GREENVILLE, S.C. — Even a devout fan of professional bass fishing might have needed a moment to recognize the group that packed the swanky High Cotton bar and grill on Wednesday night.
It's not only that it's easier to recognize Bassmaster Elite Series anglers when jerseys blaze their names across their backs. Or when they're hunkered in the cockpits of boats bearing their names, sponsor logos and custom designs.
It's just astonishing to see this many pros not wearing hats. For some, it may be the last time they appear in public in 2008 with their scalps exposed.
Seriously. You know this must be a fancy affair.
"Me in a shirt and tie? Doesn't happen," said Skeet Reese, whose blond-frosted tips were spiked up like a campfire. "I've only tied about three ties in my life." This occasion demanded it; as the reigning Angler of the Year, Reese later would have to address the crowd, spread across three levels of the restaurant, with a sort of valedictory speech.
Before dinner arrived, tournament emcee Keith Alan — himself dressed in a jacket and (gasp!) necktie — glanced off a balcony at a crowd of pros, BASS brass, ESPN potentates, industry officials and the like. He noticed angler Jeff Kriet in a shirt, tie, jacket, shoes, socks, standing upright, spinning rod nowhere in sight. "Banker in another life," Alan said, almost with a shudder.
Near the bar, South Carolina's own Davy Hite toasted Bud Lights with his friend Kevin VanDam. It has been a mixed week for Hite, a 12-time Classic qualifier who barely missed this year's tournament — in his home state.
"'Crummy' would be a nice way to put it," Hite said. He's so close to home — and he's confident Lake Hartwell is producing more fish than the anglers are admitting. "There's a lot more fishing being caught than they're letting on," he said.
College football analyst Paul Maguire kicked off the evening's program with a speech he promised to keep brief — "Your mind can only absorb what your rear end can endure," he said — and introduced a highlight reel of the 2007 Elite Series that played on flatscreen TVs before dinner.
He said he couldn't believe the night's menu was New York strip. It should be fish, he said: "Carp. Forget about the bones."
After the main course, Reese took the dais and admitted that when he bought a dress shirt for the occasion, he hadn't a clue how to fasten its French cuffs.
Reese is an emotional sort, so it was no surprise he choked up several times delivering his speech. On the same day when The New York Times published a profile on him, Reese teared up when he recalled first reading in 1981 about "some old goofy dude named Rick Clunn," the four-time Classic winner who inspired Reese to chase a career as a bass angler.
He said he didn't know how many first-time Classic anglers were in the house, but he wanted to assure them, "Your first Classic is the best Classic you'll ever make."
Reese went on to describe his path to the top: fishing with his father, buying a boat before he even owned a truck, and quitting his job at a tackle store to fish the first West Coast BASS tournaments. He struggled again to keep his composure when he thanked his wife, Kim, who stuck with him even as she "lived in a van with me for six months without a pot to piss in." He recalled the Waffle House meal with fellow pros Gerald Swindle and Marty Stone after his dismal rookie season, when he admitted he didn't think he could survive on the series.
Upstairs, a woman said quietly, "Bless his heart."
As he unpacked his life to his colleagues, his peers and their wives, Reese admitted he could use a vodka. To his mild dismay, the first glass brought to him contained only water.
The next, though, sported the telltale lime wedge and thin black straw.
"Now you're cooking with gas!" he told the waitress. "We never said this had to be really formal, did we?"
Bassmaster.com will provide unprecedented live video coverage of the Classic this week, Feb. 22-24. We'll have live "Hooked Up," daily launches at 7:15 a.m. ET and live weigh-ins and real-time leaderboards starting at 4:30 p.m. ET broadcast live from the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C.