LAKE GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Most high school students get a gift-wrapped present and a pat on the back when they graduate, but not Taylor Baker.
Instead, the 18-year-old Gurley, Ala., resident's graduation gift is a seat in a decked-out bass boat next to one of the top names in professional bass fishing. Taylor, who will graduate from Madison County High School in late May, is a Marshal in the Southern Challenge this week. Marshalls serve as non-fishing observers in Elite Series tournaments and have the opportunity to learn bass-fishing tips from some of the best in the business. Each Marshal is paired with a different contestant every day and the first 50 to sign up at registration get to accompany the top 50 pros in Round Three.
The Marshal program was instituted this year and has been wildly successful to the point that some participants are repeat customers. It costs $100 to serve as a Marshal in an Elite Series event, but guys such as Taylor consider it money well spent, or in his case, cash well-spent by his parents, Kim and Billy Baker.
"Just being able to watch how the pros fish and how they make choices in lures and locations is a real learning experience," says Taylor, who rode in Boat No. 96 with Gary Klein on opening day. The Texas veteran, who's been in the pro ranks for 29 years, didn't disappoint. Klein caught a five-bass stringer that totaled 22 pounds, 10 ounces, good enough for 34th place going into Friday's second round.
"I had a blast fishing with Gary. He taught me a lot about techniques and establishing patterns," said Taylor. "He's on some good fish, too. He would fish a spot, catch some fish and then move on to his next place, always leaving bass behind for tomorrow. That's a good thing to remember when a tournament lasts for four days like this one does."
Taylor will trade Lake Guntersville's classroom for the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) in late summer. He hopes to earn a degree in civil engineering. Along the way, however, he plans to spend a lot of time fishing.
"I would like to see a Collegiate Bass Association chapter open at UAH," notes Taylor. "I've been told if you can get enough guys to sign up, you can have a team. There's already a team at the University of North Alabama in Florence, so we would have somebody to compete against close by."
Maybe civil engineering is in Taylor's future, but who knows? Many of today's top bass pros started out in other careers, including such notables as Rick Clunn (Taylor's scheduled partner on Friday), Paul Elias and Denny Brauer. Taylor already sounds like a tournament veteran. When asked what he thought it would take to win the Southern Challenge, he replied without hesitation.
"At least 26 pounds a day. Guntersville is my favorite largemouth lake and these guys are hitting it just right," says Taylor. "I think most of the bigger fish are out in deeper water now and the smaller bass are in shallow. The ledge fishermen and the guys fishing some of the deeper flats are going to bring in some good stringers and some big individual fish."
Though Taylor isn't banking on a career as a pro bass angler, he's not ruling it out either. A few lucky breaks here and there, some motivation supplied by the pros in the Southern Challenge, and a casual interest in fishing could become a life's journey. And a fisherman is never too young to start the trip. After all, Gary Klein was only 20 when he fished his first B.A.S.S. tournament, and look at him now.