Darrell and Marni Ocamica faced what could have been an agonizing decision.
Should Darrell pursue a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel the country as a professional bass fisherman? Or should he stay in Idaho with his wife, three boys and a job that gives him the freedom to coach his kids’ sports teams?
Marni didn’t leave room for debate.
“We had a lot of nights where we said, ‘What if someday, what if someday, what if someday ...,” she said. “We never got there until now. He turned to me and I said: ‘You’ve got to go. You’ve got to take a whack at this and swing for the fences.’ I feel like the past 15 years has groomed me and our family to do this adventure.”
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[Note: This story originally was published Jan. 24. Ocamica’s first event is this Thursday-Sunday in Tennessee]
Ocamica, 40, leaves his home in New Plymouth next week to begin his rookie season on the Bassmaster Elite Series — fishing’s equivalent of NASCAR or the PGA Tour. He qualified by finishing second at the B.A.S.S. Nation tournament in November in Texas, after advancing from the state event in Idaho and a regional event at Lake Mead in Nevada.
The B.A.S.S. Nation winner is offered a spot on the Bassmaster Elite Series. The winner turned it down, which gave Ocamica the choice.
The Ocamicas’ boys are 10 (Fisher), 8 (Jaxson) and 4 (Jerrett) years old.
“The biggest conundrum that I faced was: As a father, what do you instill in your kids? ‘Set your goals, and whatever goals in life you have, achieve your goals,’ ” Ocamica said. “My goals are set and I’ve got them rolling. ... If I wouldn’t have chosen that and stayed home to be a father, what example is that setting? It was really a tough decision.”
A sponsor who wishes to remain anonymous made the decision much easier. The sponsor offered to cover Ocamica’s expenses, which are considerable. Entry fees alone cost $48,375 per season. He’ll also spend most of eight months on the road, driving more than 35,000 miles. He received a new Phoenix boat for one year as part of his B.A.S.S. Nation prize, so that helped, too.
Brandon Palaniuk of Hayden, who is entering his seventh year in the Elite Series, estimates his annual tour expenses at $100,000.
Ocamica, who becomes the third Idahoan to join the 12-year-old series, wouldn’t have taken the Elite spot without financial backing.
“I couldn’t,” he said. “I don’t even make ($48,000) in a year — let alone to drop that on a set of tournaments.”
Palaniuk says the business side of Ocamica’s odyssey will be one of the biggest challenges, juggling sponsor commitments and fan interest with the demands of learning new lakes and enduring all that travel. He expects Ocamica to handle the fishing just fine.
“If you’re not doing it strictly because you love it, you will fail miserably,” said Palaniuk, who has won twice and earned nearly $750,000 in six seasons. “... It’s a tricky game, but with the right moves and some success you can make good money doing it.”
Ocamica grew up in New Plymouth fishing along the Payette River and in farm ponds. When he visited his dad in Boise, he’d ride his bike with a float tube on his back and fish the Veterans Memorial Park pond.
He ticks off the names of famous bass fishermen the way many can list quarterbacks or home run hitters. He records the Elite Series broadcasts on ESPN2 to watch the best in the sport.
“Now this year there’s a chance of me being on there, which is hard for me to fathom,” he said. “It really hasn’t set in.”
Ocamica has competed in Idaho tournaments for years but had competed at the regional level just once before last year and never at nationals. B.A.S.S. Nation, the grass-roots path to the pros, offers a chance to qualify that is a massive long shot.
First, Ocamica had to finish among the top 10 at the Idaho qualifier. He didn’t do that — he wasn’t even one of the two alternates after electrical issues derailed him on the second day — but enough anglers dropped out that he got an invite to the regional event. There, he finished fifth overall and first among Idahoans to advance to nationals.
His second-place finish at nationals got him the Elite Series invite only after the winner declined.
“I don’t understand why it’s my time,” said Ocamica, who until Friday was the maintenance manager at D&S Factors in Fruitland where Marni is an accounting manager. “I just know I’m here and we get to go on this venture.”
He’ll make his Bassmaster Elite debut Feb. 9-12 at Cherokee Lake in Tennessee. Each event includes two and a half days of pre-fishing and four eight-hour days of competition. The field is cut from 111 to 50 after two days and again to 12 for the final day. The top 50 get paid.
The Bassmaster Classic — known as the world championship of bass fishing — is March 24-26 at Lake Conroe in Houston, the same venue where Ocamica fished nationals. That finish earned him a spot in the Classic, where the field is half the size of an Elite Series event and first prize is $300,000. Average annual attendance is more than 100,000 people.
The nine-event Elite Series regular season ends Aug. 27 in Michigan. With the Classic and three open tournaments, Ocamica plans to compete 13 times. His truck won’t return to Idaho until October but he plans to fly home twice and have his family join him on the road three times.
Only the top 70 anglers keep their Elite spots for next year. Rookies are given a grace year, so Ocamica will have the option of returning to the series in 2018 regardless of his performance. The key to success, he said, will be the decisions he makes on the water.
“The faster a person can dissect what the fish are doing and the faster you can process it the more success you’ll have,” he said. “Some of the guys at the level I’m at can do that at such a rapid pace it’s bananas. I like to think I’m fairly good at thinking on my feet — that got me to where I am now — but this is going to be the ultimate test.”
He’s eager for that challenge. His family is, too.
Marni recently asked Fisher, the oldest, what makes him the proudest. Fisher cited his dad’s fishing success.
“We look at it two ways,” Marni said. “He’ll do this and hit it out of the park and we’ll start a whole new situation, or he’ll say he got to do it.
“Either way, we win.”
Idaho’s established Elite Series angler
Brandon Palaniuk of Hayden won the 2010 B.A.S.S. Nation tournament and accepted the Bassmaster Elite Series invitation. In six years on the circuit, he has two wins, three seconds and six other top-10 finishes. He has finished in the money in 48-of-76 events (63 percent).
He’s in a much different situation than Darrell Ocamica, who will spend much of the year apart from his wife and three kids. Palaniuk, 29, has his girlfriend on the road with him full time and was 23 when he made the decision to fish professionally. It’s the only job he’s had since.
“I was fortunate to be young enough and in a position to where I could gamble,” he said. “If I went broke or in debt doing it, I was young enough I could still climb my way out.”
Palaniuk says Idaho’s varied fish habitats helped him, and should help Ocamica, transition to the Elite Series. He sees the sport growing in North Idaho — three high schools have fishing teams — and expects the state to build a presence on the tour.
“To have another Idaho guy, that just kind of shows what we’re capable of building from a bass fishing standpoint,” Palaniuk said. “... And I don’t think Darrell will be the last one from Idaho to qualify. There’s a lot of really talented guys that fish in the Idaho federation.”