BEAR BRYANT, bronzed beneath his houndstooth hat, stands eternally outside the convention center in Birmingham, pointing across the street to the Sheraton, and possibly to the future: to the boys (and girl) of the Montevallo High School fishing team, the blue-shirted Bulldogs—the g in Bulldog is a barbed hook—who hurry past the statue of the Crimson Tide football coach to another Alabama, where tackle means a Megabass Flap Slap crankbait with a vibrating jig.
This is an article from the March 17, 2014 issue
Behind Bryant are 220,000 square feet of exhibition space filled to the gills with Ugly Stiks and Mr. Crappies and an 18,000-seat arena that will host the nightly weigh-in for the 44th annual Bassmaster Classic, the self-described Super Bowl of Fishing—though to the 200,000 angling enthusiasts passing through here in cardboard hats in the shape of bass and WEAPONS OF BASS DESTRUCTION T-shirts, the Classic is a vast improvement on the Super Bowl. Says Ronnie Garrison, veteran correspondent from Fishing-About.com, "They really should call the Super Bowl the Bassmaster Classic of Football."
He's not alone in that opinion. As they do for most tournaments, fans with nicknames like BassAssassin and BigJig will vie for the grand prize—a $2,500 gift card to Bass Pro Shops—in the Bassmaster Classic's fantasy fishing competition. This year the three-day Classic will be fished 75 minutes south of Birmingham in Guntersville, Ala., where the schools superintendent has given students the day off on Feb. 21, the first day of the tournament—a fishing snow day, so long as the children pass a moment reflecting on the universal importance of bass fishing.
And it is universal. "Bass fishing used to be just here," says 2004 Classic champion Takahiro Omori, a 43-year-old native of Japan. "Now it feels worldwide." There are no grouper groupies, nor tournaments that are wholly mackerel. But the Classic is exclusively, deliriously about bass. "Bass," says Omori. "Just bass."
Omori was born in Tokyo but moved 10 years ago to Emory, Texas, where he learned to speak English by reading Bassmaster magazine, house organ of the 600,000-member Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. It is literally a country unto itself—B.A.S.S. Nation—with its own language in which anglers are frequently (to cite a passage from Bassmaster) "flippin', pitching and punching pennywort and hyacinth mats using a 2-ounce tungsten weight and a Missile Baits D Bomb or Baby D Bomb (Bruiser Flash and Love Bug) rigged on a 5/0 Gamakatsu Heavy Cover Flippin' Hook and 66-pound-test Toray Bawo Finesse Braid."
Or as Omori will say after the first day of the Classic, in a patois caught somewhere between Yokohama and Talladega: "I fished hard today but nothin' happened."
Everyone in town for the Classic knows that feeling, not least of all Lee Sentell, the director of the Alabama Tourism Department, which has an Alabama Bass Trail to go along with its renowned Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Addressing the world's top professional anglers at a luncheon on the eve of the tournament, Sentell says, "We hope when you go home, you'll tell your wife, 'Honey, I was up to my ass in bass.'"
It's easy to imagine Bear Bryant—squinting into the distance on his plinth outside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex—watching that phrase go by on Alabama license plates in the near future, SWEET HOME ALABAMA replaced by a slogan that is pithier, and on this weekend far truer: ALABAMA—UP TO OUR ASS IN BASS.
BASS FISHING as a spectator sport dates to March 11, 1967, when a 33-year-old insurance salesman from Montgomery, Ala., named Ray Scott had his fishing trip to Jackson, Miss., ruined by rain. He retreated to his room at the Ramada Inn, where the only thing on TV was a college basketball tournament game, a prospect Scott found so unappealing that it triggered a fantasy.
"I took off my wet clothes, put on some dry underwear and flopped onto the bed," says Scott, who is now 80 and resplendent in his trademark cowboy hat, fringed vest and knotted scarf. "I was alone, in a private space, and my brain was freed, and it kind of opened up. And this idea just started fermenting: Why not have an honest tournament for bass fishermen?"
This eureka moment would become immortalized in the creation myth of competitive bass fishing as The Brainstorm in the Rainstorm, and Scott as the Edison of a new industry that now includes $60,000 bass boats and 250,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops and multimillionaire professional bass anglers whose holy grail is the Bassmaster Classic.
"The first Bassmaster Classic that I came to was in this building when I was 10 years old in 1996," says Ott Defoe of Knoxville, Tenn., while standing in the Birmingham convention center, where his winnings for this year's Classic ($30,000) would bring his career total to $563,842.86 as a touring professional. "This place, this building, made me love fishing."
Of course the fishing itself is done on Lake Guntersville, lit by a half moon before dawn on Friday, when the field of 55 anglers arrived on its shores. Missing was Cliff Pace, who won the $500,000 prize in 2013. Pace was deer hunting at home in Petal, Miss., in January when he fell out of a tree stand and broke his left leg and tore his ACL. And so the spectators standing four deep at City Harbor—in camo and Day-Glo and paradoxical pairings of camo and Day-Glo—pass a moment of quiet contemplation for the defending champ convalescing at home. They listen to a choir sing the national anthem a cappella. And finally, they roar as the emcee urges those 250-horsepowered boats in the water—it is 7 a.m.—to "shake the leaves off the trees!"
As 55 bass boats tear off for as many spots on 75 miles of lake, pursued by several hundred spectator boats, it is difficult to see how all this traffic will be safely regulated. "I'm sure we'd have more television viewers if we had wrecks," says one of the three principal owners of B.A.S.S., Don Logan, who bought the business in 2010 from ESPN, which still televises the Classic a week after its conclusion. (Logan is also a former CEO of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's parent company, Time Inc.) But as of yet, the boats are not allowed to trade paint on the lake.
There are other rules. Each day the men will fish for eight hours, keep their five largest bass and release smaller ones as the day goes on. The keepers are placed into a livewell in the boat, an aerated compartment that will keep the bass alive. "We're within our rights to fillet them," says Dave Precht, a B.A.S.S. vice president. "But that's not what we do." On the contrary: Anglers are penalized if any fish die on their watch.
As the anglers head out, one of the favorites is Kevin VanDam. No man in history has been up to his ass in bass as deeply as VanDam, 46, the best bass fisherman of this century and quite possibly of all time. In winning four Bassmaster Classics and seven Angler of the Year awards, he has convincingly put the lie to the notion that fishing at this level has much to do with luck, or being Southern, or any number of other stereotypes.
His lifetime tournament winnings are $5.5 million, and his manifold sponsors know he's eloquent and funny. He joined the tour in 1987 and has been dominant long enough to have been called both "the Michael Jordan of bass fishing" and "the LeBron James of bass fishing," with several cultural allusions in between. "For a while I was the Tiger Woods of bass fishing," says VanDam. "My wife wasn't real impressed."
Known to his legion of fans as KVD, VanDam grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he would spend all day fishing in the summer, coming in only at the sound of his grandmother's dinner bell. On Guntersville, KVD is ruthlessly efficient, casting and reeling an average of three times a minute for eight straight hours. "Carpal tunnel and especially tennis elbow are big problems," he says of the sport's occupational hazards. The lake is silent but for the distant whine of other motors, the slapslap of water on the side of his boat and the buzzing, like a thousand mosquitoes, of a TV-camera-equipped drone helicopter hovering overhead.
Beyond that, there is just the zzzzzzeeeeee of his line going out 1,440 times today, minus those precious casts lost when VanDam straps down his rods, jumps into his driver's seat, slips on a life vest and races 65 mph to his next spot, trailed by up to 60 spectator boats. He scarcely takes notice of his gallery, except once to say, "The peepers are peepin' today."
An overnight storm has raised the water level on Lake Guntersville, and with it the bass, so VanDam is seeking hot spots in shallow water near the shore, where he will anchor, strip off his life vest and cast again, beautifully, 20 yards to a space the size of a silver dollar. It's like watching Ted Williams swing: the same grace and fluidity in the pursuit of the unlikely.
One of Williams's angling idols and fishing partners was Jerry McKinnis, who is now a principal owner of B.A.S.S. but for 28 years—from 1980 to 2007—was host of The Fishin' Hole on ESPN, the network's second-longest-running program after SportsCenter.
"Before he'd cast, Ted would always say, 'I'm gonna make history here, Jerry,'" recalls McKinnis. "And I'd say, 'God, you're Ted Williams, you're making history every time you take a breath.'"
But the Splinter's kind of optimism is critical to a world-class bass fisherman like VanDam, who will weigh in only 16 pounds, two ounces today—good for 27th place. He was on the boat from 6:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., when he disembarks at the pier to photographers and autograph requests. VanDam checks his Fitbit: He has burned 5,705 calories in nine hours on the boat, during which time he has eaten a single chocolate chip cookie.
The news of his fasting comes as a surprise, for VanDam's mind is elsewhere, on tomorrow. "It's not what you got, it's what you're gonna get," he says. "You gotta believe it's gonna happen, right to the bitter end."
SUCH SELF-CONFIDENCE is also the hallmark of bass fishing's other 21st-century superstar. To look at Mike Iaconelli, a dead ringer for a latter-day Vanilla Ice, you'd think bass was a contraction of badass. Early in his gilded career—when Ike won the Classic in 2003, in New Orleans—it was the angler, not the bass, who was perceived as the largemouth. "I'll taunt the fish a little bit, you know, I'll get in his face and tell him that I beat him," Iaconelli told Ed Helms in a memorable exchange on The Daily Show in 2005. To which Helms replied gravely, "Be honest with me, Mike: There are a lot of people who say you're just in this for the [women]."
In real life Iaconelli at 41 is humble and personable and careful not to provoke the bass in any way. He and his wife seldom even eat freshwater fish. "The thing about eating bass," he says, "is this: You don't eat your competition." Those bass are both his b√™te noire and his bread-and-butter, and the more they thrive, the more he does.
The modern angler in pursuit of the elusive largemouth bass has many weapons at his disposal. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the revolutionary plastic worm, invented in 1949 by Nick Cr√®me in his basement in Akron, Ohio. Five years later saw the introduction of the Zebco 33, a tangle-free fishing reel developed by a Texas watchmaker named R.D. Hull. Millions of American children threw (and still throw) their first casts with it.
Rods have grown from hollow metal tubes fashioned from old radio antennae to graphite, while the lines they hold have evolved from nylon to a fluorocarbon that nearly disappears in the water. Anglers used to believe that fish don't bite in summer—it is too hot—but in fact they just go deeper, into cooler water, as depth finders would reveal. But even with the modern miracles of sonar and GPS, fish are elusive beings. "You're still chasing a living creature," says Iaconelli, "and you don't know what it's gonna do."
"There is scientific research that fish become accustomed to lures over time," says Precht. "So there is constant innovation." In the 1970s, Fred Young's Big-O lure, a square bill crankbait, became so popular and successful that he rented them out at tournaments for a $25 deposit, plus a $15-a-day late fee. Today VanDam and other pros develop and market their own lures. The Rapala company named Ike's Custom Ink DT Crankbait after Iaconelli, whose sponsor-logo-crammed shirt makes most NASCAR drivers look understated by comparison: "I call this the Boob Suit," he says, pulling at its synthetic fabric.
Iaconelli is as popular as any angler has ever been, both in person and online—his YouTube instructional videos receive hundreds of thousands of views—but he readily concedes, "I don't get stopped in airports."
Most professional anglers are never in airports, driving 50,000 miles or more per year, hauling their boats on trailers, sometimes sleeping in their trucks. Rising star Brandon Palaniuk, 26, has a mattress supported by two-by-fours in the bed of his Toyota Tundra, because "I don't want to spend 70 bucks a night for a hotel when I'm only gonna be there five hours." So Palaniuk beds down at truck stops in what he calls "the Tundra Suites."
"The traveling life isn't for everybody," says Skeet Reese. Indeed, "The Traveling Life (Isn't for Everybody)" could be a country song, by a down-on-his-luck artist named Skeet Reese, except that this Skeet is from Northern California, has won $2.8 million in B.A.S.S. prize money and sells his own line of sunglasses at Dick's Sporting Goods.
And besides, country music has enough great songs about fishing, not least of which is Robert Earl Keen's 1989 classic "The Five Pound Bass," which goes: Up this morning/Before the sun/Fixed me some coffee and a honey bun/Jumped in my pickup/Gave her the gas/I'm goin' out to catch a five pound bass.
Keen could have aimed higher. On June 2, 1932, on Georgia's Montgomery Lake, a 20-year-old farmer named George Washington Perry, using a Creek Chub Fintail Shiner, caught a 22-pound, four-ounce largemouth bass that remains the largest on record. The largest landed in competition in 2013 weighed 10 pounds, 13 ounces.
These "pigs" are pursued from tournament to tournament the length and breadth of North America by the professionals of B.A.S.S. "Part of the job title," says Iaconelli, a married father of four, "is gypsy."
Randy Howell takes his family with him. His wife, Robin, homeschools their two sons, Laker and Oakley, on the road. At home, in Springville, Ala., they attend the Church of the Highlands, where one Sunday in November seven-year-old Oakley was asked in the children's chapel to fill out a prayer card. "He's got a good life, traveling with us and fishing on the bank," says Howell. "I thought, what's he got to pray for?"
Oakley scrawled his most fervent desire across that prayer card: Dad to win the Classic. Seeing it on the drive home, Randy was moved to tears. Robin put the slip of paper on the bathroom mirror, where her husband looked at it every morning when he shaved. And if you wonder why a man would shave before spending all day in his bass boat, you have never seen an angler's face projected in high-def on the JumboTron at a Classic weigh-in.
At 3:30 every afternoon the anglers pull their boats from Lake Guntersville and tow them back to the packed Birmingham convention complex arena for the pro-wrestling-style weigh-in, fish porn in which the biggest bass draw the biggest ovations from fans in replica Boob Suits ($49 at the Expo). Emcee Dave Mercer warms up the crowd with a rhetorical question: "ARE YOU READY TO SEE SOME BIG, GIANT BASS?! ARE YOU READY TO SEE SOME BIG, GIANT BASS!?!?!?!"
One by one, anglers enter the arena on their boats, pulled by their support trucks—like amphibious Roman centurions—accompanied by anything from disco to heavy metal hits. There was a brief controversy at a previous Classic when one of the Japanese anglers (several compete on tour) entered to "Kung Fu Fighting." But the P.C. furor abated when critics were informed that anglers choose their own walk-up music.
The bass are displayed to the baying crowd, the day's catch is weighed, then the anglers exit stage left. The bewildered fish are then put in aerated tanks on two trucks and chauffeured back to Lake Guntersville by employees of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Last year, in Tulsa, where the competition lake was an hour and 45 minutes from the weigh-in arena, B.A.S.S. reported a 100% survival rate. This year 578 of 583 fish were returned to Lake Guntersville.
Forty years ago B.A.S.S. let all the fish die and then donated them to charity. "We didn't waste 'em," says Ray Scott, "but we weren't setting an example, either."
Then Scott attended the Federation of Fly Fishers Conclave in Aspen. "I love that word, conclave," says Scott. "Like the pope. I didn't know what it was, but it turns out a conclave is a convention, and you know fly-fishermen—they got those funny vests with all the pockets, lures, all that crap hanging off 'em? Well, I watched a guy waist-deep in a little river take out a fly-fishing rod and catch a 10-inch trout. Then he took a little gizmo off that vest of his and released that trout from the fly. At that moment magic happened. It's indelibly marked on my mind. That's when catch-and-release began."
Scott offered a two-ounce bonus for every fish that survived being caught at the Classic. "All of a sudden anglers got creative," he says, "and started aerating their livewells."
Catch-and-release transformed professional and recreational fishing alike. "And I'm sure the bass appreciate it too," says Scott. "Though they may not like those two or three hours in the back of the truck."
Scott sold B.A.S.S. in 1986 and now runs Ray Scott's Trophy Bass Retreat in Pintlala, Ala., where he regularly hosts members of the Bush family. ("Barbara is quite the angler," he says of the former first lady.) More than any other man, Scott is responsible for the dizzying array of fishing paraphernalia on display at the Expo, and for the men and women who gape at those products in the same manner as the fish they adore. They adore Scott too. "In 1997, I fished my first Classic and Ray Scott put his arm around me and I cried," says Howell. "I couldn't believe it."
Without Scott, Howell's profession wouldn't exist, much less this tournament or its attendant exposition and its countless corporate sponsors. Scott enjoys speaking in Don King--like aphorisms, including one that sums up his life: "From a fishin' hole to a pot o' gold."
It is perhaps worth noting that when Aaron Martens, the reigning B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year, takes off his Boob Suit, the suit he puts on is Prada.
TO THE tedious question "Is bass fishing a sport?" Jerry McKinnis replies, "It's not so much a sport as a whole culture." As for the other question commonly put to these professionals—"How much of bass fishing is pure luck?"—the answer is: a little. "My biggest fish today," says Chad Morgenthaler, "I hooked in the back, and he's coming to the boat backwards, and I'm saying to myself, This is not good."
The Bassmaster Classic is one of the very few sporting spectacles in the world—the Boston Marathon is another—in which amateurs can compete in the same arena, at the same time, as their world-class counterparts. Civilians are free to fish Lake Guntersville during the Classic, and a few amateurs annually qualify for the field, which this year numbered 56. Mark Dove is a criminal defense lawyer from North Vernon, Ind., fishing his third Classic. "I'm glad God put me on this Earth to represent the innocent and the misunderstood," he says, "because I wouldn't make much of a living with a fishing rod in my hand."
"I make plastic bottles for a living, and I'm standing on the stage at the Bassmaster Classic," says Jeff Lugar from McGaheysville, Va. "I'll never forget this experience for the rest of my life."
Lugar and Dove finished 35th and 41st, respectively, but the Classic can change the lives of some men. Iaconelli became an icon when he won in 2003. "It was a buzzer beater," he says. The very last fish he caught in the waning minutes on Sunday turned out to be the game-winner. When the bass bit, he felt its weight on the line and knew, instinctively, that his life would be different. "I'm getting chills remembering it right now," he says.
"You feel something on the line as small as that," says McKinnis, giving the subtlest tug on his interlocutor's shirtsleeve, "and you want to feel that again and again, and it becomes addictive."
Almost everyone starts young. "I grew up fishing with my uncle and my grandfather outside of Philadelphia," says Iaconelli. "We were a blue-collar family, and we took two vacations a year: one to the Jersey Shore, one to the Pocono Mountains. And it wasn't"—he slaps his state-of-the-art bass boat—"what you see here. Real early on, it was in a rowboat."
Ike will finish in 47th place, missing the cut when the Sunday field is reduced to 25. It is further whittled, on the final day of competition, to two dark horses. Paul Mueller, 29, is from Naugatuck, Conn., and has the familiar angler's tan in which the eyes, usually shaded by sunglasses, are pale pools in a sea of red, like a photographic negative of the Lone Ranger. "As a kid I'd see a puddle," Mueller says, "and wonder if there were fish in it."
Late on Sunday afternoon his only apparent rival for the $300,000 top prize is Howell, who began the day in 11th place but caught five fish for a ridiculous Sunday bag of 29 pounds and two ounces, and a three-day haul of 67 pounds, eight ounces. No angler has ever started Sunday outside the top 10 and won the Classic, but Howell threw a Yamamoto Fizzle Jig chatterbait-style lure 20 minutes before the boats had to be in and landed a six-pounder to give himself a chance.
And so it comes down to Sunday night's dramatic weigh-in, where Howell edges Mueller by a single pound, touching off an onstage celebration in which the Alabama native, surrounded by family, thanks God and Triton Motors.
"In 21 years of professional bass fishing from California to New York to Florida, it's the biggest string I've ever had," says Howell, who wears a Boob Suit, a smile and a Johnny Unitas flattop. "Everything just came together to make this a magical day." And with that, he takes a victory lap with Robin and Laker and Oakley, now eight, who prayed in November that his Dad would somehow win the Bassmaster Classic.
WHICH IS not to suggest that fishing is all about fathers and sons and Alabama, but also about sons without fathers in places like Detroit, where VanDam—who finished in 26th place in Alabama but further evangelized bass fishing—hosts a charity tournament with the Detroit Lions.
"One of the most exciting things happening now is these hard-core groups of urban anglers with names like the Cast Crew in Chicago or Big Bass Dreams in downtown Los Angeles," says Iaconelli. "Their fathers didn't take 'em, their uncles didn't take 'em, but they saw fishing on TV and online and now they're casting right off Navy Pier in Chicago. It's this whole scene spurred by [smartphone and GoPro] cameras, and they post the footage online and that brings more kids to it. At 42, I feel like an old head in this sport."
Among the best pros in the game is 39-year-old Ish Monroe, an African-American who grew up in San Francisco, got a job at Hi's Tackle Box at age 14 and by virtue of working there became part of the store's bass club. "At 19, I had graduated high school and was getting ready to go to college when one of my best friends asked me to go to a party," he says. "I don't want to go into detail, but my friend was found dead the next morning, and if I had been with him, there's a 50-50 chance I'd be dead too. But when you're fishing tournaments, you have to get up so early you can't stay out late the night before. I see what happened to some people I grew up with. Fishing kept me out of drugs, I've never been to jail, and that's why I always say that tournament fishing saved my life."
The truth is, for so many here, tournament fishing is life. Anglers from dozens of college teams roam the convention center floor in their jerseys, from Auburn and Florida State and Oklahoma. "Not everyone can play football, and for many who do, when their senior season is over, they're done forever," says McKinnis. "You can fish all your life."
There are high school teams from several states competing in a one-day prep tournament. "I got chill bumps," says Jacob Mashburn of Clinton High, this year's champion, which competes in its own league outside of Knoxville.
And then there are Joe and Stephanie Dougherty of Greenville, Mo., who were married on Feb. 18. The next day they drove seven hours to Birmingham to honeymoon at the Bassmaster Classic. "People at home thought we were crazy," says Stephanie. "But if we had gone to Canc√∫n or Hawaii, we'd just have gone fishing anyway."
They fish tournaments together as a team. "It's a way to spend more time together," says Joe, who was hoping to meet VanDam on his honeymoon. Overhearing this, the guy working the Mercury Marine exhibit says, "Y'all are sick." But as Stephanie puts it, "To us, this is romantic."
The couple that casts together, lasts together. "No, we weren't registered at Bass Pro Shops," says Joe, as he scans the convention floor, with its gleaming bass boats and alluring lures and more dream rods than you can shake an Ugly Stik at.
"Although," he adds, a twinge of regret becoming audible in his voice, "they do have some nice stuff."
Read an extended version of this story, with bonus photos and content, at SI.com/longform