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Fringe sport

12/3/2009

Driving around in a pink fish scale truck, I frequently find myself in situations where I am faced with just how miniscule this thing we call pro bass fishing is.

Aside from the "Huh. That the wife's truck?" question, the most common question I get asked would be, "Hey, are you one of them pro bass guys?"

What gave it away? Was it the fishing logos plastered all over the truck? Maybe it was the color — pink is the new color of bass fishing, in case you hadn't heard (not really, I just made that up). The next question is invariably: "Just how does that work?"

We, those of us who fish and follow fishing, know how derbies work. Everyone takes off screaming down the lake with their hair on fire, casts furiously for 8 hours to try and catch five swimmers, then fly back to the ramp to see who has the fastest boat. Wait, that's wrong…to see who caught the heaviest five fish.

The winner, or winners in a team event, takes home a plastic trophy and maybe a couple of extra dollars. It's pretty much that way from bass clubs to the Bassmaster Classic. Sort of.

Even if our fellow man has been exposed to the sport of bass fishing, the "professional" level is still an alien thing.

"You get paid to do that?"

How many times have I heard that question? It's almost as if bass fishing is a fringe sport. Maybe not as fringy as, say, Punkin Chunkin, Bog Snorkeling, or Conkers, but not quite a mainstream sport by a long shot.

I remember a piece that was shown on ESPN several years back during some of the Classic coverage where Kevin VanDam went around Kalamazoo, Mich., his hometown, as a "man on the street" reporter asking people if they had ever heard of Kevin VanDam.

Nada. None. Zip. Zilch. Not one single person had ever heard of KVD. They had no idea who he was. Those interviewed had no idea who the biggest star in our sport was, and he was standing right in front of them holding Mr. Microphone. Pretty fringy, I'd say.

As I rolled the pink fish scale 3500 into the parking lot early a.m. at one of my local ponds last week, I wasn't expecting to have a discussion on the finer points of pro bass fishing, especially since there wasn't another person in sight. After suiting up in fleece and Gore-Tex, I walked back to ready the BassCat for a day on the lake.

As I unstrapped the hull and rounded the starboard side of the boat, I noticed a man standing beside the passenger door of the 3500. Where did the dude come from? It was almost like he just magically appeared. Didn't notice him walk up. Did he drop out of the sky? Other than those travelling by on the highway, there were no other vehicles in sight.

"How you doing?"

"Good. Just checking out your truck." I was waiting on the "Belong to your wife?" Wait for it…wait for it…

"You one of them pro bass fisher guys?"

"Yes, I am."

Pointing to the logos on the 3500, "These people pay you to fish?"

"Not so much to fish, but to use and endorse their products while I fish, yes. We also have prize money in the tournaments we fish."

"You make a lot of money doing that?" That's another one of the top-five questions.

Who was this guy? And just where did he come from? Clean cut in what looked like a fairly new pair of Big Smith overalls with a plaid, pearl-button shirt and red bandana in his pocket; dude had his Thermos in hand. Had he been standing out next to the highway, waiting for his ride to work? It was 6:45 in the morning, prime time for commuting to work, even in the sticks of rural Arkansas.

"A guy can make some decent money, depending on what tournaments he fishes."

"Like what does one of them tournaments pay?"

"Local tournaments usually pay a couple hundred up to a few thousand bucks, depending on how many entries they have. The bigger, national events can pay up to $500,000."

"Damn, that's a lot of money. You make a lot of money?"

"I do all right."

"I heard there's some guy from over around Bee Branch that's supposed to be pretty good. They say he makes a lot of money."

Yeah. Wow. That guy "from over around Bee Branch" is one of the first BASS millionaires and a former Bassmaster Classic Champ. Every fiber in my body wanted to bellow "LARRY NIXON! His name is Larry Nixon!" But I held it together and remembered the KVD thing.

"Yeah, he's pretty good."

As I back the BassCat into the water, Big Smith followed me down the ramp and took up a seat on a rock beside the roadway. Shouldn't you be up there beside the highway waiting on your ride?

I backed the boat off the trailer and pulled it up on the grass beside the ramp.

"So what's a normal day like for a pro bass fisherman?"

How much time you have there, Big Smith?

"That's one of the nice things about my job; there really isn't a 'normal' day. Every day is a little different. This is our off season and we spend a lot of time working on getting ready for next season. Working with sponsors. Trying out new products. Talking on the phone a lot. During tournament season, we're up as early as 4:00 a.m., on the water by daybreak, fish like a man possessed all day, off the water as the sun goes down, try to get to sleep by 10 so we can get up the next morning and do it all again. That may go for weeks on end, depending on the tournament schedules. We drive 30-40,000 miles per year."

"You don't have a driver?"

"Dude, please, you're looking at my driver."

As I pulled the 3500 up to the parking lot, I'm thinking about Big Smith. Is this the Average Joe's perception of bass fishing? Are those of us in the thick of bass fishing so deeply embroiled that we can't see the forest for the trees? Are we a fringe sport? After 40 years of organized derbies, are we still just "some guy from over around Bee Branch?"

As I step into the boat, Big Smith asked from his rock perch, "How does a guy get started in these tournaments?"

"You just have to fish. A lot. Get a boat or get with a buddy who has a boat and fish every tournament that you can get in. Start at the bottom and work your way up."

"So, like, you rodeo-ed your way up to the top?" BS asked as he unscrewed the cup on his Thermos.

"Yeah, I guess you could say that. Started out fishing small, local tournaments on the weekends, then moved to regional events, and finally to the top of the heap."

BS removed the cup from his Thermos, tipped the container down, and out slid two blue aluminum cans. He extended one of the cans my way.

"Wanna beer?"

"Ah…no…thanks." It's not even 7:00 a.m. Who's pounding them back at that hour of the day? "Not while I'm working."

Maybe we're not as fringy as I first thought.

For more info on Kevin Short or to contact Kevin, check out his Web site at www.kfshort.com.