Usually it's easy to spot the tour-level rookie – he's the guy with the most white-space on his shirt.

Rookie Jeremy Starks – a Bass Cat and Evinrude pro from West Virginia – is somewhat harder to spot. That's because he joined the Bassmaster Elite Series this year with a full suite of sponsors, including a major backer that's turned him into a major spokesman.

And once he obtained that premier sponsor, other deals started coming through the door. It was a rookie's dream come true, and he did pretty much all of it outside his own back door.

Rookie Starks Mined Home State, Sponsors Snowballed
Bassfan.com

Usually it's easy to spot the tour-level rookie – he's the guy with the most white-space on his shirt.

Rookie Jeremy Starks – a Bass Cat and Evinrude pro from West Virginia – is somewhat harder to spot. That's because he joined the Bassmaster Elite Series this year with a full suite of sponsors, including a major backer that's turned him into a major spokesman.

And once he obtained that premier sponsor, other deals started coming through the door. It was a rookie's dream come true, and he did pretty much all of it outside his own back door.

Heart of Coal

According to Starks, one advantage he had in his quest for a premier sponsor was geographic location. West Virginia's pretty far from the beaten bass path, but that actually helped, because he's a focal point of the state's fishing scene, and he teamed with his home state's principle industry.

"My biggest sponsor is Friends of Coal, which is a public-relations group for the West Virginia Coal Association," he said. "Most people associate coal with West Virginia – it's our primary industry – and Friends of Coal is funded by a group of coal operators in the state. We advertise and do public relations – we do a lot of stuff with kids in the state, we support the YMCA, we hold fishing derbies."

And his role as a pro angler helps Friends of Coal deliver its environmental message, he said.

"West Virginia is leading the nation in clean-coal technology. In two new (coal) power plants being built here, the only byproduct is hydrogen. I grew up in a mining family, and these guys (at Friends of Coal) – they hunt, they fish, and are really concerned about the environment.

"The new technology is unbelievable – how environmentally friendly it's become. Right now, in two separate facilities, they're growing arctic char in the mine water."

Others Came Too

With his Friends of Coal sponsorship in hand, Starks worked to grow his sponsor portfolio. One key factor in his negotiations was the fact that Friends of Coal would be giving him major publicity, and everywhere he went, his future sponsors could go too.

"It's not just really a sponsorship," he said. "I'm actually a spokesman, so they've taken it to a totally different level. It took them a long time to get the deal together, but when it did fall together, other sponsors came onboard."

Another milestone signing was his boat deal with Bass Cat, which came about from his relationship with area dealer Schwarzel Marine.

"They became a Bass Cat dealer, and I always liked Bass Cat, so I called (Bass Cat head cheese Rick Pierce)," Starks said. "Rick decided to give me a chance, and we're starting to grow the brand here. That's one thing we wanted to do, because Bass Cat didn't have a big following here."

Starks again got some home-state love when he cultivated a relationship with Caterpillar through dealer Walker Machinery. "Walker's one of the largest Cat dealers in the state," he noted. "They were a member of Friends of Coal, and wanted to get onboard as well. We filmed some major TV commercials that got a lot of airtime this year.

"And I actually have a billboard. It blows my mind when I drive by and see myself 40 feet tall."

And yet again, Starks mined his home state and hooked up with General Truck Sales in South Charleston for a deal. "They supply a lot of the coal industry in West Virginia with large work trucks," he said. "They spread the word and that got GMAC involved. It was tremendous."

5th-Ranked Rookie

A full suite of sponsors can only take you so far in fishing, though. The good news for Starks is he backed up his signage with some solid performance. He ended the year 5th in the BassFan.com Rookie of the Year Race, which ranks true tour-level rookies across all tours. And he finished 58th in the Elite Series points. Yes, that means he didn't make the Bassmaster Classic, but it also means he performed better than roughly half the Elite Series field.

He made one Top 12 cut (Potomac), and barely missed one at Guntersville (18th). Overall, he checked in just less than half the events.

"When I actually came into the season, my one goal was to requalify for next year, so I met that goal, and made a little money," he said. "My goal next year is to make the Classic, which I think is a real attainable goal."

A Little More Info

To help BassFans learn some more about this up-and-coming young gun, here are some quotes from Starks on various topics:

On fishing against legends as a rookie – "At the first event I was really nervous. I knew some of the guys from fishing the (Bassmaster) Opens, but that morning, I looked over and saw Kevin VanDam on one side, Greg Hackney on the other – it was scary. We fished in the same flight all year long, so every tournament I launched with Kevin VanDam, Greg Hackney, Terry Scroggins, Denny Brauer and Edwin Evers.

"It wasn't until the second and third events that I realized I'm just going out against the fish, not them. I went to Clarks Hill, made the (Top 50) cut, and had a legitimate chance to win at Guntersville, and that gave me a ton of confidence. Things went up from there.

"I feel I have a lot of room to grow as a fisherman, but I feel I belong here."

Why he sought to turn pro with BASS – "To be honest, it was because I grew up a huge fan of BASS. I was probably one of the biggest fans ever. When other kids were watching football and baseball, I knew every BASS stat.

"I grew up idolizing guys like Rick Clunn and Larry Nixon, and it was a tradition for my father and I to watch The Bassmasters on Sundays.

"I didn't grow up wanting to win the FLW championship – I grew up wanting to win the Bassmaster Classic. So it was a logical progression for me."

On whether he'll fish anything besides the Elite Series next year – "I may fish a few FLW Series or Strens. Now that I've got good sponsors behind me, I need to try to broaden my horizons a little bit."

His thoughts on next year's Elite Series schedule – "I'm really excited about it. I'm a little bit hesitant about the California events, but all the rest – I can't wait for them to get here. And I don't need to do that well to make the Majors, so hopefully I'll be in there was well."

On the relative lack of pros from West Virginia – "We've never had a BASS pro. We have (fellow Bass Cat and Evinrude pro) Bill Chapman, who fishes the FLW Tour, but I'm the first BASS guy from West Virginia.

"One thing that hurts us is we have a lot of small bodies of water, and not a huge fishing season. What helped me is that my father took us all over fishing when we were younger – to Chickahominy and the James River. So I got to fish a lot of different styles of water.

"And when we'd come back to West Virginia, we wouldn't use the same old techniques that everybody was using. Then I started fishing the Federation, which had a good program, and moved up from there."

Are there any other young West Virginians who could make it? – "I've been taking a guy fishing and working with him some. His name's Travis Kinser – I took him to Oneida this fall – and he's an incredible fisherman. If he plays his cards right, he'll be right there."

Notable

Starks noted that a fellow pro helped him in his sponsor search. "Boyd Duckett, who'll be new to the Elite Series next year, is a professional person with a lot of experience in marketing. He had a music-management company, and he really helped me along with working toward getting a sponsor and finding a sponsor that fit. That's the huge key – not just somebody on the side of your boat, but a sponsor who can actually benefit from you."