Being a boater is more than just someone who happens to own a boat.  For many of us, it is indicative of a lifestyle choice which typically starts at a young age.  In this article, I chronical my journey to becoming a boater and how that has shaped my life over the years as well as my mission for BoaterInput.  For some of you, this might be a bit of nostalgia as perhaps you have a similar story or can relate to some of my early experiences.  For others, this may serve as a reminder of the positive benefits of becoming a boater and why it is important to share our love of the water with our kids and grandkids.

How a 19" Carp Started It All

I was born in Omaha, NE and have four other siblings.  Our family did not have much money but fishing was an affordable way for Dad to entertain the four boys.  We didn't own a boat or even rods and reels.  Instead, we went bank fishing at a place called "Two Rivers" outside of Omaha and Dad gave each of us a cane pole to use.  He was not much of an angler but knew how to make "doughball" which is what we used for bait along with corn or chunks of hot dogs.  One day in 1968, my younger Brother, Jim, caught a 19" Carp with the help of Dad.   Jim is the one on the left and was very proud of his catch.  I am the one standing next to him looking intently at the fish and a touch jealous to be honest because my little brother now held the "family record" for the largest fish.  Partly because of sibling rivalries and because of my somewhat competitive nature, I was determined to break that record.  Little did I know that it would be many years before that would happen.

Jim with a 19" carp caught in 1968 in Omaha

A few years later, our family moved to Des Moines as my Dad started a business selling Big & Tall men's clothing.  Once his business grew, we finally had money for an annual family vacation.  And our favorite destination was the Lake of the Ozarks.  It was a fairly quiet retreat at that time; far different from the very busy party lake of today.

Dad would bring home a pamplet of the "resort" (small cottage) that we would be staying at and I would study that for weeks in anticipation.  I was less concerned about the swimming pool, playground equipment or other amenities.  Instead, I was focused on whether it was located in a nice cove with a good dock to fish from.  By now, I had "graduated" to a Zebco 202 Spincast rod and reel and eventually got my own tackle box.  I would save my allowance money to purchase some lures or tackle from a small mail-order catalog business in Sidney, NE that went by the name of Cabela's.

When we got to the lake, I would get up early every morning before the rest of the family awakened to fish from the dock.  I can remember running back to the cabin one day screaming "I got a monster".  It was probably a 2 lb bass but things always seem bigger when you are a kid.  That is when I got hooked on bass fishing.   Dad would treat us by renting an aluminum boat to take us fishing at least one day while on vacation.  However, with four young boys, I imagine he did more "managing" than fishing.  Nonetheless, I am grateful that he took the time to do that for us.

Traversing Cornfields in Search of Bass

My burgeoning passion for bass fishing created a challenge for me.  Growing up in Iowa, we were not exactly blessed with an abundance of water.  And, because Dad's clothing business had really taken off, he was working long hours and rarely had time to take us kids fishing.  In order to pursue my newfound passion, I was going to have to find a way to a fishing spot on my own - not easy for a pre-teenage kid.

Fortunately, we came across a farm pond just a few miles out in the country in Johnston, IA.  Anyone familiar with the Des Moines area today knows that Johnston is now a heavily developed suburb of the city.  But back then, it was not much more than gravel roads and rolling cornfields.   The kind farmer at "Findley Pond" gave us permission to fish his property.   So, we would strap a fishing pole and tackle box to our bikes and travel down the backroads to get there.  I can't imagine letting my grandkids do that today.  Times were different back then.

Since it was a farm pond, it did create some unique challenges.  The entire shoreline was covered in a heavy moss-algae mat, likely due to the fertilizer run-off you would expect in such an environment.  To get our baits in front of the unsuspecting bass was a bit tricky but we eventually figured it out and were rewarded in the process.  This made the slow and moderately difficult journey worthwhile.  Here is a picture of me from one such excursion - obviously before the days of "catch and release".

Bass Fishing on Findley Pond in Johnston, IA

In between fishing trips, I would read all the fishing magazines I could get my hands on and always made it a point to watch Virgil Ward's Championship Fishing every week.  In fact, my siblings nicknamed me "Virgil".  I really didn't mind it much - at least it implied that I was a good fisherman (even though that is not how they intended it).  Championship Fishing was one of the earliest TV fishing shows and I especially loved the segment each week when he would demo a lure in a small aquarium.  Naturally, I wanted whatever he was promoting to help me catch more fish (this is before I developed a healthy skepticism for such tactics).  So, I would save up my allowance money and ride my bike to the local tackle store where I would plunk down my life savings to purchase one lure.  This is how I became a "tackle junkie".  An affliction that I suffer from to this day.

Skipping Chores or Fishing Fanatic?

Once I was old enough to get my driver's license, my options opened up a bit.  Big Creek Lake had just opened in 1972 and was conveniently located less than 30 minutes North of Des Moines.  My friend Rich had access to a Montgomery Ward's Jon boat that his parents owned, and I had a 5 HP Eska outboard motor (perhaps the worst outboard engine known to man) that my Dad had purchased.  So we had the ingredients for a functional, albeit less than ideal, rig.  We would just strap the jon boat on top of Rich's parents station wagon, load my outboard in the back, and off to the lake we would go.

I would spend entire days at the lake - from sunrise to after sunset.  My parents thought I did this just to get out of household chores like cutting the grass.  While that might have been a side benefit, the real reason is that I just loved fishing and being on the water that much.  On one particular hot summer day, my buddy Rich was starting to suffer from heat exhaustion but I insisted on staying out anyway.  In retrospect, that was probably not my best decision.  Luckly he still spoke to me after that.

Here is a picture of me (on the right) and Rich after a fairly successful day on Big Creek.  Naturally, I had a lot more hair and a little less body-fat back then.

Fishing on Big Creek Lake in the 1970s

The "Best" Job Ever?

After graduating from the University of Iowa but before heading off to grad school (U of Wisconsin - Madison), I spent the summer working at a marina on Lake Panorama about 1 hour West of Des Moines.  My buddy Mike got hired as the "Water Patrol" and us two hooligans got to live at his parent's lake house by ourselves all summer.  He drove around all day busting careless boaters or checking out girls in bikinis while I pumped gas, sold beer, stocked shelves, installed boat lifts, and various other odd jobs.  I am not sure I got the better deal but was grateful for the opportunity nonetheless.  The best part was that after hours, we would go boating in Mike's parents' boat or one of the demo boats from the marina.  Some nights we were cruising around on a pontoon and other times we were cutting it up on a Tournament Ski Boat or my buddy's runabout.  This is when I learned how to slalom ski - something that I continue to enjoy to this day.

This photo is from the Lake Panorama Days parade in 1984.  I am the one anchoring the base in the lower left, my friend Mike is on the right, and Lyn Coulter, owner of the marina, was up top.

Lake Panorama Days in the Summer of 1984

Building Relationships on the Water

After finishing grad school from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took my first "real" job with Coca Cola Foods (now called the Minute Maid Company) in Houston.  Just a few months later, I scraped up enough money to buy my first boat - a 1986 Cajun Espirit 175 Sport (Fish N Ski).  I didn't own a tow vehicle and so had no way to trailer it.  Instead, I asked the dealer to put anti-foulant paint on the bottom and I reserved a "wet slip" on Lake Conroe just North of Houston.

1986 Cajun 175 Espirit

Every weekend during the warm months we would head out early with various friends to get in a couple rounds of water skiing before the lake got too busy.  It was a great way to beat the Texas heat while building friendships and creating memories along the way.  As every boat owner knows, that is one of the key benefits of being a boater.

Having kids didn't slow us down either.   In fact, we took our first daughter, Katie, to the lake when she was only about 4 weeks old.    And we've done this with each of our daughters.  As far as I can tell, there has not been any irreparable harm to any of them.

Boating is a great way to connect as a family by spending time together and through shared experiences such as when our girls caught their first fish or learned how to waterski.  Such opportunities are especially rare these days in the era of cell phones and social media which often serves to keep us apart.  Fortunately, we did not have such distractions when our girls were little.  I think that makes boating even more valuable today.

The first picture is of my 3rd boat (another Fish 'N Ski).  It is a bit unusual to see a boat towed behind a minivan but we were determined to make boating work with the family.  The second picture is of my three girls - Lindsey, Haley and Katie - boating on Green Lake in Wisconsin.

1998 Nitro Fish N Ski being towed behind a minivan
Mona girls boating on Green Lake in 1997

From Passion to Profession

In 1991, I gave up my somewhat prestigious job with Coca Cola Foods to head up the Marketing Research function at Mercury Marine.  I figured that given how hard and long I tend to work (a character flaw I inherited from my Father), it was important that I work for a business that I really love - boating.  But accepting the position did create one small dilemma for me.  You see, the boat I had at that time (my Cajun) came with a 110 HP Johnson.  I figured it would be a "bad look" for the new guy to show up in Fond du Lac, WI with a competitor outboard.  So, I sold the engine off of my boat in Houston and purchased a Mercury 115 shortly after joining the company.

The first few years with the company were not exactly as I had expected.  I found myself in a bit of a battle to help the company become more consumer-oriented - something that I took for granted coming from the "packaged goods" industry.  You see, up until the time I started with the company in 1991, engine manufacturers sold engines to dealers who would rig them on a boat to create a "package" for the end customer.  If Mercury wanted feedback on how to improve its product or what new models to offer, they would invariably ask the dealers.   While there is nothing wrong with getting the dealers' input, I pushed hard to make the consumer the primary focus.  My reasoning was quite simple - if you satisfy the end customer and build what they want, the boat builder and the dealer will be happy too.  And it worked.  We soon launched a customer satisfaction program and initiated several customer surveys and our products eventually improved.  To be clear, there were several other people and factors that contributed to this corporate metamorphosis but I was proud to play a part.  After a few years, I was promoted to Director of Consumer Marketing.

I left Mercury in 1997 to take on another marketing role at the parent company, Brunswick.  My last official act at Mercury was to help with the launch of the Mercury DFI - better known as OptiMax.  Below is a picture of me (on the right) and Tom Ireland (on the left, Director of Trade Marketing) in the lobby at Mercury headquarters in 1997.  Notice that the product was still labeled "DFI" (Direct Fuel Injection) at this time.

Tom Ireland and Jerry Mona, Directors of Marketing, at the Mercury Headquarters in Fond du Lac, WI

In 2000, I left the big corporate world to start Left Brain Marketing, a research company that specializes in the marine industry.   Since that time, I have helped several leading marine manufacturers and trade associations to better understand the needs, wants and behaviors of boaters.  Something that I continue to do to this very day.

Several years later, in 2017, I launched BoaterInput to share some of my industry insights and experiences that I have accumulated over the years.  My feeling then, as it is now, was that there was very little honest and objective information available to boaters like there is in other product categories such as automobiles.  Buying a boat is a major purchase decision for most people yet there are few resources you can turn to to help with your purchase decision.  That is why things like product reviews are so important to me and a key aspect of the BoaterInput website.  If you have not already done so, please consider posting a review of your boat, engine or electronic equipment for the benefit of other boaters.

Livin' the Dream

In 2017, shortly before the launch of BoaterInput, my wife and I packed up our belongings and moved from Kansas City to our new house on Lake Palestine in East Texas.  Living on the water has been a dream of mine for most of my adult life and we were finally in a position to make that happen.   I currently have two motor boats on lifts in my backyard dock along with a couple of kayaks and a paddleboard.  I am on the water nearly every week of the year - either fishing, doing watersports or just cruising around the lake.  This picture was taken the 4th of July weekend in 2024 as my wife Lisa (think about my last name to see the humor) and I were getting ready to do a morning of skiing and wakeboarding with our good friends Doug and Gwen B. (on the right side).

Boating with Jerry and Lisa Mona and Doug and Gwen Bolles on Lake Palestine on July 6, 2024

Concluding Thoughts

As I mentioned in the beginning, being a boater is a lifestyle choice and, in my case, I was fortunate enough to even build a career out of my passion.  I will never get tired of seeing the sunrise over the lake, watching birds of prey in search of their next meal, or enjoying the peace and quiet of the early morning hours as I head out onto the water filled with anticipation in search of bass.  Sure, it is about enjoyment, relaxation and stress relief but it is also about connecting with nature and appreciating the beauty of God's creation that we have been blessed with in this great country.   I know many of you feel the same way too.

Even beyond all of that, some of my fondest memories and close friendships have been formed by my time out on the water.  That is why I will always be a "cheer-leader" for the boating lifestyle and an advocate for boaters as long as I am physically able.

So that is my story for how I got started in boating and how it has shaped much of my personal and professional life.  Let me know how you first got into boating in the comments section below.  And you don't even need to use 2,813 words to tell it like I did.  Perhaps I got just a little carried away.  Boating has a way of doing that to me 😉.

Jerry Mona - BoaterInput

About the author

Jerry Mona is an avid boater and angler and long-time boating industry insider. With over three decades of experience, he is often considered to be the leading research expert with boaters and has helped numerous manufacturers and trade associations to understand the needs, wants, attitudes and behaviors of boaters. He now shares many of his insights about boats and boaters for free on his BoaterInput.com website.

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