The DC-8 took off from the New Orleans airport shortly after 11 o'clock Monday morning, and only one of the passengers knew where the plane was going. That passenger was Ray Scott, president of BASS, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, who was taking the 26 top pro fishermen in the U.S. and their wives and 40 outdoors writers to a mystery lake somewhere in the world. Upon arrival at the lake, the 26 fishermen were to get one practice day before three days of competition to see who could catch the most pounds of bass for the winner-take-all cash prize of $15,000 in the Miller High Life BASS Masters Classic.
Earlier Scott, with his love for drama, had said that he would announce the name of the mystery lake when the jet reached an altitude of 10,000 feet. But he remained silent as the plane ascended higher and higher until it reached its crusing altitude of 33,000 feet. Excitedly, fishermen and sportswriters peered out the windows at the landscape below in an effort to figure out at least which way the plane was bound. As Mobile Bay appeared below, northern Florida became the subject of speculation, and there was one wild guess at Puerto Rico. Fishermen never know with Scott. When the mystery lake event first started two years ago, Scott flew the contestants from Atlanta to Lake Mead outside Las Vegas, and last year, just as the NO SMOKING light flicked off upon the departure from Memphis, Scott announced the mystery lake was J. Percy Priest Reservoir near Nashville, and with that the NO SMOKING sign lit up and the plane came down to land.
Last week, however, Scott was not at all in character, and he continued to stay mum as the chartered Delta jet, booked in the name of the Golden Age Garden Club, turned away from the Gulf Coast and headed in a northeast direction. Haze and clouds obscured the ground for the next hour of flight, but then as the stewardesses prepared to serve lunch, the plane began to descend. No cities appeared below, just mile after mile of piney woods and a brief glimpse of an interstate highway. "Any of you folks know where we are?" Scott asked over a bullhorn. No one did, and when the jet was only 2,000 feet above the ground, he invited everyone to take a look at the mystery water below. It was Clark Hill Lake, with its 1,200 miles of shoreline, which lies on the South Carolina-Georgia line. As the jet circled the 70,000-acre lake prior to landing at Augusta, 50 miles southeast, Scott pointed out the newly opened lodge at Hickory Knob State Resort Park on the Carolina side of the lake. At the same time down below, the staff at the lodge was learning the true identity of their guests; they had been expecting a convention from Mutual of Omaha.
In the U.S. the freshwater black bass—largemouth, smallmouth or spotted—is the most popular game fish of all. There are literally millions of bass fishermen, particularly in Dixie where big largemouths are lovingly known as "hawgs." Scott, who began hawking memberships in BASS in 1967 out of a cubbyhole office in Montgomery, Ala., now has more than 135,000 members who pay $10-a-year dues. Fishermen get a subscription to Bassmaster, the bimonthly magazine, discounts on tackle and life insurance and, most important of all, the right to enter the pro tournament circuit, which in some areas ranks with stock-car racing in esteem. Last year 500 fishermen competed on the BASS circuit in closely policed tournaments, such as the Rebel Invitational and the Seminole Lunker. Although a number of contestants did not stand a chance of winning, they gladly paid the stiff entry fees with the idea of learning all they could by fishing in the same boat with a standout pro. It is also quite an honor for a BASS member to go back home and say he has fished with, say, Billy Westmorland of Celina, Tenn., probably the best smallmouth man in the whole country.
Tournament scoring is based on the weight of the bass caught, and the limit is 10 fish a day. No bass smaller than 12 inches may be taken, and all fish are kept in a live well for later release. A contestant gets a one-ounce bonus for each live bass, and in a close tournament a dead fish can mean losing.
The idea of the mystery lake Classic was the brainchild of Scott and Bob Cobb, the editor of Bassmaster. Scott, who often likens the BASS tournament circuit to the PGA golf tour, wanted an equivalent of the Masters, and he and Cobb decided that if they took the top point scorers for the year and suddenly "parachuted them onto a strange lake with only one day's practice instead of three, you'll find out who is the best bass fisherman in the world."
The fishermen set off for their Clark Hill practice round at eight o'clock Tuesday morning after Scott said a prayer and fired a flare gun at the starting line. All embarked in 16-foot Ranger bass boats powered by 85-horse Johnson outboards and identically equipped with depth finders, trolling motors, surface temperature meters, oxygen monitors, electric anchors, aerator systems for the live well, twin 95-amp super-marine batteries and 1,200-gallon-per-hour bilge pumps. The boats had been trucked to Clark Hill Lake by night from Flippin, Ark., with the drivers getting en route marching orders by phone at prearranged stops to ensure secrecy.
Instead of being paired with one another as in a usual tournament, each pro was accompanied by a member of the press who sometimes fished but mostly watched. "Throwing a line in the water a pro has worked is like fishing behind a vacuum cleaner," said Keith Gardner of Fishing World. The pretournament favorite by a big margin was Roland Martin, a 33-year-old promotion and product-development specialist for Lowrance Electronics in Tulsa and the alltime BASS money winner with career earnings of $36,235.20. A former teacher and ex-guide on the Santee-Cooper reservoirs in South Carolina, Martin will stay up to three in the morning examining the topographical map of a lake to pinpoint shallow or deepwater "structure" that should attract or hold bass. Structure can mean anything from a lone rock on a sandbar to a hump in deep water or the bend in a submerged creek bed in a dammed-up lake. Structure is so important for bass that a number of local enthusiasts in the South have taken to creating their own by chain-sawing trees along the banks of a lake. "Those trees will concentrate fish within a week," says Bob Cobb. "What they say is best is a live oak cut with green leaves still on it. It'll hold its foliage longer than other trees. Or you can drag out a tree behind a boat, anchor it in deep water and create a 'honey hole.' "
Martin had yet to win a Classic. As Cobb explained, "It takes Roland just a little longer to get organized with only one day of practice instead of the usual three. He's like a computer; he has to have all the data fed into his head to take advantage of his exceptional abilities. I'm flat convinced he's the finest bass fisherman around, but he's not a gambler and relies on a scientific system of elimination to get the pattern on bass."
Pattern is another important term in bass fishing. It is the key to winning any tournament, and all the fishermen on the practice round sought out the best pattern: the probable whereabouts of concentrations of bass at a given time. Pattern takes in structure; what depth the bass are; cover (brush, flooded timber, riprap on a drowned road crossing); bait fish (Clark Hill had schools of moving threadfin shad); oxygen level (a brand new factor in bass fishing); water clarity (the lake was stained an off-green from algae with visibility six feet at best); temperature; the type of lure or "bait"; lure color and lure presentation.
A couple of years ago the plastic worm was the king of baits for largemouth bass. However, some others have been crowding it, such as the spinnerbaits. Stan Sloan of Nashville, who finished second to Martin on the tournament circuit this year, manufactures and fishes the Zorro Aggravator spinnerbait, and sales have jumped from 100,000 a year to 750,000 as a result of Bobby Murray's using it to win the 1971 Classic at Lake Mead. Similarly, Don Butler of Tulsa, another manufacturer and top pro who won the 1972 Classic on his own Small Okiebug spinnerbait, has had sales of the SOB zoom. The preferred color for both spinnerbaits is generally chartreuse. Another hot lure is a fat-bellied plug known as the Big-O, which casts like a pork chop and was first carved out of balsa wood by Fred Young, a whittler in Oak Ridge, Tenn. When Larry Hill, an insurance salesman from Winston-Salem, N.C., won the Florida Invitational this year with a final-day string of 10 bass that averaged six pounds apiece on a balsa-wood Big-O, the lure became in such demand that fishermen would rent them from a fortunate owner for $5 a day each, with a $20 deposit, and carry them in egg cartons to keep them from getting scratched. The Big-O and such copies as the Big-N, the Big Jim and Fat Albert are now being manufactured in plastic, but to the purist nothing can match the original balsa-wood Big-O, and Young has a long waiting list of customers.
The serious action started on Wednesday, and at the 4 p.m. weigh-in the leader was Tom Mann, a bait manufacturer from Eufaula, Ala., with 20 pounds nine ounces of largemouth bass, five pounds one ounce ahead of his nearest competitor, Bobby Meador of Baton Rouge. Prodded by Ray Scott, Mann told the crowd of eager spectators at the marina that he had taken the fish on four baits: his own leaded-tail spinner. Little George (named for Governor Wallace); his own plastic Jelly Worm (blackberry and strawberry flavors); a Rebel Humpback plug; and Bill Norman's Little Scooper, a small diving plug. "He has to be tellin' the truth!" Scott exclaimed. "He admits he caught fish on other men's baits!"
Privately, Mann said his pattern had been to fish an area of flooded timber standing in only five or six feet of water. "I'm not after big bass," he said of his fishing strategy. "I just want my limits. If you limit every day, you will win the majority of tournaments." Roland Martin, who caught five fish weighing only seven pounds one ounce the first day and never was a factor after that, had showed up to fish the same area, but since he is allergic to bee stings he had to depart quickly when wasps started coming out of their nests in the dead trees.
One of the interested spectators at the marina was Lee Wulff, the noted salmon and big-game fisherman who was producing a film on the Classic. "If I were young, I would have fitted right into this group," Wulff said. "There is a score, but there was no score when I set out to become the All-American angler. This bass competition has proven how little luck there is in fishing."
On the second day Rayo Breckenridge, a 44-year-old cotton and soybean farmer from Paragould, Ark., took the lead by coming in with 24 pounds 11 ounces of bass to give him a total of 40 pounds one ounce. Breckenridge, who has the seamed face and squint eyes of a Confederate sharpshooter picking off attacking Yankees, spontaneously told the crowd that South Carolinians were the most wonderful people he had ever met anywhere. He also added that he would be forever grateful to Roland Martin for bringing him in when the engine of his boat wouldn't start. Scott said, "I don't think Southern hospitality could be better expressed."
Breckenridge said that he had done all his fishing in a stream. Fishing Creek, that meandered and narrowed back from Clark Hill Lake for five or six miles. On his first day the bass had been there, but he was losing the two- and three-pounders because they were just sort of pecking at his baits. On the second day he had cast to the stumps, "willers," and a few small stands of timber on the outside bend of the creek, and he just happened to pick up the fish using a six-inch strawberry Jelly Worm with a three-sixteenth-ounce slip weight.
In second place with 29 pounds eight ounces was Bill Dance of Memphis. A onetime furniture salesman who had gone on to do a weekly TV show as a result of his early successes on the BASS circuit, Dance has lately played Arnold Palmer to Roland Martin's Jack Nicklaus and, like Palmer, Dance was capable of mounting a last-day charge at Breckenridge. Despite the deficit, Dance did not think he was out of the tournament at all, confiding that he had found bass 29 to 35 feet down over a drowned island between two creek beds.
After a heavy morning fog, the sunny skies held again on Friday, the final day, and the bass pros took off for their honey holes. Dance headed for his island to fish a blue plastic worm. He picked up some good fish—all between 35 and 42 feet deep. Meanwhile, back up the creek, Breckenridge was getting fish on the strawberry Jelly Worm, but not quite as many as he would have liked. He ended the day with seven bass and was fearful of what Dance had done. And when he came back to the marina at four o'clock, he got a scare when he saw Dance's bulging catch bag.
Breckenridge weighed in first and his catch ran his total to 52 pounds eight ounces, a tournament record. There was a stir in the crowd when Dance's bag was brought up to the scales. The catch weighed 19 pounds six ounces for a second-place—and no money—total of 48 pounds 14 ounces. "Super...great effort!" announced Scott, who turned to Dance and said, "Look at your scale and cry." Dance smiled.
Scott had a word for everyone else who came by. Of Martin, who finished in 14th place with 22 pounds nine ounces, he said, "He's got the Classic jinx." For his part, Martin said that he knew where Rayo and Dance had been catching bass, "but I couldn't find a place like it."
That night at the formal awards dinner at the lodge, Breckenridge got his $15,000. He also got a scroll, presented personally by Governor John C. West of South Carolina, certifying that he was a true "Palmetto Gentleman." What no one mentioned, perhaps in deference to Carolina hospitality, was that Rayo had caught his winning fish in a creek on the Georgia side of the lake.