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Chicago fishing: Mark Zona, 3 questions & more (updated)

“I think I was thrown off every golf course in Cook County,’’ Mark Zona said of his youthful fishing exploits. “I would hide in bushes and cast. That is no b.s. My kids are [teens]. If they got in trouble for that now, I would pat them on them on the back.

“I have always had a kind of a thorn in my side for places where people said I could not fish. Even if there was no fish there, it made me want to fish there more.’’

This is the extended online version of my Sunday column on the Sun-Times outdoors page.

I caught up with Zona as he was crossing the Ohio River, trying to make home in Michigan Thursday night from a shoot on Lake Guntersville for “ZONA’S Awesome Fishing Show.’’

“I like fishing in the harshest conditions,’’ Zona said. “My band of pirates are the same camera guys who do the Bassmasters Elite Series. They don’t bitch or moan if it is bad. That is what I grew up fishing in Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. I would say 30 percent of the shows are inclement, beat the crap out of them.’’

That’s exactly the kind of show he was coming off of at Guntersville.

“It was gnarly today, I mean bad, but it is going to be one of the best shows,’’ he said. “Those really rough conditions, that is what I grew up on. The more challenging the shoot, if you do get that payoff, I look forward to it. I remember the tougher shoots more than I do the easy ones.’’

I called Zona for three questions as a lead-in to Chicagoland Fishing, Travel & Outdoor Expo. But I got far more than that.


The Schaumburg show (photo above is from 2013) features a host of stars in fishing–Mike Iaconelli, Zona, Jim Saric, Gerald Swindle, Joe Bucher, Tommy Skarlis–and local experts–Denny Sands, Capt. Chris Taurisano, Dustan Harley, Mark O’Neill (O’Neill belongs in a special group as a national expert on electronics).

The big fishing show in the Chicago market opens Thursday at the Schaumburg Convention Center. Zona will present at 2:30 p.m. Thursday on “Northern Lakes Swimbaiting’’ at the Hawg Trough.


(No, that photo is not Zona, it is Kevin VanDam last year presenting to a SRO crowd.)

It is homecoming for Zona, who said, “I kidnapped my wife 17 years ago. She left Elmhurst and moved to Michigan with me.’’

So Zona understands he might be talking to a guy about trying to catch a river-sized smallmouth bass on the Kankakee River to largemouth bass on an inland lake.

1) Who or what will you check out while at the show? (And don’t be kissy-face with everybody and everything.)

I am biggest tackle junkie on earth, worse than VanDam. I could take a picture of my barn where I keep my boat and it is like a miniature Bass Pro Shop. I am fortunate as I am able to be on the water 70 percent of the year. Trust me, I am giving back by buying tackle. [And] I try to find the booths of my partners and thank them for being at part of the show.

2) Growing up in Homewood, do you have any memories of doing outdoors shows?

They used to have seminars at Homewood-Flossmoor [High School]. I remember when as a kid Spence Petros handed me a lure tied a rod and had me run through an auditorium to show how it affected the drag. I own every early “Fishing Facts’’ through the early ‘80s. I had a note pad and wrote down everything those guys said.

3) Which do you consider more important when you present on Thursday? That people walk away having fun or improve their swimbaiting?

“I am horrified of public speaking. You can put a camera on me, put me on ESPN, and I am fine. I can speak to 11 children in my children’s classroom and I am sweating bullets. I am an everyday dude. I have great days on the water. I have sucky days on the water. If a guy can walk in, I can tell you one thing, I am ain’t no [b.s’er]. I will talk about inland lakes and the Great Lakes. Somebody is going to walk away from that building with something they can use, rather than he’ll have to go on vacation to do that.’’