The last time Shirley Crain fished a tournament, there were no Alabama Rigs or rods with micro guides and nobody had won $1 million in a single tournament. Ranger’s Z-Comanche series was a year old, Jacob Wheeler was a high school kid and if you spotted a boat with a Power-Pole mounted at the stern, chances are it was floating in salt water.
A lot has changed about bass fishing since 2006, including Shirley Crain, but one thing that has remained unaltered is her ardor for tournament fishing. And that’s why she’s returned to the Walmart FLW Tour this year with a fresh attitude to go along with her brand-new Ranger Z522 Comanche.
“It’s been awhile, and I missed the competition,” says Shirley, who lives in Fort Smith, Ark. “I fished in 2006 and then I had to drop out for a while to help take care of some of our family businesses, but I’m just excited about fishing as I always was.”
A self-described “army brat,” who grew up on military bases around the country, Shirley and her husband, Dude, raised four daughters and a son and became involved in various enterprises along the way. Now, mainly, they deal in commercial real estate leases and sales. They’ve been very successful in their business ventures, too, which helps explain why Shirley is riding in a top-of-the-line Ranger and doesn’t have or need any sponsors other than Ranger.
Though Shirley joined the FLW ranks in 1999, beginning with a stint in the EverStart Series, her background in competitive fishing extends back to the late ‘80s when she fished the Bass’n Gal circuit against the likes of Chris Houston, Mary Ann Martin, Burma Thomas, Penny Berryman, Linda England and Fredda Lee.
“In the first tournament I ever fished, on Kentucky Lake, I was paired with Vojai Reed, who went on to be the first woman to fish a B.A.S.S. tournament. Her husband (Charlie) won the Bassmaster Classic,” recalls Shirley. “I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but Vojai was such a good sport that I thought, ‘Well, if everyone is as gracious as her, this will be a good experience.’ They weren’t all as nice as Vojai, but most of them were.”
At 5 feet 4 inches (“and a half,” she’s quick to add), Shirley might seem out of place among all the burly men she’ll be fishing against this year. But size doesn’t matter in a bass boat, skill does. Having spent most of her life fishing, Shirley has the tools to succeed even though she’s been out of the game a while.
“I got out of fishing temporarily while we were building a house. And then other things came along,” notes Shirley. “I’m sort of semi-retired; I take care of our investments, but fishing tournaments has always been something I’ve wanted to get back to as soon as it became practical.”
When anglers join tournament circuits, it’s usually with a goal in mind: to win, to earn a paycheck, to attract sponsors, to build a career. Shirley’s return to the Walmart FLW Tour also entails a specific purpose: She wants to be the first female pro to qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup. Maybe it will happen this season for her, maybe next. Several women have qualified for the Cup as co-anglers – Mary Parnell, Judy Israel, Kim Bain and Pam Bolton among them – but none have reached the championship through the pro ranks. In 1996, Georgia pro Pam Martin came as close as anyone, finishing 62nd in the yearly standings. Martin, a Lake Seminole guide, also placed 10th in the pro division of a Major there that year – the highest finish ever for a female pro in the FLW tour.
Shirley has the second-highest finish for a female pro in an FLW event, having placed 16th at Lake St. Clair in 2001. Prior to that, she was one of the top anglers in Bass’n Gal, and managed to place as high as second in that circuit’s Classic.
“My immediate ambition this year is pretty modest – I just want to see how it goes. I want to get out there on the water and have a good time and enjoy the company of the people I’ve missed,” says Shirley. “I want to see if I belong there and can catch five keepers a day. I want to fish with the best, and I think that FLW draws the best. If my presence encourages other women to enter tournaments, than that’s a bonus. There are a lot of reasons why more women aren’t fishing, but it’s not for a lack of interest.”
If you see Shirley at a weigh-in this year, you might want to wish her well. There won’t be any mistaking her: she’ll be wearing a Ranger jersey, and standing tall at 5 feet, 4 ½ inches.