In 25 years’ association with Tommy Skarlis of Waukon, I have observed some of the qualities that have made him Iowa’s all-time greatest angler.
And like many of his thousands of friends, I’m hoping those qualities, some of which are listed below, will help him overcome the brain cancer that threatens not only his golden career as tournament champion and seminar speaker but his very life.
— Faithful: You won’t see Skarlis commanding sinners to come forward at a tent revival, but during a day on the water, in which conversation ranges widely, he will mention at least once that his faith in God has transformed his life. Prayer helped him recover from a broken neck suffered in a 2016 tree stand fall, he said, and it will help him recover from the brain tumor that earlier this year paralyzed his left side.
— Winner: His resume bulges with tournament victories, national championships and accolades. Among them: the FLW Walleye Tour Championship in 2008; the Crappie Master National Championship (with partner Kyle Steinfeldt) in 2013; Angler of the Year, In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail, 2004; Outdoor Life’s Top 10 Anglers on the Planet, 2011; world record for total weight in a professional tournament, a mind-boggling 15 walleyes weighing 138.28 pounds on Lake Erie in 2002; Masters Walleye Circuit Team of the year (with partner Chad Kinkade) in 1997; induction next month into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis. Lest you think he hasn’t done much lately, he and partner Jeff Lahr, in the two years following his broken neck, won back-to-back national Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit titles in 2017 and 2018.
— Friendly: Skarlis met my then young son Fred once, more than 20 years ago at a sport show and has asked about him at every subsequent meeting and conversation, conveying the feeling we are as important to him as he is to us. Scores of his friends packed into Hank’s Live Bait and Tackle in Waterloo on Dec. 4 to hear Skarlis impart angling wisdom and to encourage him in his comeback from primary glioblastoma, the disease that recently killed Sen. John McCain and which kills all but 10 percent of its victims within five years of diagnosis.
— Fun: Notwithstanding the high-stakes, highly competitive nature of professional tournaments, Skarlis never forgets fishing is fun — a point he stresses in the seminars and public appearances that have made him one of sport fishing’s leading ambassadors. “I’ve had so much fun fishing and making a living fishing that it didn’t even bother me that much when doctors told me I had 18 to 24 months to live,” Skarlis said at the recent gathering at Hank’s.
— PR genius: Public relations gets a bad rap because it is too often cynical. Skarlis excels at promoting angling and his sponsor’s products because he honestly and sincerely articulates their value. His website currently lists 33 partners, all of whom are returning his loyalty by sticking with him through his health challenge.
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— Wisdom: For the Hank’s seminar attendees, Skarlis boiled down one of the big secrets of his success. “Fish swim and eat. That’s what they do for a living,” he said. Anglers who discover where they’re swimming and what they’re eating, he said, have established a pattern that can be exploited. ”You want to hit a pattern early when it’s expanding and stay ahead of it. When you nail the pattern, have it all figured out, that’s when you’re fishing,” he said.
— Charisma: Ill health has dimmed his trademark high-voltage smile but his intact sense of humor elicited hearty laughter at his recent Hank’s appearance, as when, for example, he replied to an audience member’s question about the potential radioactivity of artificially colored bait. “Right now, at this point in my life, not having eaten sugar in almost a year, I’m really not all that afraid of radioactive nightcrawlers.”
— Realism: Though recent scans “have all been clean” following surgery to remove the glioblastoma from his brain, Skarlis likened the tumor to a “piss elm stump, whose roots keep coming back after you cut down the tree.”
— Optimism: Skarlis said “getting in and out of the boat” will be his highest hurdle in resuming tournament competition with his crappie and walleye partners, who recognize the value of his experience and will to win. His tenacity and competitiveness, combined with his faith in God, have convinced him that he will win more tournaments, teach others to catch more fish and inspire many others to get off the couch and enjoy the outdoors.
No one ever won much betting against Tommy Skarlis.