The Unexpected and Fascinating Story of Pro Angler Tom Swick

[6 minutes to read]

Tom Swick is the American face of FishBrain, and he’s hard to pin down in only a few words: Tom is a family man, a lifetime tournament fisherman, an adrenalin junkie, an Army veteran, and a former pro rodeo rider.

And then talking to Tom, it takes less than a minute to realize that he’s humble about all of it - there’s no pretense. His manner of speaking is direct and honest and sometimes colorful in the way you’d expect an old saltwater angler to pepper his speech.

I had two simple objectives when I talked to Tom over Skype: I wanted to know more about who he is as a person, and I wanted to hear at least one good fishing story.

Tom delivered on those expectations and more. He talked about his adventure-packed youth, the unexpected type of fishing he does when he’s on his own, how to prove you’re a tough old salt during an offshore tournament, and the future of sport fishing.

Tom also shared his insights on how to craft the kind of life you love to live, and how that led him to work for FishBrain.

Without further ado, here’s Tom Swick.


On growing up in an angling family

TS: As a little boy, I grew up in Ohio. My first fishing tournament I fished in, I was eight years old, so I’ve been fishing a long time. All my uncles were avid tournament bass fishermen, on both sides of my family. I had one particular uncle who was a regional director of a B.A.S.S. chapter, and he really got me into it. Once a month, the chapter would do fishing tournaments for the kids, and the guys in the club would take us kids out fishing.

When I was about twelve of thirteen, my parents divorced and I moved to Houston with my father. That’s when I got heavily into the saltwater fishing.

That’s also when I started rodeoing.


On riding rodeo

TS: I rodeoed in the National Youth Rodeo Association starting when I was thirteen. I did it all the way through high school.

When I was seventeen (and still in high-school), I filled my pro permit and started riding open pro rodeos. I did that from the late seventies until my last rodeo in 1993. In that span of time, I rode bulls, I rode bareback horses, I calf roped, I team roped, and I was a rodeo clown bullfighter.

When it comes to rodeo, I’ve done it all.


On becoming a family man

TS: The way I look at family life has been a progression. If you ask me today, I’ll say it’s the Most Important Thing. But I wasn’t always like that.

When I was younger, my focus was more on myself. Most of my youth I spent trying to have as many experiences and adventures at the youngest age possible. Right out of high school I went into the Army; I don’t speak to those experiences all that much. Anybody asks, I say I’m an Army veteran and we leave it at that.

All that early focus on adventure made me kind of a loner, in some respects. I’d grown up in Texas around my dad, with my mom back in Ohio. Right before I joined the Army, six days before Basic Training, I married my high school sweetheart; we’d started dating when I was a freshman and she was a junior.

The marriage was good, and it lasted twelve years. At the end, we just kind of grew apart.

I have two awesome daughters, both of them straight-A students, never missed a day of school, no issues with either one of them (except for one time in the second grade when my youngest, Meagan, got kicked off the school bus for beating up the boys, and she couldn’t ride the bus for the rest of the year. She’s now in the Marine Corps, and getting deployed from Oceanside, CA this month.)

If anyone asks me how it is I got such wonderful daughters, I say, Thank God they took after their mother. The oldest, Chelsea, is a nurse in Ohio. I’m so very proud of both of them.

This brings me back to why I came to Florida. Yes it’s the sport fishing capital of the United States, hands-down, but the even bigger draw for me was being close to my family. My mother lives here, in St. Petersburg; my sister lives here; my youngest brother lives over in Tampa.

It took me till I was about forty to realize how much my family means to me. I’m 52 now.

How to live the dream

TS: I never in a million years thought that I’d be living the life I live now; I thought I’d be like everyone else, working in the corporate world in the 9-5 grind at a job I despised. But it’s not like that. I love every part of what I do now.

These days, I get to fish for a living. I get to promote FishBrain and connect with new people and introduce folks to the sport of fishing. I get to work with government agencies on conservation efforts. And then there’s more, but I still love every day of it.

How you make a dream like this happen is by taking taking concrete steps toward the goal. I moved here to Florida, and specifically the Tampa Bay area, which has an incredible concentration of anglers and like-minded people. I live on an island called Tierra Verde, which is just off St. Pete beach. Out the back of my place, you see Tampa Bay. Out the front door, it’s the Gulf of Mexico. (When you cross the bridge to come onto our island, the cost of living triples, and so does everything else.)

The next big piece of the puzzle is networking. It’s making connections and building relationships. With the tournament fishing community being so tight, it takes a certain mindset to build the kind of reputation and connections you need to make it. A lot of it comes down to honesty and hard work and just putting yourself out there. You have to enter a lot of tournaments. You have to be curious about other people, and interested in what they’re doing.

When I do something, I commit to it 110%.

Just as an example, between now and this coming November, I’ve got 29 tournaments scheduled. I’m on the water fishing at least five days a week. But that’s what it takes to build a reputation as a hardcore angler.

When I moved to Florida, I entered every tournament I could get myself into. I talked to everyone I could. I made sure to be the way I am, which is up front and honest, good or bad - people know me for speaking my mind. I don’t like to beat around the bush. And that draws respect from people. I like to think that I’m not rude to anybody, that I’m tactful, even if it’s not easy.

It’s hard to get into the fishing community, to be accepted, but you can get there; it took me about a year, a year and a half.

All of this advice, about working hard and surrounding yourself with the right people, about setting goals and following your dreams, it works in life as well as in fishing.

The whole FishBrain piece happened almost by accident. My nephew introduced me to it when we were fishing, and I’d never even used an app on my phone before. But I started posting catches so he could follow me when he went back to school, and it sort of grew from there.

One day, I got an email from someone at FishBrain who wanted to talk to me.

I ignored the e-mail for about two weeks until my girlfriend looked at it and told me it didn’t look like a scam. So I replied, and that’s how it got started. I ended up filling my living room with thousands of FishBrain promo fliers, I got a giant FishBrain tent that I brought to tournaments, and I spent about six months promoting FishBrain on my own all over the State of Florida until it became something even more.

Now FishBrain is a key part of my day-to-day existence, and I love it: I love the fishing; I love the business meetings; I love the new people I get to meet.

I am not a tech guy - I’m an angler. And that’s exactly why it works for me to be a part of FishBrain, because my strength is that I’m so much a part of the fishing community. I feel like it’s an awesome match.

On key relationships in the fishing community

TS: I can credit a lot of my success right after I moved here to a young man named Craig Brunstein. He owns a company called Oceanic Gear, which is a clothing line, and he has a couple of offshore fishing teams.

It was at a fishing tournament, at a bar, that someone introduced me to Craig one night. He and I started talking, and it turned out that he’d done some checking up on me. Craig invited me to be one of the anglers on his offshore fishing team.

I bring that up as an example of how important it is to keep yourself open to new connections. And I still fish on the Oceanic Gear Offshore Team. Last year, we went to Nationals after finishing second in our local division. We did well at Nationals, even if we didn’t win.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I don’t fish these tournaments to win them. I fish them to be consistent. My personal goal is to land in the top ten. And sure, I win one here and there, and finish second or third (I’ve done that plenty of times), but it’s the overall consistency that people look at. That’s when you know that the results are more than luck.

On his surprising and little-known fishing passion

TS: When I was stationed over in Germany (I did two tours there), I was all about the travel. At least once a month, I’d take four days and travel to a different country by train on a Eurail pass. That brought me to every single country in Europe.

In Germany, I started taking fly fishing lessons. And so then when I went to a new country, I’d pack a fly rod and some trout flies in my backpack, and buy a fishing license. Sometimes the fishing restrictions could be quite difficult to navigate, so I’d have to ask the locals where to fish.

There was one trip, when I was in Chamonix, France, that I’ll never forget. I was in what might have been the most beautiful valley surrounded by mountains that I’d ever seen. It was like a postcard, or the set of a TV show that’s too beautiful for real life.

In Chamonix, I was staying at an inexpensive little place that catered to travelers like me. I went out to a pub, and I was sitting there having a beer when I asked some of the locals if they knew where I could fish.

A gentleman spoke up and told me he had a farm that had a stream running through it. He told me I was welcome to fish it.

The next day, I went to the farm and found the stream. Around me, the landscape was still dream-like to me in its beauty. But I looked at that tiny stream and told myself, ‘I ain’t gonna catch no damn fish.’

Turned out I was wrong. I had probably the best fishing day of my life. I caught so many trout out of that stream, it was absurd. I was there by myself, catching fish in the midst of all this natural beauty rising around me.

Not many people know that fly fishing is one of my biggest passions. Around here, it’s hard to get guys that like to do that, because it’s so technical and difficult. I like to go out on the boat by myself and do it. For the bigger fish, like redfish and snook, I’ll use an 8-weight fly outfit. I’ve got a 5-weight for the fresh water trout streams. And then when I go for tarpon, I use a 10-12 weight outfit. You need that kind of strength when you’re fishing for a hundred pound fish.

Fly fishing is my solitude time. It’s my Tom Time.

Still, I’m an adrenalin junkie. That’s why I like fishing competitions so much, the tournament thing. It’s also why I’d have trouble being a guide - you have to make sure everyone else catches fish, but you don’t do so much fishing yourself.


On the future of fishing

TS: I like to take friends out fishing. I especially like taking out the kids, and seeing how excited they get being out on the water and hooking a fish. Jimmy [a fellow FishBrainer, Ed. ] was out here with his wife and son. I took Jimmy and his son, little Walter, out fishing.

We caught about forty fish that day. Little Walter told his mom and dad that it was the best day ever in his life. To me, that is awesome. That is what it’s all about - bringing up the kids.

Nowadays, we need fewer Xboxes and more tackle boxes. I get the sense that some parents don’t want to let their kids play as much outdoors. But the youth is our future; that’s especially true in fishing. If no one takes them or shows them how to do it, they’re not going to learn about natural resources and conservation and everything involved around fishing. They’ll be missing all that.

We have to be very careful about how we bring our kids up, about how we teach them about our environment. I’m stepping into more general territory here, but I believe in it: Kids should know about our environment, and they should know right from wrong.

A bloody fishing story to prove you’re one tough old salt

TS: It was my very first tournament fishing with Oceanic Gear: an offshore Kingfish tournament. The day before it started, Craig and I went out to catch bait.

Craig and I were at the stern of the boat. He was on one side, I was on the other. We were using Sabiki rigs to bring up strings of bait, then putting the baits in the live well of the boat, which was right next to us and about three feet deep.

At the stern of the boat, where we were standing, there were only small corners where we actually could stand. The rest of the stern was filled up with the live well.

Something happened, maybe one of our lines broke, and we ended up switching sides. We got back to fishing, and then Craig said something to me. I turned around to respond, and that’s when it happened.

I stepped right into the live well, sinking down all three feet to the bottom. My entire body followed, except for a spot right below my chest: that’s where I impacted the corner of the deck with my ribs.

The impact knocked the wind out of me and busted my ribs. After ten minutes, when I could breathe a little better, I told Craig we could get back to fishing. So that’s what we did. When we finished out the day, I went straight to the ER and they wrapped and taped me up.

That was part one of the story. The next day was when we drew blood.

It was the following morning, and we had to be at the boat at three o’clock in the morning in order to get to our spot by six. We made the run out with the boat and got to our spot on time, and it was Craig who hooked the first fish.

He reeled it in toward the boat. I saw that it was a big ole’ barracuda; it wasn’t what we were fishing for, but I grabbed the leader and pulled it into the boat. Craig took the line and I went for my pliers to get the hook out of its mouth. The rig we were using was on a wire rig, with a single hook and then a triple hook on a stinger, four inches behind it.

Well, that stinger flipped up and that barracuda just caught me in the thumb with the hook. It wasn’t deep (yet) - it had just barely hooked me.

Then the barracuda started flopping around, and it pulled the hook clear through my thumb. I was standing there holding a twenty pound angry barracuda, flopping this way and that, and what I said was something like, Somebody get this fish!

The others on the boat grabbed the fish to stop it from flopping around. I took the wire cutters and cut the wire on the rig and we threw the fish back in. But I still had a big hook plumb through my thumb. I looked at Craig and said, Get your bolt cutters, cut this hook, and I’ll push it on through.

I think Craig was more nervous than I was; his hands were shaking, and I just wanted him to cut the hook. He did manage to get it cut, and then I pushed what was left of the hook back through my finger. I put my finger in the salt water to rinse it off, wrapped it in tape, and fished the rest of the day.

People still tell that story, about my fishing with broken ribs and a hole through my thumb. And they usually say something about me being a tough old son-of-a-gun for not complaining.

I guess that’s one way to add to a reputation, and it doesn’t matter if you’re twenty years older than everyone else on the boat. Maybe that makes it even better, in some ways.

When I offered Tom to go ice fishing during his coming visit to Stockholm

TS: No! When it gets below seventy, I freeze my butt off and my arthritis starts to hurt [laughter].

[The interview with Tom Swick was as told to Jesse Bastide. The text was edited and condensed for clarity. Ed.]