Special to Page 2
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There I was, seated in the third row for the first weigh-in at the Bassmaster American, when Doug Grassian turned around and asked me a question that seemed to be burning a hole in his mind.
"You're not going to poke too much fun at us, are you?"
Grassian is a publicist for ESPN Outdoors and BASS Communications, which puts on the American. So it made sense that he had reservations about a writer from a noted outlet of smart-ass sports journalism covering one of the sport's major events one where only 55 of the world's best bass anglers are invited one receiving same-day coverage on ESPN2 for the very first time.
After all, fishing primarily appeals to a demographic that's the butt of jokes in many places. The politically correct would call this crowd "rural" in public, but denounce it as "country" outside the earshot of strangers.
And no matter which term is used, this is that sort of party. Its lead sponsor is Advanced Auto Parts. Khaki shorts, most frayed at the hem, were the fashion staple at the American. Many people used past and present tense conjugations of verbs interchangeably (i.e., "I come down here about a week ago"). A video montage at Friday's weigh-in prominently featured signs at a past event that read "Git-R-Done!" Those at the American without accents are really the ones with accents.
The humor of these things lies in the eye of the beholder, however.
Beyond those superficialities, the Bassmaster American proved too fascinating to waste time telling easy jokes. Professional fishing is a compelling collection of contrasts. From the competitors, to what takes place on the water, to the spectacle of each day's weigh-in, fishing is one profession where what's on the surface can differ greatly from reality.
Fishing for a Living
and Then Some
Most people fish to provide basic sustenance. But at the American, anglers competed on Lake Wylie for a purse exceeding $600,000, including a $250,000 first prize.
Perhaps the old proverb should be remixed: Give a man a fish and, sure, he'll eat for a day. But teach him how to fish, and he can make a mint.
"Watching these guys makes me mad that my father didn't start me fishing earlier," says Bron Hemphill. Hemphill is a member of Hickory, N.C.'s Balls Creek Bass Club, the group that provided boat rides for media covering the American.
Seventeen men at the American have earned over $1 million on the tour -- not including endorsements. No regular Joe has made that kind of bread on the water since Forrest Gump.
Instead of being jealous of ballplayers because of their fat paychecks and fame, maybe we should envy professional anglers instead? They can make great money doing something they clearly love, and they do so without having to wonder if they'll be able to walk, run or breathe without pain in their golden years.
A great angler can earn good money and achieve notoriety without the hassles of full-blown fame. It doesn't get much better than making big dough and being known by those in the game, all while retaining the luxury of walking through the mall without causing a scene. That's a beautiful thing.
But, best of all -- becoming a professional angler can change someone's life. Gerald Swindle, the 2004 Angler of the Year, earned $12,000 a year as a carpenter before becoming a professional angler. He made more than twice that simply by finishing third at the American.
The weekend's best story was the winner, 2005 Rookie of the Year Dave Wolak. He quit his job with a medical supply company last year to follow his dream of fishing for a living. He competed last year with no sponsors, only his wife's financial and emotional support. He headed into this season with no idea how long he could afford to continue, and with a child on the way.
Now, less than a month after Jake Wolak was born, that family's got an extra quarter mil to work with.
But there are tradeoffs. Being a professional angler is a grind. They're forced to endure sweltering heat. At the American, Swindle suffered from dehydration symptoms most of the weekend. Their only consolation is the need for ventilation provides a convenient excuse for anglers to drive their pristine speedboats at high speeds. There are few things more exhilarating than riding so fast on the water that the smallest opening between your lips makes your cheeks inflate a la Dizzy Gillespie.
Anglers drive so much that they need new trucks every year. Consulting Recruiting, a company that sponsors two bass anglers, pays $15,000 every year in gas costs for its competitors. That's one gas bill that can't be blamed entirely on big oil companies.
Their days are also incredibly long. Since fish are hard to catch in oppressive heat -- they tend to swim in deeper water to avoid the sun -- tournaments begin while the fog is still rising from a lake. After fishing until mid-afternoon and attending weigh-ins after that, there are still meetings with sponsors, appearances associated with tours and tournaments, and other obligations. Twenty-hour days are common. And considering that out-of-town trips are as much fun for grown folks as teenagers, sleep isn't easy to come by on the road.
"We have such a damn good time on the road, it's pathetic," says Mike Frazier, who isn't a professional angler but frequently serves as a co-angler with the professionals.
That said, the pros make big money catching big fish. In a world where nothing is free, this is a relatively sweet gig. Pretty good for chucking string and worms into water and waiting for something to happen, right?
Fishing might be the most scientific sport out there. Successful anglers must have a nuanced understanding of ecology. Fish don't just swim anywhere in a body of water. And they don't eat everything that floats in front of their faces.
A successful fisherman has to be able to figure out where fish are going to be and how they can be suckered into thinking they've found a free meal (based on how long people have been fishing, it's safe to say fish fail to realize free meals don't exist). The best anglers can do so on every lake, whether they're familiar with the waters or not. That means being able to read the wind, clouds, sun, temperature and other factors.
After Sunday's weigh-in, Kevin VanDam spent several minutes explaining the different bass in Lake Wylie and how they behaved differently than others he'd seen. Writers looked at VanDam and scribbled as he talked, but few could fathom the details he was relaying. Or maybe that was just me. Either way, there's a lot more to this than drinking brew, shootin' the s--- and killin' time. There's so much involved that one can't help but wonder if these guys should be given ecology degrees.
Then there's the least scientific factor of all -- luck.
"I'd say this sport is about 80 percent skill and 20 percent luck," says Hemphill, who's no slouch on the water himself. But even with so much being based on tangible factors, Hemphill refuses to discount luck, one factor that he says keeps him at his day job and not on a fishing tour.
"I'm consistent, but I have no luck. I couldn't win a damn stuffed animal at the fair."
That's all well and good, but is this sport any fun to watch?
Gerald Swindle's pretty adamant that it is.
"They say our sport's not exciting," Swindle said at Saturday's weigh-in. "But they're wrong. It's the best in the world. That's why you're up at 6:30 in the morning to watch it."
He might be onto something. At each day's launch, the competitors hit the water looking for fish, while fans follow in their own boats. Bigger stars like VanDam, considered by many to be the best bass angler in the world, have galleries behind them like big-time golfers.
But what do these people do after their favorite angler picks a spot to work from? They sit. And watch. And sit.
Were this a reality television show, it could be titled "Watchin' the Pot: When Will It Boil?"
Fish are pretty unpredictable creatures, so there's no way to tell when someone's going to pull something into the boat. Fans sit silently, so as not to disturb the fish or the anglers -- a hush reminiscent of, again, a golf gallery.
But golf fans know the action will begin when a competitor strikes the ball. Anticipation builds as a backswing ends, and it gets released once contact is made.
It's not that simple in fishing. In about three hours on the warm, tough waters of Lake Wylie, I saw one catch.
Balls Creek member Barry Boast needed a little more excitement.
"If I had my rod, I'd be fishing right now," he said Friday morning as he shuttled a photographer along the lake on the off-chance she might get a shot of a catch. "But if I'm not fishing, this is boring."
Even those who are constantly around competition are bored on the water without their poles.
"This is boring as hell," Frazier said Sunday while watching Terry Scroggins at work. "I should have brought a 12-pack. If I can't get a bite, I might as well get a buzz."
Yet people wake up at the crack of dawn, even on the Lord's day, to watch the pros in action.
The applause after a catch makes it clear to see why the fans come out. They can relate to the difficulty of catching a fish, and the reaction of an angler who just caught a big one is genuine and endearing.
The most alluring thing about fishing is its tranquility. Bryan Kerchal, the man for whom the Federation Nation Championship and Bassmaster American trophies are named, wrote the following poem:
The reason I go fishin' all by myself
Is to sort out my problems.
Put them up on the shelf
Sometimes I just sit there
I sit there and cry
Sometimes I sit there
And let time pass me by.
But weigh-ins, the celebrations of a day's haul, resemble wrasslin' matches.
At the American, anglers approached the stage with the music of their choice blaring behind them -- predominantly a blend of "classic" rock and the kind of hip hop white kids can't get enough of. Their bags of catches wiggled because they contained live fish; with eyes squinted, each could have been mistaken for Jake "The Snake" Roberts carrying his python. Competitors were interviewed over the PA system. There was an announcer, Keith Alan, with a penchant for asking acerbic questions and uttering uncomfortably Negroid slang. Fans wore T-shirts and held up signs to show their devotion to their favorite competitors. Cricket Arena, where the weigh-ins were held, even looked like the sort of arena where legends like Ric Flair and the Minnesota Wrecking Crew made their bones. Short of putting ropes around the stage and having the Japanese competitors spit green stuff in people's eyes, this was about as close to wrasslin' as it gets.
After spending time on the water, it was a strange sight. The hypnotic serenity of soft waves gently crashing against the boat and the birds' sweet melodies gave way to energy and excitement. Those that were bored on the water couldn't possibly have felt the same about the weigh-ins, because people screamed and cheered and hollered whenever given the opportunity.
And that's a good thing. Weigh-ins easily could be as nervous as the wait for scores in figure skating. Instead, they're a party. Not a bad deal at all.
Is This A Sport?
Well, that's the question that must be asked. People constantly quibble about what is a sport and what isn't a sport -- especially when talking about an activity in which participants don't use a ball. So, is fishing -- in which a competitor reaches his prime when he's old enough that a pot belly is the norm instead of the exception -- a sport? Well, let's let the competitors answer that one.
When asked why his weight on Thursday was low, Jason Quinn said, "I had a few missed opportunities."
No less than three other competitors attributed their low weights to poor "execution." A handful referred to the inability to "get it done."
Is fishing a sport? With clichés flowing so freely, the answer should be obvious.
For more information on bass fishing, please visit bassmaster.com. Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at firstname.lastname@example.org.