Orlando Wilson was fishing for $101,000 when the sound of a barbershop quartet called the Four Retreads blew in across the lily pads. "Are those guys singing?" he asked, incredulous, abruptly halting his retrieve.
Wilson, 38, a tidy bantam of a man with dark eyes, is the host of a television fishing show on Ted Turner's cable network. People ask him for autographs and sidle up to him to have their pictures taken. Fathers point him out to their sons. Wilson had thought he had seen it all when it came to fishing, but this was a new one. Nobody had ever sung four-part harmony to him while he was casting his spinner baits for lunker bass, certainly no silver-haired barbershop quartet aboard a canopied pontoon boat.
But then, even putting aside the money that was at stake in the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society's (B.A.S.S.) $667,765 MegaBucks tournament, nobody had ever fished the way Orlando Wilson was now fishing. Wilson and nine other anglers were following one another in their boats around a lake laid out like a golf course. They fished one marked area for an hour and then rotated clockwise to the next hole. They fished this way so that spectators in their own boats could watch, like Arnie's Army on the golf course. There were also fans on the shore, watching with binoculars, snapping pictures, shouting encouragement. And there was that quartet, singing Sweet Adeline. Yes, theater fishing has arrived.
For the record, freshwater bass fishing became a spectator sport on the morning of April 11, 1986. It happened on Little Lake Harris, south of Leesburg, Fla., on the fifth day of the B.A.S.S. MegaBucks extravaganza. The tournament's original 200 entrants had been reduced to 10, and Ray Scott, the 52-year-old B.A.S.S. founder and father of tournament bass fishing, tilted back his cowboy hat and said, "You are witnessing a very important chapter in the history of bass fishing."
June 15, 1986
Scott's brainchild not only brought the barbershop quartet to Wilson's fishing hole, but it also produced a group of onlookers the size of a small office picnic at the foot of Howey Bridge across Little Lake Harris. By the next day the crowd had grown to 200. Scott, a natural-born promoter, was saying, "I'm telling you, boys, this is only the beginning."
Until spectator fishing came along, the contestants always sped off into the distance at dawn and returned in the late afternoon from beyond the horizon and around the bend. All anyone got to see was a fish being weighed.
Scott spent years trying to match fishermen and an audience. He dispatched camera boats to remote watery areas to produce a taped and truncated version of his tournaments for cable TV. But it is only live events that the networks pay big bucks to televise and Scott wanted to make bass fishing work on live TV. "Like it or not," he said, "you just can't beat TV for what we're doing." Which is exposing the public to B.A.S.S., a 440,000-member organization that, among other things, promotes catch-and-release tournaments.
Scott never questioned the notion that people would actually want to watch men fishing, that they would sit through dozens, perhaps hundreds of unsuccessful casts in anticipation of a single strike. If somebody asked him whether applause from spectators wouldn't scare the fish, he scoffed. He doodled on bar napkins and restaurant tablecloths and scratched his head and pondered. One day he hit on the golf-course format.
On a small lake laid out with fishing holes, Scott said, a spectator could "stand there with a $2 pair of binoculars and observe somebody fishing." Scott admitted that rotating the fishermen around the holes would be time-consuming and "not quite like watching the Masters." But he also insisted, "It'll be a lot better than it's been in the past."
Little Lake Harris, a two-mile by three-mile cul-de-sac of shallow water off the larger Lake Harris, was chosen as the test site. Ringed by reeds, cypress trees and equal parts of alligator-inhabited swampland and tidy lawns, it had been off-limits in the earlier rounds of the tournament to keep it fresh for the 10 finalists.
On April 11, at a signal, the 10 boats took off, running flat out at 60 mph. They zoomed under Howey Bridge without throttling back, toward the area chosen as the tournament site.
The lake was divided into 10 fishing holes. Each was marked with orange stakes along the shore. Pontoon boats, anchored in a ragged line down the middle of the lake, carried tournament judges, who observed the action at every hole. At a quarter past each hour the fishermen sped to the closest pontoon boat, reported on their catches and then raced to the next hole.
In the middle of the day a fisherman named Roger Farmer got lost. He had left one fishing hole and then somehow misread the boundary markings and ended up back at the same hole. He fished there for 45 minutes before tournament director Harold Sharp was notified and made it out to the hole to inform him of the error. Farmer had to throw back all the fish he had caught from the wrong hole. First he released a smallish bass, maybe a pound. He paused for a bit, trying to remember exactly which fish he had caught at the wrong hole, then reached into the live well of his boat and pulled out the largest of the three remaining bass—a 4-pounder. He returned it to the lake.
"I 'bout got sick," said Farmer later. "But it was the right thing to do."
Indeed it was. Twenty minutes later, fishing the proper hole, Farmer hooked a 9-pound, 8-ounce bass, which helped him to lead the 10 finalists at the end of the first day.
The next day found Farmer, a slender, bearded, 35-year-old roofing contractor from Dalton, Ga., nervously trying to hold on to first place. As he approached the bridge shortly after 10 a.m., four hours into his day, he was amazed to see how many people were there. They were clustered at the foot of the bridge and strung out along the span. They were cheering Roger Farmer on. Some had binoculars, others, cameras. Somebody was selling hot dogs and sodas. Farmer was so undone by the cheers that he broke a plug when he cast and hit the concrete bridge support. "I never fished for an audience before," he said.
At the end of the day the fishermen returned to the weigh-in area, where, remarkably, a crowd of 3,000 people awaited them. Spectators lined the lakeshore and occupied the two small bleachers on each side of the platform where the fish were to be weighed. A little flotilla of boats bobbed near the shoreline. These, too, were full of people waving and clapping.
Farmer was the last man to reach the weigh-in stand. Scott milked the moment like a game-show host. "There's a whole lot of money riding on these fish," he said to Farmer. "You need to have 7 pounds, 1 ounce to win." As the digital scale signaled an 8-pound, 12-ounce catch, Farmer pumped both fists into the air. The crowd cheered. Farmer's wife, Kathye, gave him a kiss. The crowd hooted. But Farmer was unusually restrained for a champion who had just won $101,000—or rather, a customized '86 Camaro, a bass boat and a 10-year annuity worth $63,000. He had something more to say. "I want to show y'all something if I can keep my composure," he said. He reached in the pocket of his red shorts and brought out two small objects. His fingers worked compulsively around them. "My father died in February, and uh...." He struggled manfully, but there seemed to be something in his throat. "He always carried...a buckeye...and a bent nail with him. And when he died I got them...but I wish he was here, where he could see me...." He blinked and looked helpless. The crowed blinked, too, then cheered with gusto.
Celebrity fisherman Wilson came in fifth, winning $8,999 in cash and a bass boat valued at $18,000. A man who is used to having an audience, Wilson said of spectator fishing, "It's a new wrinkle in fishing that obviously inspired people to watch."
A delighted Scott pronounced spectator bass fishing a success and announced that the MegaBucks tournament would return to Leesburg next February. Later he was doodling again, sketching on a napkin.
"See, you can build lakes now," he said. Ten small lakes took shape on the napkin. "You'd want to make these about 20 acres each," he said. "You could move the logs and brush around in them so the fish would move. It would be just like moving the pin on a golf green."
In the middle of the lakes he drew a raised mound with what looked like they just might be stadium seats. Yes, they were stadium seats. "You could seat maybe 15,000 people around this," said Scott. He sketched some more. "And right here on top you'd put a television tower."
He looked up from his napkin, grinning. "It's just going to get bigger. We're just kicking the door open today. Yes, sir, this is only the beginning."
Nick Taylor is working on a book on professional bass fishing.