It is rare enough that we get to fulfill our dreams. And rarer still when the dreams one forms as a youth gaze to a life that is a veritable world away and one with scant few connections to our own roots. Southampton native Mandel Pettus would have been hard-pressed to map himself a longer road to his dreams, than from the poor neighborhoods of Riverhead he came of age in to the world of professional competitive largemouth bass fishing.
It is relatively uncommon, to start with, to find an African-American angler on the competitive fishing circuits. There have been only a handful. And there may have been even fewer anglers of any race who hailed from the coastal Northeast, where saltwater species that are larger and more prized as table fare dominate the attention of most anglers, and where the fishing season is barely half as long as it is in the South, where the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) and its major league circuit, the Bassmaster Tournament Trail, are anchored.
But on Saturday, Mr. Pettus, 45, rolled into the parking lot of Montauk Beverage in Southampton Village in his truck, towing his new Nitro Z18 boat—both emblazoned with the logo of Montauk Iced Tea, his first corporate sponsor—to greet friends and other fishermen on his way to compete in his first Bassmaster tournament as a professional.
The boat, a specially designed craft outfitted specifically for high-speed runs across lakes and plodding along shorelines in search of lurking bass, was his prize for winning the 2018 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Championship in October, the marquee event for an amateur competitive fisherman.
Perched on the bow of a $30,000 bass boat, competing with 250 other professional fishermen for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money is a long cast from the banks of the Peconic River, where Mr. Pettus taught himself to fish.
“My grandmother took me fishing once when I was seven and it instantly sparked a curiosity about the water in me,” Mr. Pettus said. “Then when my family moved from Southampton to Riverhead, we weren’t too far from the Peconic River and that’s where I caught my first largemouth bass. That was it. I was hooked.”
Coming of age in a rough neighborhood, Mr. Pettus says the shoreline of the river was where he’d escape, poking along through the brush of the riverbank flipping lures to the spots largemouth bass like to lurk. His winters would be spent poring through library books and magazine articles about largemouth bass fishing.
Then one day he stumbled onto The Bassmasters, the weekly television show that tracks the two- and three-day professional tournaments in places like Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas and Lake Guntersville, Alabama. The rocket-fast boats with the distinct sparkly fiberglass hulls and bow-mounted electric “trolling motors,” and their anglers outfitted in brightly colored fatigues checkered with the logos of their numerous sponsors became a 14-year-old’s obsession.
One fall, he helped an elderly neighbor clean up the leaves from his property. The man paid him $100 and gave the eager young angler a old aluminum boat that was on the property. On the bow of that boat drifting along the Peconic River, Mr. Pettus would mimic the way the pros picked and prodded their way along lake shorelines looking for largemouth. When he got a driver’s license, he would haul the boat to the Forge River and Mill Pond in Eastport to catch fish he’d not yet fooled.
“I knew I wanted to fish tournaments, and I spent a lot of time fishing all over Long Island,” Mr. Pettus recalled. “But I knew I needed to learn more waters to do that. I needed to go south. So I moved to Tampa.”
For six years, Mr. Pettus lived in Tampa, working as a corrections officer and roaming around the south fishing for largemouth bass in his spare time.
When he met his future wife, Carmen, he moved back to Long Island, but the call of the big lakes in the south kept him on the go. He started signing up to fish in one-day weekend tournaments around the Northeast. With Carmen riding shotgun, he’d race to fish lakes he’d never seen before.
“My wife, she was—is—my cheerleader,” Mr. Pettus said. “We sacrificed a lot, but I kept fishing and started winning.”
In 2014, Pettus started fishing in the higher-stakes Bassmaster tournaments as an amateur, or “co-angler”, who would be the second man on the boat with a professional. He fished three tournaments that year, and finished in the top 10 in two of them, including a second-place finish. He was named the Bassmasters Eastern Division Co-Angler of the Year for 2014.
After taking most of 2016 and 2017 off from competitive fishing to get the two fitness studios he runs with his wife going, Pettus returned to the tournament circuit in 2018. He fished five tournaments, finished “in the money” four times with two top 10s, capped off by his win at the Opens Championship in October.
With his new boat in tow, a financial boost from Montauk Iced Tea’s sponsorship—he’s quick to note there’s plenty of room for stickers of other local companies that might be interested in sponsoring him as well—and the blessing of Carmen, Mr. Pettus will hit the road on Monday to become a professional bass fisherman.
“I knew this was his gift because when someone lives their passion through good and bad, through eating ramen and nothing, and still has that motivation to want to keep going, you can’t help but support that,” said Carmen Pettus—who is now juggling how to balance traveling with her husband to tournaments with running their studios—at the Montauk Beverage send-off event on Saturday afternoon.
Mr. Pettus met one of Montauk Beverage owner Michael White’s employees at a farmers market in Riverhead. The employee mentioned that Mr. White has sponsored other local athletes in their endeavors and Mr. Pettus lobbied for the company’s brand to be his first decoration on the new boat and truck.
“I didn’t really understand the story right away,” Mr. White said, not being familiar with professional freshwater fishing, “until I looked up the Bassmaster and saw how big of a deal it is. I thought it was a good sport to support. It seems like there’s not controversy, there’s no politics. It’s just fishing.”
The venue of Mr. Pettus’s professional debut drips with serendipity in the anglers’ eyes. The Harris Chain of Lakes, just north of Tampa, was where he spent six years fishing on a regular basis when living in Florida.
“It’s my spot, it’s my professional debut, I’ll be fishing my boat for the first time—I’m going to win it,” he said bursting with optimism on Thursday. “This is everything I’ve worked for since I was 7 years old manifesting itself this week.”