For almost 30 years, members of the outdoor media rode with the pros during the Bassmaster Classic. This was the brainchild of Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, and the press-pro pairing served several vital roles in the greater scheme of things.
First, the partnership provided members of the outdoor press with an "up close and personal" view of the world championship event and the waters being fished. Moreover, it gave media members a better sense of the competition and the strategies involved.
Scott also assumed it would boost press coverage for his organization and the Classic. And he was right, of course.
This pairing also served another less conspicuous role. While serving as official observers, the presence of the press ensured that the anglers would abide by the tournament rules designed to protect the integrity of the sport. One BASS rule states that each contestant remain within sight of his official "observer" throughout the day, and the daily pairing was taken seriously by both the pro and the outdoor writer.
In truth, however, it was sometimes a thankless job for members of the outdoor press. Early morning wake-up calls, rough water, torrential downpours and hot weather occasionally turned the opportunity into a brutal ordeal.
Keep in mind that the writer's job was just beginning after the fishing concluded. Stories had to be written and filed before the day was over. And photo opportunities were minimal at best when a pro would quickly stash his catch inside the livewell, pick up his rod and start searching for the next strike.
Not that some of the pros liked the arrangement much better. This uneasy partnership started to surface after one or two overzealous press members felt they could outfish their pro partners. Something to write home about, if you will, and it escalated from there.
During one Classic press conference, two time Classic champion Hank Parker openly protested the fact that members of the press corps were allowed to fish from the back of his boat. Apparently, Parker preferred that his press partners sat quietly in his boat so as not to disturb him. BASS officials quickly diffused the situation by saying all press observers were indeed allowed to fish — welcome or not.
Subjected to white-knuckle boat rides at speeds approaching 65 mph on rough water and then forced to stare at someone's backside for the remainder of the day, left some members of the press hoping they wouldn't get paired. At least then they could enjoy a good lunch.
Speaking of those infamous lunches as a press observer, they usually consisted of a sandwich made of some mystery meat, a bag of crushed potato chips and a cookie — all crammed inside a cooler filled with Gatorade, sodas and water. And if you were lucky, the plastic sandwich bags didn't have holes in them. Usually, food was scarfed down in between fishing stops.
On a personal note, one of my more memorable pairings as an outdoor writer came in Denny Brauer's boat in 1992 on Lake Logan Martin. By then, the spectator flotilla had become a big factor in Classic competition. Denny was pitching docks, and I counted 35 boats following us at any one time that morning.
A few hours into the day, we both needed a bathroom break. So Denny came up with a bright idea — we'd run to a shoreline dock, and he would get set up. Then he would allow the spectator boats to settle down, and we'd make a fast break out of there and sneak into the next creek.
We'd finished our business by the time the spectators arrived. Our plan seemed to be working until we rounded the corner into one particular cove. Coming out was Gary Klein, trailed by about 50 boats headed, in our direction. We nearly wet our shorts at the sight of so many boats! Everything worked out just fine, although Denny finished second after busting off enough fish to win the Classic.
Today, the press-pro partnership has largely fallen by the wayside except for a handful of television cameramen. But we decided to talk to some of the veteran "rough riders" of the press corps for their impressions of Classics past — back in the old days when press observers were the anonymous stiffs sitting in the passenger seat of a Classic rig.
Noah's Classic ark
Steve Bowman, who now works for JM Associates, was once the outdoor editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and a veteran of many Classic boat rides.
"It was the 1989 Classic on the James River. I was still a young and skinny outdoor writer in awe of the best anglers in the world. And I was so looking forward to being paired with Larry Nixon," recalls Bowman.
"Larry decided to head far up the Chickohominey River in a downpour. It was a lot of Forrest Gump-like rain. There was driving rain, sideways rain, you know the lines. I had a thin rain suit on, and by the 20th mile, the knees started ripping out. By the 30th mile, the shoulders were tearing.
"We were running 60 mph into the face of a driving rain that was basically undressing me. All my notepads turned to mush, my tape recorder just gave up, and I wouldn't even dream of bringing out my camera. We finally got to where we were going, and then Larry caught one on his first cast. Like an idiot, I grabbed my camera waiting for the next hog to flop onto the floorboard of the boat. Didn't happen.
"That was the only fish Nixon caught all day, and it fried my camera. The rain was hard and so loud that I would have never been able to ask questions or listen to the answers. By the end of the day, more than 11 inches of rain had fallen. There were times when the water was ankle deep in the boat and the bilge pumps never stopped. And for the most part, I sat under a shredded rain suit with nothing to do but imagine all the animals on the ground that were surely gathering two by two."
Tim Tucker, BASS Times and Bassmaster Senior Writer: "In one of the Richmond Classics, I was riding with Larry Lazoen, and we were rushing back to the weigh-in. We rounded a bend and ran straight into the biggest barge wake I've ever seen. We went straight up in the air and came down so hard that it sent both of us to the front edge of the back deck. Larry was in pain from the jolt and the wave that nailed us. He kept exclaiming that he had lost his glasses. A few minutes after we started down the river, I realized the glasses were on top of his head.
"Roland [Martin] had been running down the other side of the river. He raced over to us because he said he thought our boat was going to blow over. I was sore for days," remembered Tucker.
Louie Stout, BASS Times and Bassmaster Senior Writer: "It was the 1983 Classic on the Ohio River, and I'll leave the pro unnamed," said Stout, a Classic press veteran of 25-plus years.
"It was so foggy that you couldn't see the front of the boat, could barely even see the bow light. We took off down the river, and this guy ran flat out.
"He was running by the depthfinder, and when we got too shallow he'd torque the steering wheel the opposite direction. Barges were everywhere & somehow, we made it until the fog burned off. But it was a wild ride. I've been thrown all over the boat, but that was the worst."
Alan Clemons, outdoor editor of the Huntsville (Ala.) Times, recalled his long-distance rides with Tim Horton at the 2001 Classic and Ish Monroe during the 2003 Classic, both of which were held on the vast Mississippi River Delta in southern Louisiana.
"We made practice day runs of roughly 2 hours, 15 minutes from New Orleans to Delacroix for approximately four hours of fishing time," Clemons remembers.
"I realized then the dedication some guys have and the focus it takes to go for the win instead of just trying to do well."
Press observers at the Classic often endure rough waters, bad weather and less-than-gourmet lunches in order to put together a great story.