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Winning From the Back
 – Success as a Co-Angler

by Andrew (Duke) Buss

Ron Fabiszak of South Bend, Ind., wins the Co-angler Division of the BP Eastern Division Wal-Mart FLW Series.“Hey, you need to sit down and relax a bit.” Ron Fabiszak of South Bend, IN has heard these words on more than one occasion while fishing as a co-angler in FLW events. He explains, “A pro can’t tell the co-angler to quit fishing, but that’s what he meant.” Surprisingly this has happened more than once.

Ron Fabiszak of South Bend, Indiana with his Co-angler Win at the Eastern Division Wal-Mart FLW Series

What would prompt a pro to say this? “I was out fishing him from the back of his boat.” This has not been a rare thing for Fabiszak; in fact, in less than 50 events as a co-angler, he has earned nearly $120,000 in winnings. He boasts 4 tournaments wins; most recently in December 2008 on Texas’ Falcon Lake in the FLW Series Fish Off.

Renee Hensley of Edwardsburg, MI has also run into the same predicament. The 2007 Stren Series Northern Division Angler of the Year has won just shy of $60,000 in only 57. She explains, “Almost always, it’s a very positive experience with the pro, but occasionally you’ll be chastised a bit for doing well.”

Fabiszak, who has won an event in each of the past 3 years, stresses that there are no secrets to his success from the rear either: “Versatility. You must be flexible and versatile.”

Hensley agrees. She points out some obstacles are, “Impossible to overcome,” so, “You have no choice but to adapt.”

Fabiszak quickly points to his win on Falcon Lake where his pro was focusing on submerged structure. Fabiszak wouldn’t throw to the same target as the pro, but he soon realized he was close enough to throw into emerged structure the pro was avoiding. He threw his senko in, and ended up with 28-2 and first place after day 1. He went on to win the event.

Lady angler Renee Hensley won the Stren Series Northern Division Co-angler of the Year with 720 points.Hensley won the 2001 Stren Championship on Pickwick Lake, AL, by experimenting with the crankbait she and her pro were using. She recalls, “We were catching fish on crankbaits, but he was catching bigger fish. I kept switching until I threw a Bandit 100 and began catching bigger fish.”

Lady angler Renee Hensley won the Stren Series Northern Division Co-angler of the Year with 720 points

She is convinced that, “Switching to that crankbait was the key to my success.”

When you sign up as a co-angler you inherit certain risks. And many of those lay with the pro you’re matched up with. Hensley readily points out, “You have to go where they take you. You don’t have a say. And sometimes they don’t know the body of water that well.” Fabiszak acknowledges the biggest disadvantage is simply facing the unknown, “You don’t know what you’re going to be doing (once the tournament begins).” Plus, most anglers like to be in control while fishing and you lose that control as a co-angler.

Boat positioning and spacing are other obvious obstacles while fishing from the back. Hensley suggests to, “Ask your pro to take the seat out. You already have the motor in the way. This will create more space to move and cast.”

Bass like this one are why Ron Fabiszak of South Bend, Ind. is leading the co-angler divsion after day one of the Walmart FLW East-West Fish-Off. Fabiszak's first day weight was 28 pounds, 2 ounces.Finally, Fabiszak adds, “They (the pros) have to put you around fish. If they’re not around them, you’re not going to catch them.” Mental toughness is a necessary virtue according to Fabiszak, “You can’t let that frustrate you and stop fishing.”

Bass like this one give Ron Fabiszak a 28 pounds, 2 ounces co-angler limit and lead after day one of the Walmart FLW East-West Fish-Off

Again, success from the back for these anglers is not a mystery bait, technique, or even good luck. They stress versatility, but their attitudes also suggest mental toughness. With all of these obstacles lean times are just part of the deal. Hensley admits that when it gets tough, “I fish to my strengths.” She believes firmly that you should always, “Follow your gut instinct.” During tough times Fabiszak simply says, “Just keep fishing. Make the most of what you have to work with. Stay positive. As long as you can cast to water, you can catch fish.”

Fabiszak points out that you may be forced to look harder, look for structure the pro has missed, and learn from what the pro is doing. He advises, “Look for the little things. Often it’s the little things that make the big things happen.”

Hensley and Fabiszak pay close attention to details such as line size, reel gear ratio, jig size, color, line size, retrieve, and casting angles. These 2 anglers are prolific at observing what is working or not working for the pro and making adjustments themselves based on what they observe.

Co-angler Renee Hensley turned in another strong performance to grab the fourth-place spotHowever, out of respect, both refuse to use the same bait as the pro. Hensley points out that, “Remember, you’re fishing used water,” and acknowledges, “Most pros are good enough to pick off the fish that will bite their bait.”

Co-angler Renee Hensley turned in another strong performance to grab the fourth-place spot

So if the pro is using a power approach she may throw a finesse rig. But she may pick up from the pro that the fish are relating to wood, so she would also toss her finesse rig to wood.

Fabiszak will even experiment with the same bait the pro is using, “If he’s working a ounce jig, I’ll toss a 1 ounce jig.”

It is easy to conclude that their success as a co-angler is also derivative of their ability and confidence to toss a horde of baits in different situations: the very definition of versatility to the bass fisherman. Fabiszak and Hensley take what they learn from the pro’s they fish with and apply them back home. They also apply their knowledge and experiences from home during these events as co-anglers. Becoming a more diverse angler is a process that never ends for these two.

They both agree that to become better co-anglers there is no substitute for time on the water. Both anglers fish often in between FLW events and participate in local tournaments closer to home to keep skills sharp. They also make pre-fishing these events a common practice. However, pre-fishing is not with the intention of locating fish, but to help determine what kind of tackle to bring on tournament day.

Fabiszak explains, “This is where practice really helps to narrow down what to bring.” Hensley admits she brings a lot of tackle on the road and uses her practice to narrow down, but she goes a step beyond that, “When I find out which pro I’m fishing with, I will do some research on him to determine what kind of fishing he likes to do.” She adds, “I will bring tackle accordingly, but also tackle that is different and work in the same scenarios he might be taking me to.”

Pro Ron Fabiszak of South Bend, Ind., placed 10th with 15-9Fabiszak will also stuff his tackle bags with extra reels, “If I feel I may need to adjust on the water, I’ll bring extra reels. This way I’m not bringing too many rods (which takes up lots of space), but still have the ability to change techniques.” Both anglers encourage others to bring baits that they are confident will work anywhere.

Pro Ron Fabiszak of South Bend, Ind., placed 10th with 15-9

Fabiszak coughs up, “I always have senko-type baits and finesse worms.” He confesses these baits will work across the country.

Hensley encourages everyone to use resources such as maps, magazines, and websites to gain knowledge of a body of water before arriving. This can further narrow down what tackle to bring.

Both anglers are comfortable at running their own boats. Fabiszak was a professional in the Midwest Stren Series in 2004 where he logged 2 top 12 finishes. He also was a boater in the 1999 Michigan BFL series where he won the event on the Grand River.

Hensley’s first experience as a boater came last year on Lake Erie in the Michigan BFL. She managed to cash a check and helped her co-angler cash a check for the first time despite not being able to practice.

But both anglers feel they’re better at running their boats and making decisions because of what they’ve learned as co-anglers. Fabiszak confirms, “I have learned to be more versatile. It has encouraged me to change up techniques (while fishing); and to improve you must force yourself to change up.”

Despite an injured foot, Renee Hensley fished her way to the top co-angler spot.And Hensley admits she first signed up as a co-angler, “Just to learn.” She states as a matter of fact, “If you think you know everything, you’re done as an angler.” She also applies this lesson to life: “Everything changes in life, and fishing is no exception.”

Despite an injured foot, Renee Hensley fished her way to the top co-angler spot

Despite successes as co-anglers, neither of them plan on transitioning to the professional level in the near future, although both share a strong desire to do so. “I would love to go as a boater, explains Hensley, “But I need to have the ability to balance work and the finances, and right now I can’t do that.” She would also like to compete in the Women’s Bassmaster Tour someday.

Fabiszak faces the same struggles: “I’m self-employed. So I can’t guarantee when work will be good or bad. And since you have to register so far in advance; it’s a risk of going broke.” He also emphasizes that he thoroughly enjoys being a co-angler and recognizes that being a boater would add substantial stress. He isn’t willing to let that stress ruin the enjoyment he has fishing these events.

If you’ve considered participating in one of these events, both Hensley and Fabiszak emphatically encourage you to. Hensley quips “Be ready to learn!” Fabiszak reiterates, “Have an open mind and learn. The more people you fish with, the more you learn. Sometimes you can learn what not to do.” He concludes with a catchy double-negative, “You can’t not learn something from other people.”

Quit relaxing and stand up! From front to back, become a more versatile angler and you can experience the thrills of victory everywhere.

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