West Virginia’s top environmental official leads a double life.
Through most of the week, Randy Huffman serves as secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. On weekends, though, he takes off his suit and tie and dons the brightly colored jersey of a competitive bass fisherman.
The dual identity paid off recently when Huffman qualified to compete in the country’s top tournament for amateur anglers; in November, he will travel to Louisana’s Ouachita River for the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship.
“It’s exciting stuff,” Huffman said. “This was only my second year of fishing at the state level, so you can imagine how jacked I am to make it to the national championship.”
Fishing isn’t something Huffman took up just recently. He’s been an avid angler since his formative years.
“My father wasn’t big on fishing, so I’m pretty much self-taught,” he said. “Other than the guys on TV fishing shows, I had no real role models. What I did have was a passion to learn.”
Huffman became a bass fisherman in the late 1980s, thanks largely to the construction of Lewis County’s Stonewall Jackson Dam.
“Back then, Stonewall Jackson Lake was one of the few places in the state where you could go and consistently catch good-sized largemouth bass,” he recalled. “So I bought a bass boat and started spending a lot of time up there.
“By the late 1990s, I thought I had acquired enough skills to start fishing competitively, so I started entering local tournaments. In the past couple of years, I’ve branched out and started fishing in tournaments outside the state.”
Because of his busy work schedule, Huffman does most of his traveling at night.
“I’ll leave on a Friday afternoon, drive late into the night, fish a [weekend] tournament and come back late Sunday night,” he said. “You can’t reach a competitive level without doing a lot of fishing. Success is a direct reflection of effort; you’ve got to be willing to pay the price.”
The bass-fishing experience Huffman gained during his travels has helped him do well in tournaments inside and outside West Virginia.
His most recent success, a fourth-place finish in the B.A.S.S. Nation Mid-Atlantic Divisional Tournament, is a case in point. To prepare for the competition, he made two trips to Virginia’s Kerr Lake — one in March and another in April.
“By the time I fished the Mid-Atlantic [in late May], I had six or seven days’ experience on the lake, and had familiarized myself with how it fished. That really helped,” he said.
Armed with his hard-won knowledge, Huffman caught 24.88 pounds of bass in three days, good enough for fourth place in the overall event and first place among the 12 anglers on the West Virginia B.A.S.S. Nation team. The high finish qualified him for the national event.
Though preparation and skill played major roles in Huffman’s success, he said he needed a little luck, too.
“Truth be told, I almost didn’t make it onto the West Virginia team,” he said. “In our state tournament on the Ohio River, I caught a 12 ½-inch spotted bass off Blennerhassett Island in the last 10 minutes of fishing time. Had I not caught that little fish with just minutes to spare, I never would have made the team that went to Kerr.”
The duties of Huffman’s high-profile job prevent him from fishing as much as he’d like, but he believes that might actually be a good thing. “Tournament fishing can get pretty expensive; if I had more time to fish, I’d definitely have less money,” he said with a laugh.
While many amateur anglers long for the wealth and celebrity status some pro anglers enjoy, Huffman is content to remain an amateur.
“There isn’t one big thing between being able to catch 5 pounds of bass and 20 pounds of bass in a day, there are a million little things,” he said “The pros have mastered those million little things, and the rest of us haven’t. Guys who fish the [Bassmaster] Elite Series are on a completely different level. They can skip a lure into a 6-inch gap between the edge of a boat dock and the water’s surface and reach fish I couldn’t even dream of reaching.”
Should Huffman win the upcoming national tournament, he would at least get one chance to experience tournament fishing at its highest level — the Bassmaster Classic, the universally acknowledged Super Bowl of bass fishing.
“The berth in the Classic is the prize everyone wants to win, me included,” he said. “The winner also gets an invitation to fish in the Elite Series, but if I won, I’d have to make the smart decision and pass on the idea of going pro. I’m just not on that level.”
As he did before the Kerr Lake divisional event, Huffman plans to make two trips to Louisiana to pre-fish the Ouachita River before the national tournament.
“I’ve never fished conditions [like those on the Ouachita] before,” he said. “It’s completely different from any venue I’ve been on. It’s shallow, with lots of oxbow bends, cypress stumps, stuff like that.
“It’s not a super-hot fishery, which means I won’t need to catch 20 pounds a day to stay in the running. If I can catch 10 pounds a day, I should be able hang within striking distance.”
Huffman said the Ouachita might be foreign to him, but suits his angling style nevertheless.
“It sets up well for me. I like fishing shallow water, and I like to throw to targets. And when fishing conditions are tough, I seem to compete better. I think the Kanawha River has trained me well in that regard; on the Kanawha during the summer, you have to pay your dues just to get one bite.”
Whether he does well or poorly at the nationals, Huffman feels blessed to have found a pastime that has brought him so much enjoyment.
“I work in a world of politics and political correctness,” he said. “The beauty of fishing is that the skills don’t lie. There are no favorites, no politics. You either bring the fish in or you don’t. The scales are the great equalizer; there’s no higher authority to appeal to.
“God has given me a little skill and a lot of opportunity to fish, and I’m grateful for that. If I never catch another fish again, I’ve been truly blessed to do it.”