Much like a football coach scouts an opponent’s tendencies leading up to a big game, Paul Mueller does his share of preparation as well. However, instead of 250-pound, lightning-quick athletes, his competition usually weighs about four to six pounds — and is even more elusive.
Mueller, a Naugatuck resident and Pomperaug High grad, would be the first to say that there is no luck in fishing — disregarding a common thought among people who casually throw their line into a local pond.
“The more you fish, the more you learn,” Mueller said. “You are better able to study a fish’s movement while considering seasonal patterns and weather conditions. Luck is not even a small percentage.”
Best to take his word for it, he’s a pro.
In February at Lake Lanier in Georgia, Mueller won his first Bassmaster Elite Series tournament, a four-day event. Now in his fifth year competing at the highest level of professional bass fishing, he reeled in a total weight of 69 pounds of spotted bass, taking home a $100,000 prize.
As a note of comparison, Lake Lanier covers approximately 38,000 acres. Candlewood Lake, Connecticut’s largest inland body of water, is about 5,400 acres. Though it was a different environment for the Northeast-based fisherman, he was able to draw comparisons between the two.
When he was just 3 years old, Mueller, 34, was introduced to fishing by his father, who would take him to many local areas to try his hand at the sport — eventually leading to his interest in competitive bass fishing. Among the places they visited were Bantam Lake, Lake Lillinonah and primarily Candlewood.
“Candlewood is known for small-mouth bass and Lanier has spotted bass,” said Mueller, who added he didn’t have much experience on Lake Lanier before the tournament. “Both usually set-up in similar areas, so I was able to use similar techniques from back home.”
During each day of these tournaments, fishermen are out on the water for equal time — usually amounting to eight to nine hours on average. There is no limit on how many fish a competitor can catch, but the total weight of the day is based on the five heaviest fish caught.
Adjustments need to be made on the spot, and sometimes a couple ounces can be the difference.
“It’s a puzzle that you’re always trying to put together. You just keep going as hard as you can. It’s extremely competitive,” Mueller said.
The tournament at Lake Lanier came down to the final day.
“I caught two big ones in the final two hours and won the tournament by 14 ounces,” Mueller said.
It was a memorable victory for Mueller, who started competing in local and amateur tournaments when he was a teenager — working his way up the ranks through the state circuit before joining the national scene five years ago.
Most of the Elite Series tournaments take place in southern locations, until warmer months come to the Mid-Atlantic region. In August, Mueller is scheduled to participate in competitions on the St. Lawrence River and Cayuga Lake in New York.
Mueller warns of information overload when preparing for a tournament, as some fishermen will visit the area to scout 30 days before competition begins. However, most times he is satisfied with using the internet for background knowledge.
“You want to avoid too many preconceived notions when starting a tournament about a particular body of water and instead go in with an open mind,” Mueller said. “There is a lot of information on the internet and sometimes you just take it for what it is.”
Competitors are allowed two-and-a-half days to practice on the water before the tournament begins, making each trip about a week long for Mueller. Unless weather conditions are deemed dangerous, the tournament goes on in rain, wind and anything else the sky conjures up.
“I always try to be consistent, which is tough sometimes on foreign water,” Mueller said. “I just try to focus on what I need to do to win.”
And win he did, on Lake Lanier.
Though he could not begin to guess at his personal record for fish caught in one day, as tournaments usually require competitors to focus on size rather than number, Mueller does recall the biggest bass he ever caught — an 8-pound, 5-ounce large-mouth.
“The fish get bigger down south. At Lake Fork in Texas, they can be over 10 pounds,” Mueller said. “It’s a different gene down there. Plus, the weather stays warm so the growing season is longer. It could also be that fish up north have lower metabolisms due to the cold water.”
Mueller doesn’t have another tournament until April, and in the meantime, he can be found in his boat on a local lake — sometimes Candlewood or Bantam — working as a professional fishing guide. He is expected to have the answers, and he usually does.
“I take people out on the water of all different skill levels and there is a pressure to produce,” Mueller said. “There is a science to it though, and through competing professionally, I have gained a lot of information about the local areas.”
Mueller discussed some of the good fishing windows in Connecticut — specifically for trophy bass in the spring and fall when the water is colder. Year-round, whether it’s in the heat of the summer or under the ice, he is out there perfecting his craft.
As for advice for the luck-seekers who want to get more use out of their fishing nets, he recommends pulling up a web browser.
“If someone is looking to get better at fishing, I suggest just reading Bassmaster Magazine or going online. There is so much information,” Mueller said. “The thing that makes a good fisherman, though, is just time on the water. I still learn something every day.”