NEW ORLEANS - By being West Coast hip and media savvy, Ishama Monroe hopes to change the staid, plain-vanilla face of big-money bass fishing.
In one aspect, he already has.
Monroe, 29, is the first professional black angler to qualify for the three-day Bassmaster Classic, the oldest and best-known tournament, which begins today.
"It's not lost on me," said Monroe. "I understand the significance, and I welcome the chance to be a role model."
The marketability of Monroe is not lost on ESPN, either. The sports network, which bought the BASS organization two years ago, has elevated the visibility of the tournament trail by televising many events.
Last month, the network tapped Monroe to serve as a commentator during the Great Outdoor Games.
Network executives know that if bass fishing is to grow beyond its traditional Southern roots and give ESPN a healthy return on its multimillion-dollar purchase, they must find new faces, and some of them must be other than white and male.
"It's a great thing for the demographics. It's a great thing for the sport," said Dean Kessel, vice president and general manager of BASS. "Ish has all the tools. He's a real crowd pleaser."
Ted Washington, a retired Colorado conservation officer and founder of the Web site www.blackangler.net, said Monroe's presence in the Classic can only help urban fishing programs and outreach projects by natural resource agencies.
But he's not sure a good showing by Monroe will translate into a boom of black professional anglers.
"There are a lot of African-Americans with the skills and knowledge to be competitive in that arena, but being competitive is one thing; making a living at it is another," Washington said. "To date, I have not run across a lot of people with the desire to take that step."
For Monroe, who knew at age 10 that he wanted to be a pro angler, the sudden attention is everything he had hoped for.
He's getting several calls a day from news organizations that might otherwise not give bass fishing a second glance.
Monroe isn't the first black angler to qualify for the Classic. Twenty years ago, Alfred Williams, a Mississippi amateur, competed in the tournament.
The two men have talked about what the experience means, Monroe said.
"This is a chance to bring a new demographic to the sport," he said. "I got into this sport because there was no color line. I want kids to look at me and say, `You're cool. You've got a black Suburban with 20-inch rims and a good stereo. You've got a flashy boat. You're no bubba fisherman.' "
And, Monroe said, once he has youngsters' attention, he can encourage them to go fishing by telling them his own life story.
Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., Monroe moved with his family to San Francisco at age 2.
His dad, a city firefighter, took him fishing when he was still a preschooler. It wasn't too long before Monroe would find other kids to fish with him when his father was at work.
"It kept me out of trouble. It kept me out of gangs. It kept me off drugs. It kept me away from violence," he said.
One day, Monroe saw "some rinky-dink tournament on TV. It was two kids in a boat and the younger one was just whupping up on the older one," and Monroe realized he wanted to be paid to fish.
He pestered the owner of a tackle shop for a job in order to learn from other anglers and snag some discount gear. Then, he began plotting his future.
"I said, `What does it take to get a sponsor? You have to be articulate and clean-cut and hard-working. I can do all that.' "
Through high school, Monroe went to summer school to take college prep courses. Then he earned an associate degree from Contra Costa College and took marketing and public speaking courses. He worked a night job as a UPS loader. And he fished minor tournaments.
A rod manufacturer took a chance, and at age 23, Monroe had a sponsor and joined the pro tour.
"My first few years were definitely an eye-opener. I got my lunch handed to me a couple of times. But guys showed me the ropes, and I learned to have fun and enjoy it," he said.
This year, he had two top-10 and six top-25 finishes on the tournament circuit, good enough to be tied for 18th place overall.
Today, he finds himself exactly where he dreamed of being 19 years ago. He is competing in the Bassmaster Classic, one of 61 anglers going after the $200,000 first prize.
Jitters? None, he insists, just focus.
His strategy is to run hard down the Delta - maybe three hours - at high speed to get to his spot for 60 or 90 minutes of fishing. He'll be flipping frogs and buzzbaits, trying to attract the big fish.
"I'm going out there to fish for five bites each day," he said. "I'm going to take every gamble I need to win. If I find them and catch them, it's over in two days. It's not cockiness. You have to believe in your ability or you won't be able to do it.
"I'm in the Classic to win. I have no other reason to be here."