I was sitting at gate A6 in Lambert St. Louis airport heading to Atlanta for the 48th AJC Peachtree Road Race, the biggest foot race in America with its 60,000 entrants. Sitting across from me was a guy wearing a fishing vest over a checkered shirt, jeans, half-boots, and a ball cap. We don’t see too many such as he on the road circuit. But such is the nature of sport in its kaleidoscopic array.
Whether aerobic, anaerobic, or hardly breathing at all, sport continues to animate the American experience, hovering near war on the most revered of its activities list. Over the course of many years I have covered a number of sports other than my specialty, foot racing, including, oddly enough, sumo wrestling. But in the mid-1990s I worked on a series for ESPN called In Pursuit that followed the exploits of disabled athletes all over the globe over a wide expanse of the sporting spectrum. In April 1998 I was assigned to cover the 12th U.S. Open Bass Tourney on Lake Monroe in Sanford, Florida.
“Bass fishing?” I queried my producer, wondering how I had received the assignment. But once I dipped my journalistic toe in the water, I soon found out that competitive fishing, like competitive anything, reveals itself to be a world of peculiar charms and attractions that can stand against any other sporting contest.
Upon reaching Lake Monroe, the first thing I wanted to know, as I did when approaching any new contest I was unfamiliar with was, “where is the competitive dynamic? Where’s does IT happen?”
In short order what I learned was that professional bass fishing was a sport of high pressure and calm nerves, a combination that began even before the first lure was cast. And what I eventually came to fully understand, even appreciate, was whether it was balls-out racing or tender hooking an elusive gill-flapper, the common denominator in all sport revealed the human capacity to handle pressure under fire.
One of the keys to successful bass fishing, I found out, was knowing where the biggest fish may be hanging out on a given day in given conditions. Thus did the pro anglers fish the lake for several days prior to launching at sunrise on the first day of competition.
Like a Tour de France time trial stage the boats roared off one at a time, several minutes apart, the first boats heading straight for their preferred locations. Then, the field fished all day as the clock ticked relentlessly toward the weigh-in time. And if you missed that weigh-in time by even a single second, you were out.
Boats were adapted with special chairs for the disabled fishermen, but other than that all was the same. And the closer you looked, the more interesting it became, because there was so much that went into the contest that wasn’t readily apparent, like big paydays, much more than in running. Of course, there’s so much more equipment to market and sell, the boats, the trailers, the fishing equipment, just tons of expensive stuff. So there were lots of sponsors who lined up.
Then there are the conditions themselves. From my reporting, I found that anglers liked it to be a little windy with chop on the lake, because choppy water, like cloud cover, takes the glare off the surface, and that makes the fish feel secure, because fish have no eyelids, meaning the sun is no friend of theirs.
Boats put in at 6 a.m. and the morning session would often begin at a 5-foot lure depth. The anglers also sprayed “Bang” scent on their bait to remove the odor of humans. The key to fishing worms, I was told, was keeping them straight. Then there is the whole shiners and artificial lures, water facing south warms first, place your lure just off the bottom, crayfish are the early spring feeding choice of bass, as the water warms into the upper 50s the bass are more active, running crank baits work 3 to 4 feet deep near the shoreline, migration routes between deep water holes and spawning areas means having the right color choice – like chrome for clear water, gold or chartreuse for dingy or cloudy water – high water makes it easier on fish but harder on the fisherman, and rather than re-rig, keep a couple of sticks at the ready with a variety of baits to fish as conditions change. And on and on it goes.
Needless to say, you have to know your equipment inside and out, like knowing a soft-tipped rod allows an easier cast of a light lure. And here is how the chain connects. The hook holds the lure that attracts the fish, the line holds the hook, the reel holds the line, the pole holds the reel, you hold the pole, the boat holds you, and the water holds the boat. And it’s all of a piece. Any one of those links in the chain falters, and it can turn a fish away. So you cover the water, keep the stick flying, and fan that location like a skeet-shooting marksman.
I saw a guy get a 5-pounder using a flipping technique with a single worm set. But if you don’t get anything in 10 minutes you have to decide, stay or move?
The boat captain is a bundle of nerves trying to decide where to go if where he is now is not producing. Because who knows what the other anglers are doing? Whenever you hear one of the other boats roar off at 50 mph or more, it makes you question yourself. Should I stay or should I go? What if he takes the spot I was hoping to hit second?
In some ways the conflicts involved resemble the ones confronting bi-athletes who generate high heart rates while cross country skiing between shooting stations, and then need an immediate calm upon lining up their shots on the targets.
So even as anxiety rises in one sense, you still need to maintain a delicate sense of feel on the rod itself. With most basic fishing you’re looking for the end of the pole to dip, for the cork to bob to indicate a strike. But in bass fishing the feel is more like something bumped your line, very distinctive, very particular. When you feel it, you drop the tip, tighten the slack, and set the hook. If the line isn’t taut, you’re lost. It calls for the hands and feel of a brain surgeon.
Just that one weekend with the anglers at the `98 U. S. Open Bass Tournament in Sanford, Florida gave me a lifelong appreciation of their skill, intelligence and dedication. I’ll occasionally wake up on Saturday mornings and time to one of the fishing shows just to see what’s new in their world.
Hard to beat sports as a teacher of truth, whether going all out in a foot race, or sitting still as a church mouse with a rod in hand and a lure beneath the surface.