A man goes bass fishing in order to get away, breathe free, eat sardines and suck on his teeth in peace, right? So why is that Cajun crop-duster pilot posing for pictures in front of a big tank full of lemon-lime-colored liquid, saying "Thank you very much, fish" to a bass in the tank and holding up a check for $15,000?
Because he, Jack Hains of Rayne, La., has just won the fifth annual BASS Masters ("Mystery") Classic at Currituck Sound near Kitty Hawk, N.C. He has whipped 18 of that fish's peers and 29 of his own, including Jimmy Houston of Tahlequah, Okla., who fishes in white pants with red and blue stars embroidered down the seams and a red shirt with his name and BILL NORMAN LURES stitched on it. The outfit comes with a little white jacket, too, that he....
He fishes in what? Wait a minute! Who ever heard of a bass fisherman dressed like that? This is not some kind of Yip-pie making a mockery of bass fishing, is it? We will attend to Hains and his flashy check and peculiar ceremony later. First, let us go back three days' time, to practice day of the Classic, and take a closer look at Houston.
He is standing vividly in the bow of a boat, casting toward one of Currituck's grassy banks. He sounds like a bass fisherman. "I'm gonna fish this water right here. There's a terrible amount of good water right here. They're up in under them roots."
April 25, 1976
He holds up a lure known as a Pico Pop. It looks suitable enough, like a chunky, scared-to-death baitfish or a legless, streamlined frog. It is designed to be twitched on top of the water. "I've caught a laaaht of big fish on these," says Houston. He casts and twitches. "Look at that rascal! Looks goood. I just can't imagine something not coming up and getting ahold of that."
He casts, twitches. "I know they're up in under there. Up under them old grass roots. Them old stump roots. I don't know why a man couldn't catch a lot of fish in this water."
Casts, twitches. "This is pretty water."
It is not even out of character for Houston to have blond hair way down below his collar. You don't have to be a hippie these days, even up under the old grass roots of Tahlequah, to have a lot of hair. Houston is 30, and when he has time he sells insurance. "I hate to give up that insurance agency," he says.' 'It's like selling an old shotgun." Insurance, you figure, is a reasonable thing for a bass fisherman to be in.
But he is also in that garish costume! Who ever heard of a bass fisherman looking like Evel Knievel?
Then again, many people think of a fishing boat as...comfortable. Maybe grubby. You could spill a couple of beers, some ketchup, a can of oil or some of that soggy fuzz that worms come in and it wouldn't be noticed.
But the boat Houston is fishing in—standard issue for the tournament—looks like you ought to drive it to the country-club dance. With its 115-horse-power motor, it lists for $7,884. It is made of white and green fiber glass inlaid with bits of glitter. It has a Poly-Turfed deck and cushioned swivel chairs on pedestals. Pedestals!
But Houston doesn't lounge around in that comfort. He never sits in his seat, except to drive distances. When he fishes he always stands, operating his electric trolling motor with his knee and raising and lowering his electric anchor with his foot. If he wants to fish different water, he can consult his sonar depth-finder or his water-temperature gauge or the meter that measures the amount of oxygen in the water. From a boat nearby, a local news crew is televising him.
Maybe you think of fishing as a leisure activity. Watch Houston work his four different casting and spinning rigs. When one lure gets hung on the bottom he will put that rod down and use another one until the boat moves to where the snag is. He isn't relaxing.
"A lot of guys aren't here to win and don't work as diligently as they should," he says. "You hear guys saying, 'I hope I don't blank out today.' Never enters my mind to blank out. The same guys always win. They fish hard."
Fish hard! Houston may not be as fierce a competitor as Ricky Green of Arkadelphia, Ark., who says, "I don't like to go fishing by myself. I want to go out with someone to strap it on his backside." But Houston does say, "You've got to have total mental and physical concentration." Houston may not be as high-gear a caster as Tommy Martin of Hemphill, Texas, who once was clocked at 12 casts per minute over a full eight-hour day. But Houston does try to launch a lure about every eight seconds—underhand to save time, like a second baseman feeding a shortstop.
One other thing Jimmy Houston has on his boat, besides a tackle box containing, oh, maybe 192 crankbaits, 80 spinnerbaits, 20 top-waters and a couple hundred plastic worms. He has a clean white towel. "My wife made me bring it for these white pants. I have a tendency to wipe my hands on 'em when I catch a fish." He catches a bass that would go about two pounds, unhooks it and tosses it back. He wipes his hands carefully on the towel. "I want you to tell my wife," he says.
Well, most people would just as soon eat barbecue without licking their lips as catch fish without wiping their hands on their pants. It takes the fun out of it. But this isn't fishing for fun. After this practice day, Jimmy Houston will be popping everything he catches that's as long as 12 inches into his live well. The fisherman who brings in the most pounds and ounces of keeper black or Kentucky bass within the local daily limit during a three-day period wins $15,000, and greatly improves the value of his face in ads selling lures, lines, boats and motors.
The strange truth is that amiable Jimmy Houston is a professional bass fisherman. So is amiable Jack Hains, which is why we saw him holding that check and thanking that fish. The lurid green tint of the water in the tank was caused by an antiseptic. Fussy as bass pros are, the fish have to be protected from catching things from them.
"Pro bass fishing has its critics," concedes Bob Cobb, vice-president of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or BASS, which is the pioneering and still most prominent sponsor of big-time bass tournaments. "Some folks claim to fish for pay is as bad as bad women."
And the way they go about it, it sometimes seems as fancy as fancy women. Few pro bassers (as they are sometimes called) dress as colorfully as Houston, but some have been known to spray deodorant on their plastic worms and wash their hands with detergent every time they mess with their motors. Haven't they ever read that best-selling postcard that goes, "Old Fishermen Never Die...They Just Smell That Way"?
If they have, they don't care. Bass fishing, which used to be not all that much more uptown than coon hunting, or anyway dove shooting, has in recent years become nearly as tied up in money, tips from the top (pros hold "bass seminars" at men's clubs), official memberships and shiny equipment as has golf. Gentleman's Quarterly isn't previewing the season's new bassing togs yet, but as the president and founder of BASS, Ray Scott, puts it, "Old boys who can't buy their wife a coat are buying $5,000 boats."
And a new profession, if not exactly a new breed of men, is arising. The elite of bass fishermen now make $30,000 a year or more from tournaments, endorsements, appearances and tie-ins—even if they don't have their own TV shows or scented-worm goldmines. Men can now give up their trusty old insurance agencies, shop classes, sales routes or Dairy Queen franchises and live like doctors and lawyers on fishing. Hard.
These pros would like to get network TV exposure, and expect to when prize money increases. Big money and recognition are already available in other areas. Ten years ago Tom Mann of Eufaula, Ala. worked for the state Game and Fish Commission, angled for pleasure, fooled around with a spinnerbait he called Little George (after his boss at the time, Governor Wallace) and poured liquid plastic into worm molds in his wife's kitchen. Now, thanks to his BASS exposure, he is a prominent sports figure in thousands of barbershops and homes. He is the owner of a bait company that makes and sells not only Little George (which Popular Mechanics named one of the Twenty All time Great Bass Fishing Lures) but also extremely popular strawberry-, blackberry-, blueberry- and watermelon-flavored plastic worms. You might think that worm-flavored strawberries would taste better to bass, but things don't seem to work that way. Mann also is a millionaire.
Bass fishing has arrived. There are steely cool bass pros, bass pros who pace the floor all night before a tournament, straight-arrow pros, pros who stay up all night before a tournament on purpose and even, here and there, bass-fishing groupies. So far the sport is biggest in the South and Southwest, where artificial lakes or impoundments created by Corps of Engineers dams and filled with bass are most plentiful.
But BASS is no isolated phenomenon. It has 260,000 members, the vast majority of them nonpros who pay $12 annual dues for access to information, merchandise, sew-on patches and small local tournaments. There is a BASS chapter in the Bronx—and one as far away as Rhodesia. As might be expected, other groups have arisen to claim chunks of the bass-boom pie: American Bass Fishermen, headquartered in Cocoa Beach, Fla.; Bass Casters Association, Mattoon, Ill.; the now defunct but formerly big-spending Project Sports, Inc., Dallas; the Po' Boys, Tulsa; and, for women, the Tulsa Bass Belles. By often giving away more money at their tournaments, these competing organizations have made BASS sweeten its own pots considerably.
Trout fishing still is more prestigious, but trout are scarce and their pursuit a more and more rarefied proposition. "The trout you catch Friday morning were brought in in a truck and put there Tuesday night," grumbles one of the original BASS pros, John Powell. "It's like staking out pheasant to hunt. You have to kick them to make them fly. Or else shoot them standing there on the ground." Bass, on the other hand, are hardy and plentiful nationwide. And in catching them you can be emulating the superstars you see on non-network TV and in the bait ads.
Bud Leavitt, the outdoor editor of the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, who trout-fishes with Ted Williams and Red Smith—or, rather, they trout-fish with him—expects that bass fishing will soon catch on in places where it has been scorned, like New England. Eastern Establishment paranoids on the alert for evidence of a power shift toward the so-called "Southern Rim" can find it in bass fishing.
When Leavitt first attended the BASS Mystery Classic, the annual grand championship tournament—the top 24 to 30 bass pros, their wives and some 40 outdoor writers are flown to a fishing site undisclosed until the plane takes off—he was skeptical of what is sometimes called "cast-for-cash" angling. He says, "Fishing you think of as a contemplative thing, with your son, with your brother, with your dad." But Leavitt stayed to praise, especially after he saw a pro named Bobby Meador point to a Marlboro pack "and cast 80 feet and hit it. Then it drifted so he had to cast under a limb, and he hit it again. These guys know what they're doing. And these tournaments give fishing a peg—something to attract attention to it as a big-time sport."
Not every outdoorsman is ready to agree with Leavitt. Some sports editors refuse to cover bass tournaments because they may threaten stocks of fish—a few years ago you could see pickup-truck loads being hauled off at the end of the day—and because they are too commercial. But Scott and Cobb are major league PR men, and BASS is as resourceful as the NFL at getting the word out about itself. The working press that attends the Mystery Classic can get free transportation, food, entertainment and accommodations and also, from manufacturers, free lines, lures and a big tackle box. And a chance to fish with a pro every day of the tournament. And cash prizes for the biggest press fish. And contacts with people who can get other things for them wholesale. And Cobb, an ex-newsman, was seen writing one outdoor writer's story for him. If none of that works, BASS puts out two slick magazines of its own.
Sensitive to charges that tournaments destroy too many fish, BASS speaks often of its "Don't Kill Your Catch" program. An extra ounce is awarded for each live fish weighed in, special measures are taken to protect the fish from infection (such as that stuff in the holding tank) and the great bulk of the "harvest" is released alive every day. Sometimes a little boy will sit at the release point, catching a few fish as they hang, disoriented, in the shallow water. Others die from handling. But research tends to show that most of the freed fish resume active lives. BASS has also attracted favorable notice by lobbying against water pollution, and is now working on computerizing the sentiments of its members so as to bring to bear a quarter of a million votes' influence on conservation issues.
As for the question of commercialization, well, nobody will ever accuse pro bass fishing of neglecting the economic factor. As many business cards are swapped at tournaments as fish stories. Company reps are on hand saying, "Super sport, super people. Anything we can do for you?" Sew-on patches—RABBLE ROUSER, SWEET OKIE BUG, MISTER TWISTER, BASS PRO SHOPS—are big. Nonpros send off for them, pros get considerations in return for wearing them. Pros get free gear and expense backing for using and boosting a given company's products. "Gotten so I'm afraid to use somebody else's lures," one pro lamented during the '75 Mystery Classic, "for fear I'll win on them."
"Did you ever hear the word 'lie'?" asked another pro.
"Yeah, but they got cameras on you out there."
Ricky Green, 31, was a chemist till the fishing money got good. His father was an Arkansas revenuer who, when Ricky hooked his first bass at the age of six, made him land it himself. Green is not so outgoing a self-promoter as Bill Dance of Memphis and Roland Martin of Broken Arrow, Okla., the only two pros who rank ahead of him in alltime BASS earnings, and he doesn't have syndicated TV shows as they do. And even though he was second only to Hains in prize money last year, his BASS purses totaled just $10,385 and those from other groups' tournaments $7,500. Still, he says he should be able to clear $50,000 in 76, because this year the prize money is way up, and he also has deals with a bait company, a boat company, an electronics company, a rod company, a trolling-motor company and a company that makes "a liquid that you put in your trailer tires. There are eight or 10 things it does for your tires."
All these benefits flow from the quantitative achievement of horsing a lot of bass pounds into a boat. Considerable skill, study and effort are required, but not so much of what a man who catches 30-pound salmon on a fly rod and ten-pound tippet would call artistry. Stout rods and 12-to-20-pound-test lines are standard, and the kept bass range from about a pound to a rare 10-pounder; most of the fish fall in the one- to three-pound range.
Striking and landing bass require delicacy and timing, of course, but the main thing is to "get on fish"—to find out where they are congregating—and to figure out what to "throw at them." Much of a bass fisherman's science might be compared to market research.
Still, it is a homey science. Around the weigh-in point at the end of the day, as competitors come in and their scores are posted on a big board, people chew the fat and compare notes:
"Put a willow-leaf blade on it and they just started eating it up. Switched to the lime green, buzzing it real close to the top, slowed it down, ran it down underneath...."
"He's got some nice fish. Woo-ee."
"Dropped it over the logs, fluttered it, jerked it, and they just cooperated real well."
"Somebody's putting out an artificial butterfly. See there on that man's hat that Says ARDMORE FEED AND SEED."
"Naw, that's a real butterfly. It just flew off."
"Bunch of little old bitty ones. Don't matter how hard you work 'em if you ain't on 'em good."
"Well, but I don't care how good you are on 'em, you still got to catch 'em."
"I'm so tired of looking at willers I could die."
"Them root wads...."
There are those who don't hold by too much calculation. "People say they have theories, know where to find fish," says Tommy Martin, who works as a guide and won the '74 Classic. "I just go out there and throw as many different things as I can. And fish hard. I never know when I'm going to catch a fish."
But most of the leading pros worry about "patterns." "They're not patterned in a pattern hard," complained Houston one day. "I like it when they're patterned hard." In search of patterns they fill their minds with data about water temperature, clarity, topographic map coordinates, amount of light, color of worm and the lay of the "structure." Structure is submerged stuff—logs, docks, buildings, roadways—around which bass cluster, the way people do around water. Artificial impoundment bottoms are rich in structure; in some cases, whole towns were flooded over when dams were constructed. Bill Dance has several books out on how to find structure—it shows up on maps and sonar—and how to drag the right plastic worms provocatively, sensitively, over and around it. When you have learned how to tell the difference between the feel of a plastic worm dropping off the side of a submerged log and that of a plastic worm being hit by a bass—quickly enough to react to the latter by snatching hard enough to "cross his eyes" or "break his neck"—you are well on your way to becoming a modern bass master.
There are also those, like Green and Houston, who prefer casting spinnerbaits (so called for the attached metal disks that flutter and sparkle in the water as the lure is reeled in) or crankbaits (lures that rise or descend depending on the speed with which they are reeled in) or top-water lures in shallow water toward roots and pilings and other surface structure features.
Tom Shockley, who recently started fishing in big tournaments, was amazed at all there was to learn. "Spinnerbaits. I had fished 'em two ways: buzz 'em or let 'em sink. I found out you can swim 'em, spin 'em, float 'em...." BASS people point to the explosion of knowledge brought about by tournaments' drawing experts out of the bushes—bass fishermen used to be loners—to exchange tips with others from other bushes. Occasionally a revolutionary technique arises. Dee Thomas of Newark, Calif. caught a lot of fish at a tournament last year when nobody else did. It turned out he was taking a 7½-foot rod with a small jig on the end, knocking a hole in the muck along the banks and swinging, rather than casting, the jig into the hole. Thomas called this technique "flippin'." Now a company has a rod out called the Flippin' Stik, and will send you a pamphlet entitled The Whole Flippin' Story.
Traditionalists will be pleased to learn that lying is still one of the tricks of the fishing trade. Or, more precisely, being less than wholly straightforward about answering other competitors' questions when they are trying to expand their knowledge in time to beat you the next morning. "Where'd you catch that big fish, Billy?" someone may ask.
"Like to had another'n too," says Billy. "Had him right up to the boat. Woulda been bigger than that one."
"Where'd you catch him?"
"Throwed a purple and yellow worm out there."
"One 'em little pockets."
"Yep, one 'em little pockets in there."
"Where? Which end of the lake?"
"You got any frog chunks?"
This brings us to delicate social considerations. What is to keep everybody from following the Dances and Martins around and taking advantage of their expertise? For one thing, that would be bad form. The pros on the circuit might be broken down loosely into several different crowds, but the regulars form a fairly close-knit fraternity. Even so, there is tension between established figures and aspiring youngsters, especially when the latter are from near the site of the tournament and local fishermen are suspected of spying for the home boy. "I had a terrific problem today," said Roland Martin one evening during a tournament at Lake Texoma, on the Texas-Oklahoma border. "A guy followed me the entire day. Some local bass club guy. I couldn't really see what he looked like. Then when I started catching 'em the guy started talking to me on the CB. 'Hey, that's a good one, Roland.' I hung a gigantic fish. 'What was that, Roland?' Then I see him writing things down. 'Roland,' he says, 'I got what I come for. To see you fish structure.'
" 'I don't appreciate that,' I said. He got all huffy. I don't mind somebody watching me, but he's stealing my effort."
All of which carries bass fishing a long way from the days Jimmy Harris remembers. The other pros call Harris "Skinny D." One afternoon when he was wearing a pair of voluminous waterproof pants somebody told him, "You look like a straw in a paper sack." He owns a lot of Mississippi cotton land now, and still competes in tournaments for the enjoyment. But back in the '30s, when he and his friends would fish along the Mississippi River levees, they had no organization behind them, or in their way, and they made do with simple materials. "We'd take the string off packages for line, and we'd have one plug to cast so we had to go in after it when it was lost. We caught a lot of bass. And then we'd take an iron skillet, some lard, some meal, build a fire and throw those fish on it. Make some hush puppies, too. That was good."
John Powell, who looks like a well-seasoned Howdy Doody, has been fishing for bass for 40 years and has been associated with BASS since its earliest days. He makes a good living speaking to groups, representing a few products, fishing enough tournaments to stay up among the top 30 pros. At a cocktail party during the '75 Classic, he got to talking to a couple of reporters. "I don't have the killer instinct anymore," he said. "Why should I? I did. I can make 3,500 casts in one day if I'm willing to submit myself to 14 hours of hard concentration. I used to catch 12,000 fish a year. Now, about 2,000. Maybe keep half a dozen a month.
"I can enjoy fishing without meat in the boat. Work up and down that bank over there. Compete against Mr. Bass. He's the only one that's a pro. He don't read your cotton-picking Solunar Tables—he got his own computer. If I get a big strike and lose him, I'm not going to throw back in that same spot. I'm gonna move on. We played that one, he won. But in a tournament...gotta get that meat in the boat."
Powell has his hand open, gesturing. Ray Scott comes by and closes Powell's fingers into a fist. He is kidding, but also implying that Powell may be waxing heretical. Scott, big, energetic, engaging, moves on. "The people in this room," says Powell after grunting slightly, "are responsible for all the bass boats, all the monofilament line, the hooks, the techniques. You go into a store and buy a rod and reel today, there was some influence on it from this room. This guy Ray Scott, the guy that just come over here and made fun of me and folded my fingers down, he's the greatest thing ever happened to bass fishing. He's six people in one."
Powell looks off into the distance, as if scanning the days ahead for structure. "I hope it's always fun and not commercial. I caught my first bass when I was six years old, took the day off from working in the fields and caught an eight-pound bass with a cane pole and a spotted minnow. Fished 35 years without a depth finder. Now I've got in the habit. Soon as I get a strike, I'm looking right at that depth finder."
A couple of corporate monofilament types are edgily summoning Powell away. "Don't ever get obligated to anybody," he advises, and he joins them for dinner.
A good deal of the evening entertainment at the Classic is provided by the fishing stars and choreographed by Scott. After the whole crowd ate a big buffet dinner, Scott blithely got them up front to do outrageous things. Such as those men with the biggest stomachs dancing the hula shirtless. After winning the most applause for his hula and therefore the prize of a Johnson spoon, Bo Dowden of Natchitoches, La., grinning boyishly, asked Scott to give him the microphone. "Let me talk over that thing."
"You can't talk over this thing!" cried Scott in mock dismay. "What you mean? You a fisherman."
"We're a demagogic system," Scott later told the group blandly. "What's that word? Dictatorial. It's very nice when a hundred people are doing what's set up for them to do."
For instance, the fishermen and accompanying press went out on the last day of the '75 Classic in cold 40-mph winds and flat-bottom bass boats not designed to cope with the ragged swells. The night before, pro Billy Westmorland of Celina, Tenn. was asked whether he thought the boats would go out if the weather turned out as bad as expected. "Scott would send us out if it was raining pitchforks and Chinese babies," Westmorland said.
Conditions have been hazardous at previous BASS tournaments. One year at Lake Eufaula, Okla. a norther blew up and started sinking boats. Wes Woosley of Tulsa had to be saved twice from drowning.
No one was hurt on the final day of last year's Classic, but waves knocked several boats out of commission, and a number of the competitors went all day—7 a.m. to 3 p.m.—without catching a fish. That evening when he checked in, Al Lindner of Brainerd, Minn., the only prominent Northern bass pro, was asked, "What'd you get?"
"In," said Lindner.
"This is what makes bass fishing," said Scott expansively. "We've had those bluebird days—bluebirds singing, wives sitting out making goo-goo eyes at the weather. And then we've had it turn bad. I've seen it so cold...I saw a flag sticking out frozen."
Nothing seems to put Scott out of the mood for bass-fishing administration, and nobody denies that he and his operations man, Harold Sharp, are good at it. Scott was selling insurance very successfully in 1967 when he got the idea of putting on up-and-up bass tournaments. From that idea has come a very pretty dollar for Scott and the profession of bass catching. Before BASS, tournaments had tended to be chaotic local affairs won by locals—that aspect wasn't chaotic. BASS tournaments are aboveboard and policed. When one fisherman was found to have brought in fish he had previously planted in a basket on the water, BASS suspended him for life and suspended another fisherman, who failed to report him, for one year, then sent out a press release about the whole thing.
Fishermen do criticize Scott for not giving them much of a voice in rules and for not paying enough prize money. This year the Classic will pay a total of $50,000 with $25,000 to the winner. The other BASS tournaments also are worth $50,000 each, as compared to $23,000 last year, and first-prize money is up from $4,140 to $14,000, but pros complain that a portion of the overall "money" is not cash but boats, and they don't need any more boats. What kind of deals BASS might have with boat companies, even chambers of commerce interested in attracting tournaments to their localities, is a subject of speculation.
If deals do exist, they only sweeten the pot. BASS gets some $4.6 million in annual dues; it costs $250 to enter a tournament; and BASS operates a three-city franchise outdoor specialty store called Outhouse, a boat-and-tackle store in Montgomery, a motel on a fishing river and a mail-order merchandising service.
This is a pool of money well worth casting into, even in a storm. The men who do it range, as John Powell says, "from millionaires to guys who had to hock their shotgun to pay the entry fee." As it happens, many of the best-known fishermen—Dance, Roland Martin, Tom and Don Mann, Westmorland—are big, beefy men with county-sheriff bellies. "Fat is where it's at," says Martin. "This stomach keeps me warm. When I get thin I get cold, sick, nervous." Then, too, there are the lean wrangler types—you couldn't ask for a better Marlboro man than Tommy Martin. Many of them, fat or thin, are distinctively marked by suntan from the cheekbones down; cap brims and dark glasses keep them pale on the forehead and around the eyes. Their hands are horny as farmers'. Scott speaks proudly of "two-fisted hairy-legged knotheads."
The only two men who have won the Angler of the Year award since it was first given in 1971 are Roland Martin, four times, and Dance, once. Though Martin is blond, Dance seems to be the fair-haired boy. Scott introduces him as "bass fishing's first superstar" and is pleased that he represents the sport so personably. "He could've been one of these old harelip country boys with snuff running down both corners of his mouth," says Scott.
An intensely accommodating and cordial fraternity-president type who gave up the furniture business for professional fishing, Dance, age 35, speaks a lot of desire, dedication and the exchange of ideas. "I've never been in a boat with a man in my life," he says, "that I didn't learn something. I may have learned not to ever get in the boat with him again, but at least I've learned something. I love to try to figure fish out. It's seeking the unknown.
"But competitive fishing—the pressure really wears on me. I can't sleep. I remember when I was six years old and my granddaddy was going to take me fishing the next morning, I'd wake up every two hours. It's the same now. And there's a lot of traveling, with the TV show and appearances. I slept in my own bed only five nights in the first four months of last year.
"But if I don't promote Bill Dance, nobody will. My fishing has improved 500% since I started fishing tournaments, and my income is 10 times what it was. It's all a result of BASS. I look back and thank the good Lord for it."
Roland Martin has shaggier hair than Dance and a more complicated face. He didn't dance in the hula contest, but he and his wife Mary Ann did name their first son, Scott, after Ray. Martin is 36 years old, brawny, blond, clever looking, prepossessing, intense. "I'm trying to be more amiable lately," he says, discussing his in-boat presence. "I've been accused of being a real ass. Won't talk to my partner, Won't communicate.
"The guy you're paired with is supposed to control the boat 50% of the time. But I just tell him, 'Let's go catch a bunch of fish. If you have something to contribute, fine. But mainly I want to catch some fish.' A guy is going to go for my deal.
"When I was 19 I caught a big fish, by accident, and entered it in a local contest and won a little trophy. It sat on the mantelpiece, people started saying, 'That Roland catches big fish.' I kept entering and winning contests. I'd send in to Field and Stream and get a button to wear on my hat. A button with a little picture of a fish on it.
"My parents discouraged me. My father was a professional man, never fished a lick, and my mother was a drama major. They thought I was wasting my time. One time I missed dinner fishing, came in late, and Dad got so mad at me that when I walked in with my solid fiber glass rod he yelled, 'I'm going to bend that thing!'
"He bends it. It springs back. He hits it into the wall. It lays grooves in the wall. He throws it down and jumps on it. It still keeps its shape. Then he runs out of the room.
"I picked up the rod. It was bent a little bit but it would still work. I loved my Dad, but I never fished with him."
Somewhere in that story there are a couple of proverbs about sparing the rod and bending the twig. At any rate, Martin never looked forward to taking up the profession of outfishing other people, because there was no such thing. But after college he was traveling in Europe with his parents when they were killed in an auto accident in which he was badly injured. To recuperate, and to get away from expressions of sympathy, he went off to Santee-Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina. He stayed down there for five years, fishing, doing a little writing and guiding, building his bass-catching reputation and being "a bachelor bum."
In 1970 he started fishing tournaments. "Competition's done this for me," he says. "I always had this pride that I was a good fisherman, but I never had a ruler to measure by. Now I can very legitimately say I have proved my merit."
It was at a BASS tournament that he met his wife. "She had on a big stocking cap and a snowmobile suit and was carrying a big stringer of fish," he says.
"He thought I was a little fat man walking up the hill," says Mary Ann.
Roland recalls, "I said to Dance, 'Hey, that's a funny-looking guy.' Dance said, 'That's Mary Ann Colbert, 25-year-old whiz-kid fisherman.' "
"Roland and I courted so much during that tournament, Bill Dance beat him by one ounce," says Mary Ann.
"Seven ounces," says Roland.
The Martins travel together, working on his TV show. She fishes in tournaments herself, but not BASS ones. No women are allowed. Competitors are paired by lot and, well, what if a man and a woman, unmarried, were sharing a boat and one of them experienced a call of nature? "He can just turn his head," says Mary Ann, but BASS doesn't agree. She has done some figurative boat-rocking on this count, but the gender bar remains unlifted.
Racially, too, BASS competition is homogeneous. The whole operation, and much of the bass boom, has a white Southern flavor. University of North Carolina English Professor Louis Rubin, a noncompetitive bass fisherman and longtime student of Southern literature and ways, goes so far as to say, "The artificial impoundment has done more for race relations in the South than anything else. It has gotten the good old boys away from the general store stirring things up and out onto the water chasing the black bass."
And, true, between contract negotiations, there still is front-porch talk to be heard at any BASS gathering. "When I was a boy," said Scott one evening as conversation at dinner turned to wart remedies, "people said the only way to lose warts was to take something like a button and hide it and then forget where you put it. As soon as you forget, the wart falls off. I still remember where I put that button. I can see it right now on that top shelf in my uncle's house. I can't forget it to save my life."
Bass fishing has not forgotten its roots, either. It may be advancing to higher levels of finance and technical sophistication, but on the whole it retains a small-town church-social flavor. Superstars Dance and Martin pitch in to help unload baggage. Dance, Martin and Green sneak a brick into Jimmy Houston's tackle box before it is weighed in (only 10 pounds of tackle is allowed each man). High school clog dancers and Lonzo and Oscar from the Grand Ol' Opry fill out the evening entertainment.
It is all part of fishing hard. Which makes you wonder, if a man fishes hard, what is he going to do easy? The main reason a good many people go into the professions of law and medicine is to make enough money to be able to take off afternoons and fish. What's going to be the point of becoming a doctor or lawyer now? So you can go home and watch people fish on the American Sportsman? Then, too, pretty soon people are going to be watching television hard. Sleeping in hammocks hard. Whittling hard, humming hard, chewing tobacco and 'lowing as how hard it is.
It's hard to knock such developments, though, as long as they stay down to earth. Jack Hains is being interviewed after winning the Classic, with 18 live bass weighing a total of 45 pounds four ounces. He says, "I eat bass nearly every night. I just love it. Filet 'em out and save some for breakfast."
"What color worm you use today, Jack?" (Nicklaus never gets questions like this.)
"Purple with a yellow tail."
"What length worm, Jack?"
"Six-inch. That's about as long a worm as I throw."
"Where'd you go to school?"
"Rayne High School. And University of Southwestern Louisiana. Didn't graduate there. Quit and went to flying. My father owns a crop-dusting service and farms beans some. I work rice and soybeans, dusting."
He says yes, crop dusting is daredevil seat-of-the-pants precision work that a man can take pride in, and he likes it, "but not enough." Not enough to stay in it much longer, that is, now that he has a fishing career.
"Why don't you take off your waterproof suit for the pictures?"
"Ain't got no britches on. Had to get out and wade, and got 'em wet."
"Look at that bass behind you in the tank. He's talking to you."
"I told you I wouldn't hurt you," says Hains to the bass.
The bass swims away. Scott comes forward to speak to the bass. "He says, 'Naw, I don't want to start any more foolishness with you.' "Then Scott asks the other fish in the tank, "Anybody else in there want to be interviewed?"
"Pooly," Scott says to the black man he brings from Montgomery to help out at such moments as this, "swirl a stick around in there, get us a fish who wants to talk."
A lady with three different colors of semiprecious stones on her eyeglasses is watching. So is a man wearing a patch advertising a patch company and another wearing a jumpsuit advertising a jumpsuit concern. Nearby, a fat man is challenging a skinny man to go quail hunting with him sometime. "I'll show you how a fat man can walk," he says. "I've done walked two bird dogs to death."
Another fish looks out toward the camera. This is when Hains, holding up his first-prize check, says, "Thank you very much, fish." The fish looks noncommittal.
"Just look at Jack," says somebody. "Grinning like a cat eating yellow-jackets."
"And talking to a fish. Only in America," says another man. He is wearing a hat that says FIELD TESTER, YUM YUM WORMS.