part of 35 years, Houston is arguably one of the most recognizable personalities in the history of the sport.
For bass-fishing fans, Houston’s presence is unmistakable. You can hear his boisterous laugh coming from seemingly hundreds of yards away. His non-stop comedy routine – both on and offstage – is unparalleled, as is his inimitable platinum blond hairdo. Houston is quick to share a story and even quicker to tell a joke. He also so happens to be one of the best shallower water spinnerbait anglers in the game. In fact, his ever-expanding list of accomplishments within the industry and what he’s meant to bass fishing as a whole is almost too multitudinous to articulate.
In short, Houston is now and always will be a perfect ambassador for the sport.
But amazingly enough, with all of the accolades and storied history that Houston brings to the table, the legendary veteran from Cookson, Okla., had never once qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup – until this year.
Finishing the 2013 FLW Tour season ranked 35th overall, Houston grabbed his first career automatic invite to the Forrest Wood Cup, becoming the oldest angler to have ever qualified for the Cup via the FLW Tour in the sport’s history. (Mike Folkestad of Orange, Calif., is technically the oldest angler to have ever qualified for the Cup outright. However, he did so via the FLW Series, beating out Houston by two months and 22 days).
So what was does it mean to Houston to have finally qualified for Cup after chasing that goal for nearly 16 years?
“Well, it really is a neat deal. Recently, I haven’t been fishing but four FLW tournaments per year until this year. But earlier this season I had some business down in Florida so everything kind of worked out and I had a chance to fish the first event of the year at Lake Okeechobee – and normally I don’t get an opportunity to do that,” said Houston. “I did well there (a 29th-place finish) and then went to Lewis Smith Lake, which I intended to fish anyway, and then finished in 14th place at Beaver Lake right after that. At that point I was pretty high in the standings and my wife said I should try to fish them all this year and try to qualify for the Cup. It was an important thing for me to do and in the end, everything worked out.”
With regard to year-end championships, Houston acknowledged that times have definitely changed in the industry since his days as a Bassmaster Classic competitor – an event he qualified for 15 times from 1975 to 1998.
“I’ve fished 15 Bassmaster Classics over my lifetime but I’ve never had the opportunity to fish for $500,000 like I do at this year’s Cup,” he said. “Obviously fishing the Classics was an honor, but the money back then wasn’t what it is today. So to have a chance to win that much money now is really an amazing thing.”
Despite his age, Houston said he can still fish with the best of them. As such, he said his accomplishment in gaining Cup qualification this year has given him some bragging rights among his contemporaries – as he can now credibly argue that you’re never too old to make an impact on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I turn 69 at the end of this month and I’m not sure if anybody has ever qualified for the Cup at that age so I’m pretty proud of that. I actually mentioned that to (fishing legend) Roland Martin and he said, ‘That may be true, but that record is only going last until next year when I qualify,’” said Houston (laughing). “Roland is 73 years old and he plans on fishing the FLW Tour next year so we’ll have to see. But he’s a great angler and a great friend and I can’t wait to have him on the Tour. I’ve been trying to get Bill Dance (involved) as well but those guys are worried about getting beat by all of these younger guys. I just tell them, ‘Of course you’re going to get beat. We all do.’ But that doesn’t mean that we can’t win as well.”
Unlike most professional sports, Houston argues that bass fishing is unique in that it permits people of virtually any age level to participate at the highest levels – assuming they have the talent.
“This is the only professional sport where somebody could compete at this level at my age and that’s why I believe it’s the greatest sport,” he said. “To be able to play at this level at 50, 60 or even 70 years of age is remarkable. We’re playing against 30 and 35 year olds in this game; and you simply can’t do that in any other sport.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“It’s much more difficult to play at this age than it used to be,” he said. “Getting old is a full-time job (laughing). But at my age, when you fish 14 or 15 hours a day you’re a lot more tired than you used to be. You don’t see as well and physically, it takes a toll on you. But then again, I never intended to live this long (laughs). So it’s nice to still be able to compete.”
In addition to his age, Houston has some other hurdles to deal with as well when it comes to staying on top of his game as a tournament competitor. With his busy schedule – including tight television production deadlines, numerous personal appearances and myriad industry conferences to attend – Houston isn’t afforded the tournament preparation time that most pros rely on so heavily for success.
“It’s a challenge,” said Houston, regarding his ability to switch gears from being a de facto bass-fishing industry ambassador to tournament angler with the flip of one calendar day. “With my schedule, I hardly ever get to practice a full three days and almost never get to pre-fish. I simply don’t have the time. But one of the things that really helped me this year was that I got a chance to practice for three days at pretty much every event. And when I get to practice, I practice hard. I’m usually the last one to head back to the marina and it’s usually dark by then. I know a lot of guys say they do that but I’m not so sure because when I come back in I don’t see too many other boats – if any.”
And it’s precisely this seemingly unlimited amount of energy that makes Houston an endearing personality as well as a perpetual force in the industry.
“I’ve been doing TV shows for 35 years and I make about 100 personal appearances a year. At times we have the grand kids staying with us as well. So we’re going in a lot of different directions all the time. We just go, go, go – our family calls it ‘burning daylight.’ We go to bed late and get up at 5 a.m. and start all over again. We really just don’t know any other way to live. Nowadays they have a word for it; I think they call it multitasking (laughing). But honestly it is hard concentrating on tournament fishing (exclusively). But I do love it. And that’s the main reason why I keep on doing it.”
Although Houston’s calendar is filled to the brim with obligations, tournaments and guest appearances, the Oklahoma pro said he still relies heavily on the support of his family.
“Another big advantage I have is that I get to practice with my wife, Chris. And she’s one of the best female anglers of all time. She’s won seven Bass-N-Gal Anger of the Year titles, three Bass-N-Gal Classics and fished all 21 Bass-N-Gal Classics – so she’s an extremely qualified bass fisherman. And having her to help me in practice is an important deal.”
Whether it’s because he’s now had some time to reflect on his long and unparalleled career or whether it’s because he’s once again making history at the ripe old age of 69, Houston said that earning a berth in this year’s Cup is one of the prouder moments of his tournament-fishing life.
“One of the things I really realized this year after qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup was just how difficult that task really is. You have 175 anglers and only 35 make it so that’s about 20 percent of the field,” he said. “I finished 35th overall in the standings and I only had two tournament days all year where I didn’t catch a limit. One was at Beaver Lake but I still had a nice 13-pound stringer with only four fish. The other was at Lake Chickamauga, really my only bad day all year, and that dropped me down in the standings. So you really can’t have any bad finishes and still qualify for the Cup. And I think that’s why I really appreciate this qualification process. There were a lot of great anglers who didn’t qualify this year and that just (reinforces) just how hard it is to make it to the Cup. Not to take anything away from my Bassmaster Classic qualifications over the years, but I’m probably more proud and pleased with qualifying for this year’s Cup than any other year-end championship – especially at my age.”
So now that Houston has finally gained his first-ever Cup berth, what are the chances we’ll see the Oklahoma pro on the winner’s podium on Aug. 18?
“I feel good about fishing the Red River. I actually felt like I had a really good chance to win there in 2010 before the FLW Tour event was cancelled (due to unsafe river conditions). But I think I should do really well there this year. I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “Shallow water fishing is what I’m pretty good at. I’ve fished rivers my whole life so it’s going to be a great opportunity. The one (drawback) is that it’s going to be physically challenging. It’s going to be really hot and humid and that takes a toll on your body – but it’ll be the same conditions for everyone else.
“One big advantage I’m going to have for the Cup is that I’m going to get to practice all four days,” Houston continued. “I was originally scheduled to be at a conference during that time, but when I qualified, I was able to change my plans so I could be there the entire time. Those practice days are going to allow me to fish at my leisure and explore more areas than I normally would get to do – and I think that’s really going to help me.”
“Winning the Cup would be pretty special. If I did that, I just might quit while I was ahead,” he said. “But then again, knowing me, I’d be right back at Okeechobee for the start of next season. I mean, I’ve never seen somebody quit fishing after winning a championship. Have you?”