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Collins' fish, win as a family

Camden native, wife rack up Crappie Masters honors

Posted: October 26, 2010 4:19 p.m.
Updated: October 27, 2010 5:00 a.m.
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DON AND TONI COLLINS WERE honored as the 2010 Crappie Masters Tournament Trail’s Sportsman and Angler of the year.

Suntanned and smiling, Don Collins was the picture of someone who was where he always wanted to be.

Collins, a Camden native, and his wife, Toni, who hails from the Chicago area, were enjoying a sunlit fall afternoon in the backyard of Collins’ parents home in Camden. The restful day was a bit of a rarity for the couple, who spend most of their days finishing --- and or, driving to and from --- professional crappie fishing tournaments throughout the country.

While being on a lake may have its moments of solitude, you got the feeling that being home was almost as rewarding as winning yet another tournament or a post-season award. This year, the Collins’ swept the two biggest prizes in the Crappie Masters Tournament Trail, being first named as the 2010 Angler Team of the Year and then, being selected as the Sportsman of the Year on the circuit.

While the first honor boils down to numbers, the latter is based on heart. The sportsman of the year award is presented to the person(s) “embodying the spirit of sportsmanship with their attitude, their friendship and their achievements on the tournament trail and with their fellow anglers.”

Having been taught sportsmanship at an early age, when he played Little League baseball in Camden for a team coached by his father, Nick Collins, Don Collins knew the game was just that. It was not a matter of life and death. And, he said, the real winners were those who could accept grace with defeat and win with dignity.

“The last time I received a sportsmanship award,” Collins said with a smile, “I was a little kid playing Little League baseball on a team which my dad coached. We didn’t win many games, but you couldn’t have told us that we weren’t the champions.”

If what his father instilled in him was not enough, Collins said it was reinforced when, as a teenager, he played high school football at Camden High. His coach was the late H.N. “Coach Hutch” Hutchinson, a fierce competitor but someone who knew more about being a gentleman.

 “I can remember Coach Hutch, who coached me in football, said” Collins said. “He told us that he didn’t care if we won a football game all year, but there was one thing that we were going to do if we lost and that we were going to be good sports. I’ve remembered that all my life.”

On a night in which the Collins’ knew they had locked down the Angler of the Year at the Crappie Masters’ end of year awards ceremony, the now-Florida-based couple was asked to return to the stage. Neither knew why.

“I still didn’t know what they wanted,” Don said of that moment. “Everybody started jumping up and then, I realized what it was. I guess that sportsmanship award is the greatest honor that I’ve ever won in my life.”

Not to mention the most surprising, his wife added. The pair was chosen from the more than 700 male-female angling teams which took part in events this past year alone.

“We had no idea that we would win that honor. It was a great honor to receive,” Toni said as she sat on a swinging bench beside her mother-in-law, Catherine Collins. “We weren’t prepared to make any speech. We knew we had the angler team (award) and we were pleased to have been able to fish all the tournaments for Bass Pro Shops and to win all those trophies. But, when they called us up for Sportsman of the Year, we were both blindsided. It was just a great honor.”

The sportsmanship plaque was the icing on the cake for the Collins, who travel some 20,000 miles in their RV, which pulls their boat which has the Bass Pro Shops (their major sponsor) logo prominently displayed on both sides. This past year alone, they fished tournaments in which the elements ranged from sleet to freezing rain to snow,  to taking cover in rest rooms in Iowa due to the possible approaching of tornadoes to 107-degree heat in a tournament stop in Clinton, Mo.

Another way to measure how many miles the Collins’ logged this year is how Toni describes it. “We’ve put approximately 20,000 miles on the RV,” she said. “That averages out six oil changes and about 120 chocolate frosties from Wendy’s.”

Don said that Toni “knows what I’m thinking, most of the time and she catches an awful lot of fish,” when asked of their relationship in tournament competition. He added that he does a lot a pre-fishing at various lakes, including fishing their most recent stop 28 out of 30 days.

That being said, Don admitted that it takes a special couple to travel and live out of an RV for such long stretches of the year.

“The boat itself is not a problem. We have that 21-foot RV that we pull it with,” he said as he broke into a laugh. “We stay in hotels, sometimes, but we stay in (the RV) a lot. Sometimes, you have to go outside just to change your mind.”

While some might think of the, nine-month tourney fishing season as grind, you couldn’t tell it by the smiles on the Collins’ faces. For the grandparents of 10, who used to run a funeral home in Myrtle Beach before moving to Florida, they are having the time of their lives, criss-crossing the country and meeting new friends, both young and old, every step along the way.

The one part of their job which they enjoy the most is working with youngsters, whom they call the future of the sport. Don Collins said he is just doing what he was taught when he was growing up in Camden.

“We like to promote ‘Take a Child Fishing.’ We’re in quite a few parades and we do a lot of seminars for Bass Pro Shops. The future anglers of America are our children,” hesaid. “I was fortunate when I was growing up that I had my dad and my grandfather and his friend, Mr. Griffith, would take me fishing to ponds and stuff like that here in Camden. I guess the first boat I can remember was one made out of two Ford hoods; two (19) 49 Ford card hoods welded together.”

Those ’49 Fords are light years away from the sleek boat which the Collins now use when they take to the water. This past year, they hit each of the Crappie Masters’ 16 tournament stops, finishing with 2,414 points, beating their nearest competitors by more than 300 points.

While the trophies, the wins and the honors are all well and good, Don Collins said there is much more to fishing than reeling in the most fish or having the biggest catch at the end of the events. And, he added, it is about much more than the cash prizes.

“One of the things I’ve noticed fishing these tournaments over the years is that they are a lot of fun,” he said. “You’re not going to get rich fishing these tournaments, but you are going to meet some of the nicest people in the world.

“And, with these kids … well, you can be the greatest bass fisherman in the world, but these kids don’t care. All they see is a wrapped boat, they see Bass Pro and two people that are sponsored by them and they are excited to see you. For us to be able to share that, no matter what are expenses are, means a lot to us.”

The Collins’ completed their eighth year as a team in the Crappie Masters tourney trail in 2010. A recently as five years ago, after Bass Pro Shops signed them as their representatives in 2004, there were only a dozen male-female teams competing on the circuit. Representing a company such as Bass Pro Shops, Don said, entails much more than fishing and returning to their RV home or hotel room to relax after they get off the water for the day.

“We’re there to win it, but we also do a lot of TV shows and radio shows,” he said of the duties which come with joining up with a sponsor. “Our days don’t end like a lot of the guys. Our days don’t end after the fishing is done. We don’t take it easy. We go out to meet the public and work with the kids. That’s what it’s all about.”

Just two weeks ago, Don and Toni joined noted professional anglers Bill Dance, Kevin Vandam, NASCAR driver Kerry Earnhardt and Bass Pro Shops owner John Morris at the grand re-opening of the store’s location in Nashville. While there, they talked and taught fishing and signed plenty of autographs for fans.

Making sure they take the time to meet the fans is important to the Collins’. A smile lights up Don’s face when talking about times when, on the water in tournaments, they will stop by to chat with everyday anglers on the lake and give them a Road Runner (another of their sponsors) fishing jig or a tip or two. That is not part of the job, but to them, it is a major part of their everyday lives.

“That gives us a little opportunity to share some of the things that we get with kids and people who may have never used a Road Runner before. It’s a great honor for us,” Don said.

“We’ve seen people from three to 83 out with a pole in their hand,” Toni said. “We could be long lining, slow trolling or jig fishing, but when we see these little guys or little gals out there with a pole in their hand and sometimes, fishing with a cork from the dock, that’s what brings a smile to us. We want to keep that generation going.”

Not too long ago, Don said, he and Toni were part of a Future Fishing Foundation for Kids event in which six youngsters from throughout the country were chosen to fish with professional anglers. Two of the six left the lake with $4,000 scholarships after weigh-ins.

“They weighed in five fish. And were high-fiving everybody when they got in line,” Don said with a broad smile. “It didn’t matter whether that fish was two inches long or 15 pounds, they were so excited. Two of them won $4,000 scholarships. A lot of good things come out of this Bass Pro Shops Crappie Master Tournament Trail.”

Two of the better ones which have come out of the series are Toni and Don Collins, the husband who started fishing in tournaments locally with his angling partner, Bob Branham, in 1981. There is a love of Camden and family in the voice of Don Collins, who got choked up when talking about his younger brother whom, he said, “loves to fish, but doesn’t catch many.”

“It’s all about family,” he said of traveling some 1,200 miles to come back home and eat some of his mother’s cooking before returning to Florida.

“Being from Camden, everything’s here. You have the lakes to fish and go outside the city limits and you can go deer hunting. Camden is a great town and it’s always a pleasure to come back. Once you’re from Camden, you don’t forget anybody.”

Looking over at Nick, Don Collins talked about his father’s still fishing up until last year. “That gives me something to look forward to,” he said proudly. “I’m hoping that I’m fishing when I reach 80 years old.”

Before then, however, there are still plenty of days competing on the waters, teaching and meeting people off it and enjoying life for Toni and Don Collins, who admitted that after this year, the bar has been set higher for them as they look ahead to the 2011 season.

While their life may seem busy, hectic, crazy or --- you can substitute your own adjective here --- the Collins’ would not have it any other way. They are having too much fun to worry about finding the words to describe their lifestyle.

“You just have to really enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t, then don’t do it because you can’t do it right,” Bob said. “If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right. We give it everything we can. That’s what I’ve always heard and what I’ve always believed in.

“I don’t ever go on the water not thinking that I’m not going to win every tournament on the trail. Next year, it will be the same way. We fish hard and we play hard. And, we love being able to come home.”

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