J.T. Bagwell (@BagwellFishing on Instagram) was born in Rock Island, Illinois, but he grew up with his grandparents in nearby Geneseo, which is just east of the Quad Cities. His grandpa got him into fishing.
“We’d fish nearby and go on fishing trips,” J.T. says. “We’d go to Lake Michigan and catch salmon and trout, which they loved to eat.”
While the flavor didn’t speak to him, the fishing sure did.
“But not me, I’d catch bass — my grandpa would say, ‘You know there are more than just bass in this lake — and I still don’t eat fish.”
Beyond his grandfather, J.T. Was surrounded by folks who fed his bass fishing appetite.
“My grandpa used to work with these guys who fished bass tournaments,” J.T. says. “We didn’t get the channels that all the fishing shows were on, but one of the guys would record shows like ‘Bassmasters,’ Hank Parker and Bill Dance every week. He drop off the VHS tape, I’d watch the shows, and he’d bring me another tape the next week. That’s how I got so deep into bass fishing.”
J.T. honed his skills on nearby Lake George, which was locally known as “Lake No-Fish” or “The Dead Sea.”
“I figured if I could catch my limit on Lake George, I can catch a limit anywhere,” he says. “And so I did.”
As much as he loved bass fishing, it took J.T.’s grandmother to urge him into tournaments.
“After a shoulder injury, I was just laying around watching ‘Bassmasters’ and I said to my grandma, ‘You know, I would have been good at that,'” he says. “And Grandma said, ‘You’re not old. Don’t be a chicken — just do it!'”
Grandma’s taunting did the trick.
J.T. signed on for his first tournament, and then went on to win the second tournament he ever fished.
“I’m super competitive,” he says. “I hate losing at anything.”
But he also realized pretty quickly that tournament fishing is not an inexpensive sport.
“The cost of bass fishing makes it something that’s not worth doing full-time,” J.T. says. “I have a social reach of something like 28 million, but that doesn’t mean Ranger Boats is going to drop off a new boat at my door.”
After doing the math, J.T. got a day job working with Valspar Corporation and fished around his job.
“But finally I did so many tournaments, I just got sick of it,” he says. “It wasn’t fun anymore.”
These days, J.T. only does charity tournaments, but he still fishes. He also stays connected to the industry by doing advertising work, writing articles and publishing videos to his YouTube channel.
“I’m happy enough with my job that I prefer to enjoy fishing and earn a living otherwise,” he says. “Taking a break from fishing was like getting a fresh start. Now, I love going out with my boys.”
J.T.’s boys are seven and eleven years old. And the eleven year old takes after J.T.’s grandma — he knows how to motivate his Dad.
“My eleven-year-old talks trash to push me,” he says. “He sees what happens and says, ‘Watch: Now Daddy’d gonna catch a big one.’ I guess I’m abnormally competitive.”
Looking back on his start, devouring VHS tapes of weekly fishing programs, J.T. is excited about the opportunities he sees for bass anglers today.
“Thanks to social media, folks just getting into the sport have a much shorter learning curve,” he says. “Everything is at the tips of your fingers. If you want to learn a drop shot, just look it up on YouTube.”
But social media has also had negative consequences for the sport.
“The younger generation coming into fishing are all worried about getting sponsored,” J.T. says. “I get messages all the time from new anglers asking how to get sponsored. They think they’ll make a lot of money and get paid to fish. But that’s just not true.”
His advice? Focus on the sport and tighten up those skills.
“Just worry about the fishing, not the money,” J.T. says. “If you’re good enough to get sponsored, you will.”