As a tad growing up in DeBary, Fla., Keith Carson would ride his bike to 212-acre Gemini Springs Park to watch people fish for bream from the public pier there.
“You can see bottom 10 feet deep easily in that spring-fed water,” Carson said. “I would see huge bass swimming around, 7- to 10-pounders.”
By age 12 he was bicycling to the park nearly every day to fish for the behemoth bass. Try as he might, he failed to catch them.
“I didn’t know how to cast or what to use,” Carson said. “My parents didn’t fish and there was no YouTube back then. I had to learn by trial and error.”
If he’d had so little success fishing at a dingy lake where he couldn’t see the bass, Carson believes he would have given up on the sport. Had that happened, he would not be the Bassmaster Classic contender he is now at age 33.
Carson qualified for the 2021 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Ray Roberts, Texas, by winning the final Bassmaster Eastern Open of 2020 at Lay Lake, Alabama. He also made a strong run at qualifying for the Elite Series by finishing 15th in the Eastern Opens AOY standings.
His heart-breaking 132nd place finish at Lake Hartwell put the kibosh on his Elite Series quest. Had he finished 74th or higher there, he would be an Elite pro next season.
“Making the Elites is absolutely a priority,” Carson said. “That’s my dream. I truly believe I could make a name for myself there.”
Carson’s confidence stems from the success that a longtime friend of his has had in the professional bass arena. That person is Elite Series angler John Cox.
Cox is one year older than Carson. As a youngster, Cox also rode a bicycle to Gemini Springs Park to gawk at the heavyweight bass cruising in the pellucid water. The two boys met there and have been fast fishing friends ever since.
They started out by competing in johnboat club tournaments together. When Cox turned 16 and could drive, they joined a local bass club and won the AOY award the first year they were members. While fishing with the club, they sampled the St. Johns, the Kissimmee Chain, the Harris Chain and many of the Sunshine State’s other storied bass waters.
“We were learning how to flip then, and that’s how we caught most of our fish,” Carson said. “That was before punching grass mats became popular. We were pitching soft plastic baits to grass edges and clumps.”
Carson and Cox stepped up to fishing the larger pro angler/co-angler tournaments about 15 years ago. Cox would enter as a boater, while Carson competed as a co-angler. They thought they had made it big when they fished an FLW Tour event on the Red River in May of 2011. Cox won as a boater, while Carson won as a co-angler.
“After winning at the Red River we thought we’d get some sponsors,” Carson said. “We didn’t get anything.”
After that disheartening experience Cox continued to pursue his dream of becoming a professional bass angler. Carson resorted to fishing local tournaments and working in the family business, KCC Painting, with his father, Ken, and brother, Danny.
“I started painting when I was 10,” Carson said. “I started my own lawn care business when I was 8. I’d go door to door and pass out flyers. I charged $15 a yard. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I had to work for everything.”
After the Red River tournament, Carson’s family pressured him to get a “normal job” and told him that fishing for a living was a pipe dream.
Carson relented and got a good paying job as a UPS driver. He was happy with the size of his paychecks. But after working 55 to 60 hours a week he was exhausted and had little time left for fishing.
Meanwhile, Cox’s professional career was moving in the right direction. When Cox won the Forest Wood Cup in 2016, Carson began to reevaluate the path he was on.
In 2018 Cox sent a text to Carson while he was on a UPS route. The text read, “I think it’s time you decided if you want to be a good UPS driver or a good fisherman.”
Despite the objections of his family, Carson gave UPS two weeks notice in late December of 2018.
“My manager told me I was one of the best workers she’d had in years,” Carson said. “She said she would rehire me on the spot if I ever came back.”
Given the success Carson has had this year fishing the Bassmaster Opens, it isn’t likely that his UPS manager will see him anytime soon.
“Right now it’s full steam ahead with my fishing career,” Carson said.
Carson’s sponsors include Berkley, Abu Garcia and KCC Painting. He works at KCC when he’s not fishing a tournament.