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updated: 2/20/2014 3:14 PM

Late-blooming Skarlis diversifies -- with crappies

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Quail, pheasants, white tail deer, rabbits and squirrels seem to know when Tommy Skarlis is afield. These animals run, but not for long.

This 48-year-old professional hook-setter hunts to eat and thereby unload the stress he carries with him while fishing professional walleye and crappie tournaments. His wife Michelle loves to have venison on the dinner table and Tommy is not one to disregard a family directive.

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I met Skarlis about 20 years ago at the annual outdoor fishing show in Rosemont.

This young, tall lanky, and somewhat introverted chap went around introducing himself back then. But I also I sensed a friend in the making with Skarlis.

He was new to the pro walleye scene and asked if I had the time to listen to his plans for the future. I sat with Skarlis for a couple hours and left that meeting impressed with how he planned to "attack" the tournaments.

Since that time, Tommy has racked up over $1 million in winnings and today is viewed as one of the top walleye experts in the country. Skarlis is one of three walleye pros who has won seven major tournaments.

Before all this fame landed on his plate, I found myself fishing and traveling with Tommy both in this country and Canada, watching him and former promotional partner Chip Leer "educate" sponsors and manufacturers on the ways to catch various species.

Tommy moved his family from Iowa to the Walker, Minn., area to be closer to Leer and their mutual office, a stone's throw from Leech Lake.

But it was that little internal voice of the tournaments that kept calling to Skarlis, urging him to return to the fold on a full-time basis. So with handshakes aplenty and a few regrets, Tommy and Chip parted company. Leer now spends quite a bit of time working as one of the hosts for televised tournaments while Tommy fishes the pro circuit.

In a recent conversation, I asked Tommy who was the person that turned him on to fishing.

"It was my mother, Shirley," he fired back. "She really inspired me."

And then he juiced up the conversation with a typical Tommy statement: "I will never forget where I came from."

Based on that noble thought, it's no wonder Skarlis headed south to Mississippi to fish the 2013 Crappie Masters National Championship in Granada. Partnered with 24-year old Kyle Steinfeldt, the dynamic duo won the event garnering two fully equipped boats and some cash to boot. On top of that, they caught the heaviest crappie with a jumbo 2.67-pounder.

All of this latter-day success followed a tough growing-up period in school.

Skarlis went through a late growth spurt that brought him to his current height to well over 6 feet. But all through school he said he was a "paltry" 5-foot-9, and that by itself was enough to shake Tommy's confidence in sports.

"I wasn't an athlete because I lacked the confidence to compete," he said. "Once out of school I helped my father in a family construction business, and then I made that important jump to fishing and tournaments."

The reason for his addition of crappie tournaments is strictly to add some diversification. And in my book that's real confidence.

• Contact Mike Jackson at angler88@comcast.net, and catch his radio show 6-7 a.m. Sundays on WSBC 1240-AM and podcast at www.mikejacksonoutdoors.com.

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