Ryan “RC” Cooper displays bass he’s caught at tournaments. The former Madisonian, now of New Hampshire, will fish the WalMart FLW Tour this season. (FLW Tour photos)
Ryan “RC” Cooper displays bass he’s caught at tournaments. The former Madisonian, now of New Hampshire, will fish the WalMart FLW Tour this season. (FLW Tour photos)
After having his flight home to New Hampshire canceled a fifth time on Tuesday in Virginia, former Madisonian Ryan "RC" Cooper found himself in a weather holding pattern that provided plenty of time to talk about how a smalltown boy who learned to fish at Old Timbers Lake would soon be angling for bass in the prestigious, ESPN-friendly world of the WalMart FLW Tour.

Cooper, a 1998 graduate of Madison, who got his start in fishing with his father Robert Sr. at the popular National Wildlife Area that was once a part of the Jefferson Proving Ground, will be a well-backed rookie on the top bass fishing tour in the nation when the season opens Feb. 8 at Okeechobee Lake in Florida.

The 34-year-old former Madison Courier paperboy and 2006 graduate of Hanover College will take with him bass fishing knowledge gleaned over two decades of fishing tournaments in Indiana and Kentucky and around the region as well as the tips he's picked up from other top anglers here and in the northeast.

"It's been a whirlwind for the last three or four months since we found out we had an opportunity to fish the Tour," Cooper said while preparing to kill some of that layover time by hanging out with Facebook followers at a Bass Pro Shops in Virginia. "I know we've had a couple of guys from Hanover fish (the FLW) - Wes Thomas and Roger Crafton - but nobody from Madison.

"My buddy, Michael Trueblood, and I grew up fishing and Michael said 'You know, we've had people from Jefferson County fish it but never anybody from Madison fish it. Man we've got to tell people about this.'"

Spreading the word about fishing is what big-time bass fishing is all about, according to Cooper. He said he fully understands the profession he's now pursuing and knows that it's just as much salesman and truck driver as bass angler.

"Professional bass fishermen are just salesmen-slash-truck drivers who occasionally get to fish," Cooper laughed, referring to the numerous appearances pro anglers stage for sponsors as well as the thousands of miles they travel to and from those appearances and tournaments. And while Cooper, a professional guide back in New Hampshire and long-time tournament fisherman, knows his fishing skills are as good as anyone's, his ability to be an Internet personality, television spokesman, Internet blogger and product endorser is equally important to landing a big bag of fish.

"I'm very fortunate," said Cooper, who is backed by a number of sponsors who are covering his $24,000 annual entry fees and $20,000 in expenses and other incidentals for what shapes up as a six-event FLW Tour plus three additional Bassmaster Open events. "It's very odd to have this opportunity as a rookie on the Tour. I've done well. I used to do very well fishing and I've won a lot of tournaments all over Indiana and Kentucky and New Hampshire but it's very unusual as a rookie to have a full-ride sponsor to the Tour to where all I have to really pay for is my gas. They're paying everything else. It's really neat. It's a very humbling experienced."

Cooper compared making it to big-time bass fishing to the odds faced by a high school baseball player trying to reach the major leagues. There are 700,000 amateur bass fishermen in the country and only about 250 professionals in the world.

"We're true major league professionals," Cooper noted. "It's an honor and it's quite humbling at the same time."

"When I was in Indiana I fished a lot of the Hardy Lake Series, USA Bass, Midwest Sportsmen and events like that," Cooper said. "I didn't fish any of the FLW, BFL or stuff of that nature. When I moved to New England my wife and I became very financially stable and that allowed me to get out on the road and fish and I started fishing a lot of the Bassmaster Opens and FLW EverStart and local tournaments."

Cooper, who has 33 wins to his credit in regional and local tournaments, said fishing in the FLW will be a little different than chasing cash jackpots in those tourneys. The FLW is based on a points system rather than the winner-take-all events he's fished in the past.

Make no mistake though, Cooper thinks there's no better proving ground for an angler than the Bassmaster Opens where the jackpots are big and the names are bigger as the titans of bass fishing descend on the various tournaments hoping to score the win that will punch their ticket to the prestigious annual Bassmasters Classic.

"When I fished the Bassmaster Opens those are arguably the most competitive circuits in the world," Cooper noted. "You got about 50 guys from the top 100 in the world who are fishing and trying to qualify for the Classic every week. It's really hard to judge someone's stats on the Opens because it's winner-take-all. All that matters is winning because the winner goes to the Bassmaster Classic ... It's almost like an All-Star game."

And although Cooper had the skills and the mindset to pursue professional tournament fishing at a younger age, he said one of the best things about his current situation is that the "time is right."

"If I would have went in when I was in my 20s right out of college I wouldn't have fished relaxed ... it's hard to fish relaxed when you're going to lose your house if you don't catch a fish," Cooper noted. "I'm financially secure enough now, I've got some awesome sponsors ... I feel like I'm going to do very well because I'm just simply able to focus on what I need to do - put my head down and put weight up on the scale."

And realistically, Cooper understood that opportunity might only knock once - for most it never knocks at all.

"This is an opportunity for my sponsors to be showcased on the FLW Tour. I originally wasn't going to take the offer. I had a 16-month-old son and my wife works at a biotech company in Boston and I wanted to stay at home and be a daddy," Cooper said. "I've been on the road fishing the EverStarts the last 2 1/2 or three years and I just wasn't going to take (the sponsorship).

"And then they came back and said "You're the next guy that we want to send up. The FLW wants you and this is the deal take-it or leave-it, but this deal is not going to come around again," Cooper said. "Now, I know guys who have been on the Tour or have been waiting for a title sponsor to pick up the tab for them to fish their whole lives and it never came so the time was right.

"My motivation to fish is not to become famous, it's not to show off. I'm simply doing it for two reasons," Cooper said. "One is I want to show my son that whatever he wants to be in life - whether it's a professional baseball player, a musician or anything - that if he puts his mind to it and works hard enough, it's possible. There's still great opportunities in this world. There's still good people in this world who believe in good people. I want to show him that. I've almost won an EverStart. I've almost won an Open. I didn't want his father to be 'Mr. Almost' ...

"The other reason is there are so many guys who taught me to fish up there at Old Timbers and out there at Hardy Lake - especially the Truebloods there in Madison - that never got that golden ticket and never got that opportunity," Cooper continued. "They had all the talent in the world to be capable of doing it and for whatever reason the opportunity just did not come. I want to do this for those guys out of respect for them, to let them know that if it's not you up there on that stage, it's what you taught me. That's really the big thing - to pay my respects and pay it forward."

So come Feb. 8 at Okeechobee Lake in Florida, RC Cooper will fish his first FLW Tour event - with the ESPN lights shining and cameras rolling and the helicopters hovering overhead and dozens of boats following him all over the lake.

"I just practiced on Lake Okeechobee a couple of days ago and I'll be back there in two weeks. It was a really good practice and feel really good going into it," Cooper said.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Cooper was filming a commercial for an marine engine company, a battery company and a sponsoring marina Tuesday before flying home for three days and then heading off to practice at a future site in South Carolina, then back to Florida, then on to Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, New York and Detroit.

"It's a circuit where you are truly touring the country," Cooper said. "You've got Facebook fans and fans all over the country following every move you make and people Tweeting you. It's amazing when you're in the hunt for a big check and you really don't think how many people are watching. And then at 6 o'clock in the morning right when you're getting ready to take off, your cellphone lights up with good luck wishes from like 50 guys back home. It's amazing."

Cooper hopes to make those guys back home proud.

You can follow RC Cooper on his website at RCCooper.com, on Facebook at RC Cooper and on Twitter @rccooperfishing.