January 12, 2009
Making Parents Proud
At least two people were not surprised when Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, won the 2008 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell, S.C., last February: Jones, who knows that if a person doesn't believe in himself, he can't win and me.
Jones anchored my Fantasy Fishing team for the Classic, helping me score enough points through the Elite Series season to finish ahead of 97.9 percent of all Fantasy players last year. I'm not usually that lucky, but in this case, I had an inkling Jones might win after fishing with him for a couple of chilly January days on Texas' Falcon Reservoir.
When I heard that the Hartwell bite would be deep and difficult, I immediately thought of Jones' masterful jig fishing on Falcon. Swimming and hopping a Booyah jig through deep timber, Jones boated fish after fish that day. Bruce Stanton and I were in awe. (Stanton is general manager of PRADCO, which manufacturers Booyah baits and sponsors Jones. He was ecstatic, of course, when Jones won the Classic on Booyah jigheads.)
Jones' greatest reward in winning the Classic wasn't making his sponsors happy. Nor was it the invitation to talk bass fishing at the White House. Right up there with the $500,000 in cash he earned by winning the world championship, I gather, was that he made his parents proud.
"Without a doubt, the highlight of my year was getting a call from President Bush and being invited to the White House," said Jones. "And I got to take my parents with me. I guess that convinced them this fishing thing might work out after all."
He was joking, of course. After five BASS victories and more than $1.75 million in winnings, his parents already knew Jones had made a good career choice. But it wasn't always that way.
As we discussed that career, I asked Jones about his college days.
He laughed. "I went to college," he said. "I didn't complete college. I went to Baylor University for 5 1/2 years, and I'm still a senior." Like too many college students, Jones' priorities were wrong. Unlike most others, though, partying wasn't the problem.
"You might not believe this, but I actually had professors who would schedule exams during the bass spawn!" he quips. "I know that sounds far-fetched.
"The long and short of it is that I spent more time fishing than I did studying."
He realizes the mistake today. "I could have done both. I could have finished school. I just wasn't responsible enough to make that decision."
The only reason he stayed in school so long is that his parents were footing the bill, and they expected him to get a degree.
"You know your priorities are out of whack when you have to keep things secret from your parents," he muses. "They imposed one rule on me: I could not have a boat. They knew I loved to fish, and were okay with that, but they didn't want me to have a boat in college."
In his sophomore year, Jones launched a small computer business that netted him enough money to make a down payment on a brand-new, 1983 Glastron with a 90-horsepower motor. Looking back, he wonders how he ever thought he could keep that a secret especially since his main fishing partner was the son of his parents' best friends.
More than 25 years later, Jones remembers the confrontation vividly. "I don't care how old you are," he says. "You want your parents' approval."
How does he encourage his own children to finish college when he didn't?
"I let Jimmye Sue (his wife) have that conversation," he jokes. "She finished.
"Seriously, I would say, 'Make sure you're always following God's will for your life, and then go for it. Whatever you do, it has to be God's calling.' Fishing falls into that category."
He admits that bass fishing was not his own higher calling. Not at first.
"You can't make it happen," he has learned. "I tried to do that for years. God didn't call me into fishing until I finally surrendered my fishing to him ... until I got to the point where I could say, 'God, I'm going to follow you even if it means I never make another cast."
At that point, in 1994, Jones was struggling. After joining the Bassmaster trail in 1990, he had failed to break the Top 10 in any tournament.
"I was ready to give it up, if He wanted me to," Jones recalls. "He took what I was using selfishly and helped make it into a platform He could use."
True to his promise, Jones has made the most of every opportunity he's had as reigning Classic champion, expressing his faith in interviews on ESPN and with other media, and in public appearances throughout the country.
And along the way, Jones has made his parents proud.
December 15, 2008
VanDam For President
The presidential campaigns are over. The votes have been counted. The people have spoken. And the outcome says something about the people who voted.
In the same way, visitors to our Web site, Bassmaster.com, reveal something about themselves every time they participate in our weekly online balloting. I've been collecting the vote tallies for the past year, and some of the outcomes have been eye-opening. Others were more predictable.
For example, put Kevin VanDam's name in the lineup, and he wins going away.
In February, we asked who the voters thought would win the upcoming Bassmaster Classic. The Kid from Kalamazoo got 50 percent of the votes, followed by Gerald Swindle with 23 percent. Unfortunately, we failed to put Alton Jones on the ballot. In another poll, respondents correctly picked the winning lure on Lake Hartwell: a jig.
As the 2008 Elite Series got underway, we asked who would win the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Award. VanDam got 35 percent of the votes, followed by "another angler" with 23 percent and Mike McClelland (the early frontrunner) with 21 percent. Asked in another poll whom they would like to see win Angler of the Year, VanDam polled 49 percent. As you'll recall, KVD won AOY over Todd Faircloth in the final tournament of the season.
In another telling poll, voters were asked, "If you could learn advanced techniques from a specific angler, which technique/angler would it be?" Power fishing with VanDam garnered 60 percent of more than 3,700 votes, compared to 24 percent for flipping and pitching with Denny Brauer, 7 percent for worm fishing with Peter Thliveros, 5 percent for smallmouth fishing with Stephen Headrick and 4 percent for topwater fishing with Zell Rowland.
It's not surprising that visitors to Bassmaster.com are ardent fans of tournament fishing, as evidenced by some of these selections:
Given choices among several noteworthy achievements, 33 percent of respondents would rather win the Bassmaster Classic than catch the world record largemouth (27 percent), win Angler of the Year (25 percent), be MVP of the Super Bowl (9 percent) or win the Daytona 500 (6 percent).
In a similar vein, Rick Clunn's 28 consecutive Classic appearances was the most impressive sports accomplishment (barely) with 34 percent of votes, compared to Lance Armstrong's seven consecutive Tour de France wins (31 percent) and Cal Ripken's 2,632 consecutive MLB appearances (30 percent).
If you could have any job in the fishing industry, what would it be? Sixty-five percent of voters said they would like to be a professional angler. My profession, outdoor journalist, was dead last, behind TV angler, tackle store owner and tackle manufacturer. If only they knew how much fun this gig is.
Most of the online polls deal with topics other than Elite Anglers, and these are the ones I find most interesting. Some highlights:
Bassmaster.com visitors are well-equipped. Ninety-seven percent said they have six or more rod-and-reel combos, with 21 percent saying they own 21 or more. These anglers typically take eight or more of those outfits on an average outing, and 55 percent said a rod-and-reel set was the best fishing-related gift they've ever received.
Seventy-one percent said in one poll that they have spent more than $200 for a rod and reel, and, a week later, the largest number, 34 percent, said financial constraints were the main obstacle to their fishing.
They have wanderlust. Lake El Salto, Mexico, is the dream fishing destination for 52 percent, although another 17 percent would be happy fishing Falcon Lake in Texas. Falcon where Paul Elias set a new winning catch record of 132 1/2 pounds over four days in April was named the best lake in America by 55 percent. Unfortunately, not many anglers made the trek to Falcon, because shortly afterward, gasoline hit $4 a gallon. That caused 32 percent to decide to fish closer to home, while 39 percent cut back on the number of fishing trips. Interestingly, only 3 percent said they would cope with high gas prices by buying a smaller boat and motor.
Almost two-thirds (62 percent) practice catch-and-release religiously, and another 22 percent said they rarely keep any bass.
Only 21 percent believe George Perry's 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth record is completely legitimate, while 57 percent checked "It doesn't matter. It's the record and that's enough." Also on that topic, 67 percent believe the record will be beaten by a California fish someday.
This one made me proud: Asked what they did with their old Bassmaster Magazines, a whopping 73 percent said they read them and save them. They might be interested to know that we're publishing digital versions of Bassmaster now on the BASSInsider.com (Click here to find out more). Before long, we plan to have every issue dating back to 1968 in an easy-to-read, fully searchable format, online. (Go to BASSInsider.com to sign up for a free 30-day trial, and see if you like the new feature.)
As the presidential election approached, Bassmaster.com's editorial staff conducted "primary elections," asking which Elite Angler would make the best President of the United States. The general election was held the week of Nov. 3, and it wasn't even close: VanDam by a landslide.
October 21, 2008
BASS and Bush 41
Mike Pehanich's excellent article in the November Bassmaster, "Our Bass Fishing Presidents" (page 28), brought back a flood of memories of my contacts with one of those men, George H.W. Bush.
Certainly one of the greatest friends anglers have ever had in the White House, Bush frequently used the "bully pulpit" of the presidency to promote sportfishing. He loved bass fishing on the Potomac, bonefishing in the Florida Keys and chasing striped bass off the coast of Maine.
Not only did he practice and promote fishing, he helped protect the sport by ensuring passage (when he was vice president) of the Wallop-Breaux Amendment, which today provides $450 million a year for sportfish restoration in the states.
Already a longtime angler, Bush's passion for fishing was fed by his friendship with BASS Founder Ray Scott. I feel fortunate to have been a witness to the beginning of their relationship. Shortly after I left my newspaper job in Houston and joined BASS as a staff writer and editor-in-training, Scott called me into his office and asked what I knew of George Bush, who was organizing his campaign for the presidency. I gave him what I recalled of his resume former congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA adding that he was known as a decent man and a hard working public servant.
Scott asked me to accompany him during a meeting with Bush at a hotel in Montgomery, Ala. He had me hide a tape recorder in my coat pocket to record what was to be a 15-minute meet-and-greet. When the tape ran out after 30 minutes, Scott was still talking, trying to persuade Bush to support fishermen's interests, especially sportfish restoration.
Unable to break into the one-sided conversation, Bush took it all in. The following day, I received a call from one of his staff, asking if I thought Scott would be interested in serving as Bush's campaign chairman for Alabama.
He wasn't. But after a lengthy discussion, he warmed to the idea. Thus began a friendship between the two men that transcended politics and continues today.
From the outset, Scott did all he could to portray Bush as an outdoorsman. We set up photos of Bush bass fishing on Lake Guntersville, posing with a shotgun and Scott's yellow lab in a hunting setting, and inviting him to campaign at the 1979 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Texoma.
Despite Scott's efforts, Bush lost Alabama and most other states to Ronald Reagan. But I'd wager that he garnered the support of all BASS members and most other sportsmen. At the 1980 Republican National Convention, Scott organized marathon demonstrations on behalf of Bush that may have influenced Reagan's choice of Bush as his running mate.
As vice president for eight years and later, as America's 41st President, Bush repaid that support by backing legislation and other initiatives important to outdoorsmen. Twice he invited me and other outdoor editors and writers to participate in roundtable discussions of conservation issues at the White House. He attended several more Classics and was a regular visitor to Scott's home in Pintlala, Ala.
In 1992, during one of several charity tournaments on Scott's private lake, Bush was teamed with pro anglers Guy Eaker and Charlie Ingram.
"We gave him a big crankbait and had him fish out of the back of the boat," Eaker recalls, "and he caught a 5 1/2-pounder that helped us out.
"But one time, he hooked a 3- or 4-pound bass, and when he tried to lip it, the fish jumped and buried a hook deep in his finger. His surgeon was in a boat near us, and I told Charlie that if she saw what had happened, she'd rush him off to a hospital, and our day would be shot."
Eaker convinced Bush to let him remove the hook. "I used the string trick. I took the hook off the bait, pressed down on the eye and wrapped some string around the bend of the hook," he explained. "I told him I'd count to '3,' but when I got to '2' I jerked and it popped right out. He cussed a little but I don't think it hurt him much." The presidential surgeon was not pleased, but Bush was so grateful he invited Ingram and Eaker for a ride on Air Force One. Bush also invited Eaker and his wife, Pat, to his and Barbara's 50th Wedding Anniversary celebration, and the two men continue to correspond.
"I fished with the younger Bush, too," Eaker notes. "They're both crazy about bass fishing, and they're good fishermen." Both are lifetime BASS members.
As president, the elder Bush was quoted in the New York Times as saying that his favorite periodical was Bassmaster Magazine. He continued to promote BASS after a lagging economy and Bill Clinton forced him into retirement. Not long after losing his bid for a second term, Bush phoned me to order a lifetime membership for a friend.
We talked fishing for a couple of minutes, then I blurted: "Mr. President, have you hooked yourself recently?" I immediately wished I could take back the words, but he laughed and said, "No, but I hooked my son (Neil Bush, as I recall) while striper fishing the other day."
I was too embarrassed to ask him if he had used Eaker's string trick.
It remains for history to judge Bush's effectiveness as President. I would argue that he deserves high marks, especially for his efforts on behalf of the outdoors. What's more, I hope that historians agree that he is one of the most decent, unpretentious and unselfish public servants ever to have held office.
October 2, 2008
In the Gut
As much as I try to set the hook within a millisecond after a bass sucks in a bait, I sometimes fail. Whether the fish is too fast or I'm too slow, on occasion I've had fish swallow my hook.
Gut-hooking can occur even on big hardbaits, but it's most often a problem with soft plastics. I have the hardest time with soft jerkbaits and stickworms, probably because I fish these baits on slack line much of the time. At least, that's the way I get most of my bites. I watch the line for a telltale twitch, but still I swing too late.
What to do when a bass takes the hook too deep?
Conventional wisdom used to recommend simply cutting the line and letting the bass go in hopes the fish's digestive juices would disintegrate the hook. I actually found a badly corroded hook in a fish's belly once. The fish not a bass was plenty healthy until I filleted it.
Years ago, I interviewed the owner of a pay-to-fish operation in Texas who told me his guides left hooks in place in all gut-hooked bass and kept the fish in an aerated tank for observation. Most fish survived, and he even found a few hooks in the bottom of the tank. I can't imagine how the fish could have worked the hooks out of their bodies, but he swore it was true.
BASS Conservation Director Chris Horton, a biologist who probably never gut-hooks fish, says "conventional wisdom" is wrong. "Remove the hooks if at all possible without harming the fish," he says. "Leave the hook in only as a last resort."
I've purchased a few hook-removing tools in the past, but none has worked as reliably as advertised. One exception might be the German-made Larchy Hookout, a slick little pistol-shaped device for extracting hooks. Operation is simple and effective. When a fish swallows the hook, insert the line through a slit in the moveable hook gripper at the end of the "pistol" barrel. Slide the Larchy down the line until it contacts the bend of the hook. Pull the trigger and the hook gripper swivels, backing the hook out of the fish's flesh. (See Larchy.us)
Unfortunately, it does not work on wide-gap or offset hooks, the two styles I use most often with soft jerkbaits and stickworms.
I've had the greatest success with a neat trick taught me by Capt. Jamie Jackson, a well-known fishing guide on Florida's Lake Toho (AJ's Freelancer Guide Service, OrlandoBass.com).
When the barb is buried in a fish's stomach, first remove the soft plastic lure by sliding it up the line. Determine whether the barb is angled more to the left or right side of the fish. While holding the fish by the lip, carefully insert curved, locking hemostat pliers between the gill plate and the gills, being careful not to touch the fragile gills, and grasp the line. Pull downward on the line. This turns the hook and exposes the bend. Grasp the bend with needlenose pliers, give it a sharp tug, and it should pull easily from the fish's tissue.
To make this process even easier, mash the barb on your hooks with pliers. I've been doing this occasionally for years, and have tried to be consistent the last few fishing trips. I have not noticed any difference in the percentage of fish landed.
Bassmaster Senior Writer Homer Circle has long been an advocate of barbless hooks, and he's written a story about his experiences for the magazine. Look for it in an upcoming issue of Bassmaster.
Hook removal devices are required equipment on some saltwater fisheries these days. If you're concerned with releasing your catch alive, you ought to have one handy when you go bass fishing or at least master the art of removing deeply imbedded hooks.
(Reprinted from the Sept./Oct. 2008 issue of Bassmaster Magazine)
Jeffrey Smith won't soon forget the 2008 fishing season. Nor would I, if I had caught seven bass weighing more than 17 pounds apiece, including four over 18, in one year.
I know ... I can almost hear the B.S. filters being turned on. No one catches that many giant bass in a lifetime, much less one year, and especially not outside California.
After I wrote about Smith and his big-bass exploits several years ago, several BASS members fired back that they didn't believe he was catching dozens of 10-pounders, as I said he was. I was skeptical, too, until I saw him in action.
On our first trip together, in February 2000, Smith and I caught seven fish over 10 pounds in two days, and he lost a fish that dwarfed the 11-8 I boated. He landed a 14-pounder the day after I left.
We fished together again one March day this year, and while Smith didn't hook a 17-pounder, he did land the 14-4 that graces the Bassmaster cover this issue. He and his brother (and frequent fishing companion), Steve, put me on two bass over 11 pounds that afternoon.
These aren't estimated weights, either. Smith has his Boga Grip scales certified by the International Game Fish Association every year, and he has a certificate from IGFA documenting his all-time heaviest bass, 18-8, caught in central Florida this spring. As Floridians know, that weight is more than enough to set a new state largemouth record, but Smith was reluctant to hold the fish long enough for a state biologist to examine it.
"I respect the state's requirements and procedures," he told me. "They would probably want to X-ray the fish. But a state record isn't important enough to me to kill a bass like that."
Smith, who lives in Blue Springs, Mo., fished in Florida 17 days this spring, and he was amazed at the number of big fish he and his brother caught. "I've only caught a handful of bass over 17 pounds in my life," he said. "To catch seven in one spring is incredible." Steve Smith, who is retired and was able to spend two months in Florida, also caught seven over 17.
Jeffrey believes the lower water levels from Florida's extended drought had much to do with his success. The only other difference this year, he says, was his switch from monofilament line to Trilene fluorocarbon, which is touted as being invisible to bass.
Smith has been obsessed about catching trophy bass ever since 1986, when he and his bride spent part of their honeymoon bass fishing on Lake Toho near Kissimmee, Fla. He returned to Florida every spring after that, hiring guides and fishing a variety of lakes. It took eight years for him to catch his first 10-pounder, but since that time, he's had very few trips without at least one trophy fish.
As you might suspect, all of the Smiths' Florida fish have been caught on live, golden shiners. They buy enough shiners at the beginning of the year to last them through spring, and they have their supplier feed and care for the bait until it's needed. The wild shiners are fat and frisky; most of the giant bass succumb to shiners at least 7 inches long.
More Smith secrets
Jeffrey fishes only during the three days before and after the full and new moons in January, February, March and April. Twenty years of chasing trophy bass have taught him those are the prime times.
They fish a dozen or so lakes in central Florida. Most are accessible to the public, and most are in the Winter Haven area.
Coontail moss is the No. 1 type of vegetation. "Every 'teenager' (13-plus-pound bass) I've caught has come from a lake with coontail no exceptions," he declared.
Trophy lakes should have some deep water. The lakes may average 6 feet deep, but they usually have a few holes, some as deep as 20 feet or more. He catches many of his giants in or near the holes.
While a few big bass have come from Toho and other big lakes, the Smiths enjoy good success where access is limited to small boats. They fish from bass boats when they can, but they also have johnboats ready to slide into the water from the shores of small lakes.
They use quality tackle: 7-foot, 2-inch G.Loomis GLX rods; Abu Garcia 6500 Ambassadeur reels; and 20-pound Trilene Fluorocarbon tied with Palomar knots to heavy-duty, supersharp hooks.
They fish long and hard. "Sometimes the weather can mess up a moon phase, but we fish during bad weather as well as good. We even fished through a snowstorm in Florida once," he reported. "We know we'll catch very few bass then, but the fish we catch will be good ones."
Lest you write him off as strictly a live bait fisherman, please note that Smith fishes with artificial lures whenever he's not in Florida, and he's caught largemouth over 10 pounds in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. His best bass on a lure was a 15-7 on a jig-and-pig in Lake Fork, and he's caught other Bassmaster Lunker Club candidates on his father's homemade spinnerbaits.
In those other states, as in Florida, almost all his big bass have been caught just before or after a full or new moon during spring (January-April).
Let that be your guide for planning your next trophy bass vacation. If you're not too proud to fish with shiners, give Florida a try next spring. Fishing might not be as good in 2009 as it was this year, but go during the prime moon phases, and you'll up your odds of catching a 10. Or maybe even a "teen."
(NOTE: The Sept./Oct. Bassmaster cover photo of Smith and his 14-4 was taken by longtime staff photographer Gerald Crawford shortly before his retirement. Click on the photo gallery to see more of Crawford's photos as well as snapshots of some of Smith's 17-plus-pounders.)
July 9, 2008
A Classic Baskett Case
View more photos of Mike Baskett's day on the Columbia
At the risk of jinxing him, I'd put money on Oregon's Mike Baskett to repeat as a BASS Federation Nation qualifier for the Bassmaster Classic next February.
No disrespect to the other Western Division anglers who'll be scrapping for that berth during the BASS Federation Nation Championship on Kansas' Milford Lake in November. They're all strong competitors, Baskett says. But I haven't fished with them.
I have seen Baskett in action, though, and he's impressive. The young angler from Salem recently won the Western Divisional championship at Couer d'Alene, Idaho, earning the right to represent Oregon in the National Championship. The week prior, he showed me how to catch heavy smallmouth on the Columbia River on the Oregon/Washington border.
That we boated more than 40 fish that day was amazing to me, considering the angry mood of the Bonneville Pool.
"We have a term for conditions like that," Baskett explained. "We call it 'ballistic.'" This spring witnessed tremendous snow melt, which swells the Columbia with murky, ferocious current. Add stiff winds, which seem to be ever-present and always against the flow, and you get high waves spaced just far enough apart to swamp a bass boat.
"What the wind does is limit where you can fish," he notes. "There are a lot of fish all up and down that pool, and that river. But some really good areas are made very difficult to fish because of the high wind and waves. You can't get to them without getting beat up."
He should know. In late June, he fished a tournament on a ballistic day on the Columbia and had the trolling motor mount sheared off his brand new Triton. He still managed to catch a limit by drifting with the wind. If his electric motor had been working, Baskett would have fought the elements by shifting weight to the rear of the boat to raise the bow so he could face into the waves without getting swamped.
I guess that's why he had me stay in the stern as we cranked a rockpile just off the main channel with Deep Little Ns in a sunperch pattern. We spent the better part of the morning (and caught most of our fish) there, right where the rocks dropped from 5 feet into 8. The trick was dragging the bait over the lip of the drop, then pausing a moment. You haven't lived until you've fought a 4-pound smallmouth in stiff current like that.
When the wind kicked up a notch toward noon and since he had no entry fees to recover Baskett sought places somewhat out of the brunt of the wind. One dynamite spot was a broad flat at the edge of a cove where weeds were trying to work their way toward the surface. My friend Dick Hart of Dallas, who fished the spot with Baskett the previous day, discovered that yo-yoing a lipless crankbait performed wonders.
A straight retrieve wouldn't work, I confirmed quickly. But when I reeled the rattlebait fast and then let it drop toward the weeds, a smallmouth would often latch on.
From there, we worked our way deeper into the cove, where I got to practice yet another lure and technique drop shotting tube lures. Baskett schooled me handily in this spot by pitching the rig into sparse grass and shaking the tube gently until the smallmouth could stand it no longer.
In the midst of this slugfest, the strangest thing happened. Something huge swam between our boat and the target, sending out a massive wake in the shallow water. At the nearest point, the "monster" surfaced with a big smallmouth in its mouth.
"I can't believe sea lions have made it up here!" Baskett exclaimed. To reach the Bonneville pool, the giant creatures (males average more than 1,200 pounds) had to have negotiated a lock-and-dam system separating the pool from the Pacific. He said sea lions probably kill more salmon than do fishermen in the Columbia. I believe it. We watched one animal, several miles away, catch three big salmon in just a few minutes.
"Think what they'll do to the smallmouth when they discover how easy they are to catch in the spring," he worried.
Fishing slowed immediately after the sea lion prowled through, signaling Baskett that it was time to move.
He can't stand inactivity a trait that spills over into his professional life. He's a corporal on the Salem Police force, and he's worked the graveyard patrol four nights a week for the past nine years. It makes sense to work at night, I thought, since it would give him the daytime to fish.
"That's not it," he corrected me, "I enjoy working at night. There's more activity then."
Baskett will be looking for the most activity on Milford Lake this fall, for he's determined to make it back to the Classic. Not that he did poorly on Lake Hartwell, S.C., last winter. He had the highest finish of the six Federation Nation anglers then, missing the final round cut by 6 ounces.
"Fishing the Classic was a great experience," he noted. "It really makes you want to go back. You're treated so well, and all the professionals are so nice and cordial. It's a fun time.
"But I can't look past the National. There are some very good fishermen from the West who'll be in it. Jeff Guerrette from Arizona and Franco Vallejos from New Mexico went to the National last year. Jay Evans from Montana has been there twice. It will be hard for me to repeat."
Just as he craves action in his work, Baskett thrives on competition in his fishing, and that's why he's a staunch supporter of the BASS Federation Nation.
"It offers a great opportunity to fish excellent tournaments," he explained. "Not everybody can fish professionally, and not everybody can make the Classic. But I'm proof positive that a normal 40-hour-a-week working man can fish well enough at the right moment to get to the Super Bowl of bass fishing."
May 5, 2008
I've been in the company of celebrities a few times. I've shaken hands with both Presidents Bush as well as Bill Clinton, when he was governor of Arkansas. At the recent Bassmaster Classic Expo in Greenville, S.C., I had a long visit with Judge Reinhold, the actor who played in Beverly Hills Cop, The Santa Clause, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Seinfeld, among others. He was researching a movie about bass fishing he's planning to produce. And no, he's not a close talker in real life.
But until a few weeks ago, I hadn't been star struck. That's because I never had the chance to take a celebrity fishing prior to then. It happened on the lakes of Clear Springs, near Bartow, Fla., when my good friend Doyle Powell asked me to "guide" Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville. (If you don't consider Tuberville a celebrity, you must not be a fan of SEC football.)
In his 10th year at Auburn University, Tuberville has won numerous coach of the year honors, leading the Tigers to five championships or co-championships in the SEC Western Division, including a perfect 13-0 record in 2004. Tuberville's teams win games through traits like preparedness, attention to detail and near-flawless performance none of which was evident in my end of the boat the day we fished together.
My string of missteps began the evening before, when I forgot to turn off the depthfinder. Unable to start the outboard, Tuberville and I and my son, Joseph, were relegated to getting around the lake on a 12-volt trolling motor. Fortunately, the lake was fairly small. Unfortunately, the wind was sustained at 15 miles per hour, gusting to 25 whenever I pulled up the anchor.
We made it to an underwater ridge where Tuberville, Powell and our host, J.B. Edwards, had caught numerous good fish the afternoon before. I handed the coach a rod with an 8-inch lizard, Texas rigged. Early after his second or third cast, he set the hook on a heavy bass. Which he fought expertly for several seconds until the line parted.
"That was a good one," he declared. Embarrassed that I had given my guest unreliable tackle, I handed him the rig I was about to use, a high dollar rod with braided line and a Carolina rigged lizard. A minute or so later, Tuberville hooked another bragging size largemouth. And the 20-pound fluorocarbon leader broke. Strike two.
The next setup held together, and Tuberville boated a solid 4-pounder. We were on a school of 3- to 5-pound bass that couldn't get enough of our lizards (the one lure I had in short supply). The coach was catching bass. Joseph was catching them almost as fast. And I was losing one after another.
He was gracious enough not to say it, but I know Tuberville was thinking, "How did this doofus ever get to be editor-in-chief of Bassmaster Magazine?"
"I usually have it together," I offered after reading his mind. He didn't respond.
Within a few hours, though, the three of us boated right at 20 bass, including a 6-4, which was one of the biggest bass Tuberville has ever caught. He seemed pleased.
At midmorning, we paused to give Powell's business partner, Davy Taff, a chance to fish with me (or was it Tuberville?). As Joseph climbed into the other boat, he asked, "Is your tackle any good?"
Gigged by my own son.
Despite my foul-ups, I really enjoyed the morning with Tuberville. He's an excellent fisherman and truly loves the sport.
"My biggest and best memories of my dad he's been gone 30 years now are of the times we went hunting and fishing," noted Tuberville. He and his father also fished a few bass tournaments together while he was growing up in Camden, Ark. Despite his incredibly hectic schedule, Tuberville is making sure his own sons, Tucker, 14, and Troy, 12, have those memories of fishing with their dad.
Tuberville will skip some prime fishing time this spring when, a few weeks from now, he and a handful of other college coaches will travel to the Middle East to spend time with the men and women of the armed forces. He's excited about going, and not at all worried about the danger.
"My dad was a career military man," he explained. "He fought in World War II and got the purple heart while driving tanks across Europe. A lot of his friends didn't come home. My brother was in the Army, but I was in the last group to turn 18 during the Viet Nam War, and they didn't draft that year. I've always felt that (serving in the military) was one thing in my life I missed.
"If our young people can go over there and risk their lives to do their duty, the least I can do is go over there for a week."
Also scheduled to participate in the trip, sponsored by Armed Forces Entertainment, are Georgia's Mark Richt, Charlie Weis of Notre Dame, Jack Siedlecki of Yale and Randy Shannon of the University of Miami.
All are celebrities in my book. And if I ever get a chance to fish with one of them, I promise I'll have fresh line on my reels.
March 19, 2008
If you're on my e-mail list, I've probably clogged your computer with high resolution photos of my lifetime biggest bass. I pasted the same notice in each e-mail: "Here's one of two bass over 11 pounds I caught today. This one weighed 11-8 on certified scales. Not bad for postspawn!"
Everybody responds the same way: "Awesome fish!" Then, "What did you catch it on?"
Were I a professional angler, I might name my sponsor's hottest bait. But I'm not, and I don't have any lure sponsors. At the same time, I'm a little reluctant to tell the truth.
So I answer, "A Central Florida Swimbait."
Some of my friends might immediately thumb through the spring Bass Pro Shops catalog, looking for the lure, but most recognize it as code for "live shiner." There's a stigma to bait fishing in the bass world. If it isn't caught on an artificial, it's not worth bragging about.
I'm not bragging, then. Just telling you about a flurry of fish catches earlier this week on a small lake (too small to identify) near Winter Haven, Fla.
My "guides" were Jeffrey and Steve Smith of Missouri and Jeff's 17-year-old son, Sterling. Jeff and I last fished together nearly 10 years ago, on Lake Istokpoga, Fla., when I caught my first bass over 10 pounds. And my second. And my personal best, 11 1/2. Jeff caught a 14-4 on the same trip. He has since refined his shiner techniques to the point that he and his companions catch what he calls "teenagers" a bass of 13 pounds or more during practically every trip he makes to Florida.
These fish are weighed on certified handheld scales, and they've caught several that would have broken the Florida largemouth record, if they had submitted the bass to inspection by a fisheries official. They're willing to do so, but "I'm not going to kill a fish to get a state record," Jeffrey says.
The Smiths had a free day during their latest visit to the Sunshine State, so I took the afternoon off for some field research. We began at 1:30 p.m., slow trolling live shiners along faint contour lines in the bowl shaped lake. Within 20 minutes, my shiner went nuts. Immediately afterward, the reel clicker sounded as something took the bait. I tightened up, hauled back and tried to reel. The heavy duty G.Loomis rod was bent double but the reel wouldn't budge. Fifteen seconds later, the hooked pulled out.
"We lost a 17-pounder earlier in that spot," Steve said.
I didn't need that footnote, I thought to myself. I felt bad enough already.
The next two runs resulted in broken lines on what had to be huge bass. The brothers use 20-pound-test fluorocarbon and hadn't broken a line all spring. I must not know my own strength.
Over the next couple of hours, I did manage to land a few fish, each a bit bigger than the previous one: a 6-6, a 7-8, a 9-8 and an 11-4. Finally, near the end of the day, that 11 1/2-pound beauty came aboard. If it had swallowed the shiner instead of spitting it out, I bet it would have gone 12.
All these fish were spawned out, by the way. I wish my belly were as flat as theirs.
The same day, Jeffrey caught a 31-inch bass that weighed only 14-8. You'll see that monster on the cover of Bassmaster soon.
The Smiths make shiner fishing look easy. It's not. They've honed their techniques over decades, and they are meticulous about the details.
It's fascinating to watch them dissect a lake, and it's a blast to catch one of the double digit bass they locate. I'm also fully aware that my involvement in those catches was minimal. Steve Smith, manning the trolling motor, led us to them. Steve and Sterling set up the tackle. And the shiners did most of the rest.
As the one who set the hooks and reeled them in, however, I have the bragging rights. I wouldn't trade that flurry of big bass for any other experience I've had in bass fishing. I'm definitely going to fish with shiners excuse me, Central Florida Swimbaits again.
Classic Milestones | February 18, 2008
If you've talked to Ray Scott lately, you've probably already been asked this trivia question: "Who won the first BASS tournament?"
If you picked Stan Sloan, you're obviously a student of bass fishing lore and you're wrong. Sloan won Scott's first All-American Bass Tournament on Beaver Lake, Ark., in June 1967. But BASS wasn't organized until January 1968. The first event conducted by BASS was the Seminole Lunker Invitational, and the winner was Carl Dyess of Memphis, Tenn.
The Seminole Lunker was held on Feb. 22-24, 1968. It's an interesting coincidence that the 40th anniversary of the first-ever BASS tournament is this weekend the same dates as the Bassmaster Classic in Greenville, S.C.
Dyess, by the way, was a member of the Memphis Mafia, which dominated the victory circle in early tournaments. In fact, five of the first seven tournaments were won by Memphis anglers. Bill Dance accounted for three of the victories.
Fifteen years ago, BASS celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special tournament open to the 106 veterans of the first Beaver Lake event. Dance finished second behind Jim Rogers. I don't recall where Dyess placed, but I do remember his speech during the victory banquet. By then retired from the tournament wars, Dyess said he had cleaned up his life since the first tournaments. Joking, I'm sure, Dyess said he discovered that "Waking up is a whole lot more fun than coming to."
The 2008 Classic is a milestone for me as well. It marks the 30th anniversary of my first Classic. I was an outdoor writer for the Houston Post when I received the invitation to cover the Classic in 1978, held on Ross Barnett Reservoir, Miss. Weigh-ins were held on the lakeshore, and I was amazed that the bleachers surrounding the stage were packed with spectators.
What would move thousands of people to sit all afternoon in the Mississippi sun, watching men place laundry baskets of fish on a scale, I wondered. (To tell the truth, I'm still a little puzzled by it.)
Ray Scott understood completely. I hitched a ride from Ross Barnett in the backseat of Scott's car. Unaware of the interloper, Scott began outlining his vision of what the Classic would someday become. He saw weigh-ins taking place indoors, with bass boats being towed into the arenas. A tackle show would be held in an adjacent hall, and country music acts would entertain the crowds, which would number in the tens of thousands. The Classic would become a convention of sorts, with lifetime BASS members, Federation Nation leaders and others of the BASS faithful coming together for an annual celebration of the sport.
Within three years, Scott's dreams would become reality. And this weekend, thousands of fishing fans will pack Greenville's BI-LO Center to watch their BASS heroes on Jumbotrons as they weigh fish and hope to become the next superstar in bass fishing. At the same time, hundreds of thousands will watch broadcasts real-time on www.bassmaster.com and same-day on ESPN2.
Search elsewhere on this Web site for details, whether you plan to tune in or show up at the Classic.
If at all possible, do your best to attend the Bassmaster Classic this weekend. After attending 30 consecutive Classics, I can attest that you really have to be there to appreciate it. And I can assure you that after you've experienced one Classic, you'll keep going back for more.
Offbeat writing | February 2, 2008
In my "Back Deck" column for the March Bassmaster, coming soon to a newsstand near you, I lament the fact that so few young people are entering the field of outdoor journalism.
Almost all of the bylines you'll recognize are Baby Boomers, and I worry there won't be anyone to carry on after we're too old to hunt and fish, 40 or 50 years from now. The newest addition to this Web site won't help the cause. He, too, is a member of the Second Greatest Generation. But he is somewhat new to outdoor writing a veteran wordsmith but a later-in-life convert to the outdoors and that's what intrigues me about him.
Take a look at the "Barone on Bass" blog by Don Barone. You'll find his work unusual, and I like that too.
Barone has a style of writing English composition teachers try to beat out of their students. Every subject needs a verb. Every preposition is followed by an object. You'll soon understand why Barone repeated English 10 three times. But he went on to study literature in college, earn a degree in script writing and enjoy a career as an investigative journalist, a features writer and producer for ESPN and something of a rare books expert.
I accused him recently of writing "gonzo" journalism, a style made popular by Hunter S. Thompson in the '70s in which the writer makes himself part of the story and uses a rambling narrative to convey the message. I'm down with that, as Barone might say.
When we first agreed on some assignments, I told Don I was sending him a book by my favorite outdoor writer. He thought to himself, "Unless it's by Kurt Vonnegut or Ernest Hemingway, I hope he doesn't quiz me on it." When he opened the package, he found Hemingway on Fishing.
He later thanked me, saying, "I try to ignore other writers except the two that are always in my head, Vonnegut and Hemingway, and even though I've got the gonzo tag (surreal since I worked with Hunter at ESPN), it's Kurt and Ernest that talk to me, that guide my writing like machine gun bullets on concrete." And, he added, "That drive my editors nuts who always change my three- or four-word paragraphs."
(Note to Barone: OK. I won't step on your work too much. If anything gets changed, it'll be done by Bassmaster.com Editor Ken Duke, who passed English 10 on the first try.)
What compelled me to ask Duke to use Barone's blogs is his genuine, unabashed fascination with all things outdoors. Especially bass fishing. His passion for it is infectious. I began reading his columns on our sister Web site, ESPNOutdoors.com, a few months ago and quickly became hooked. "Diary of a Bassmaster Virgin" was the first feature of his I read. "War and Fishing" was even better. (You can read these and other works of his on www.ESPNOutdoors.com as well as on his own site, www.DonBaroneOutdoors.com. But don't forget to come back here when you're done. We need the page views.)
You'll be seeing more of his work on these pages in the coming months. He's also planning to write a blog throughout each day of Bassmaster Classic Week on BASS Insider.
A newcomer to outdoor sports notices things we veterans overlook or take for granted. During a tuna fishing trip in the Atlantic, Barone learned things about Skeet Reese that I wouldn't catch because I'm too busy trying to figure out what Reese did to win Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year and how I can catch as many fish as he does.
Barone had a brush with the outdoors as a child (you'll have to read it on EO.com) and it marked him. But it wasn't until recently, until after decades of a life lived indoors that he experienced the call of water and tasted the fresh, rich air of the outdoors. It happened on an assignment for ESPN, writing about fishing for salmon on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada.
As he explains it:
"In a river not on fire, fish the size of logs were being caught, trees stood taller than apartments, and in one of them, an eagle perched.
"And when I saw it I was 7 again."
I need to see the outdoors like a child. Sometimes I need to be 7 again.
Memories of a mentor
January 21, 2008
Every bass fisherman has, or should have, a mentor someone who fills in the blanks of fishing knowledge that can't be derived from reading or watching. My mentor died a few weeks ago.
I thought I knew a thing or two about bass fishing … until I met John Powell.
John was one of the pioneers in professional bass fishing. He took turns with Bill Dance winning tournaments on the B.A.S.S. trail in the early 1970s and was renowned for his seminars on plastic worm fishing. I first met him during the BASS Champs tournament on the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. John and his companion had become stranded in the swamp earlier that day, and a Cajun crawfish fisherman he encountered had refused to help, saying the BASS pro could rot out there for all he cared.
Fortunately for me, Powell and his partner eventually found their way out of the Basin. After I joined the BASS staff and moved to Montgomery, Ala., in 1979, Powell adopted my fishing education as his personal quest. Every other week, he'd call and invite me to sneak off from work and go fishing with him. I couldn't always go, but I knew that when he called, the fish were biting.
I learned numerous lessons during those days with my mentor. Our classrooms included Lake Martin, Lake Jordan, the Alabama River wherever he felt like taking me that day. I think he would be happy for me to share a few of those lessons with you.
1. Less is more. While Powell made his mark in the early days by fishing Texas rigged worms on heavy line, he and I mostly fished with 4- or 6-pound-test line and 1/16-ounce jigheads. I had a source out West for 3-inch grubs made of supersoft plastic, and he loved those, ordering his favorite colors (firecracker and pumpkin/red flake) by the hundreds. Whenever bass were fairly shallow which he taught me was much more often than most people assume we caught bass steadily by bouncing/swimming these grubs along the bottom.
2. Fish are (almost) everywhere. Powell fished Lake Martin practically every day once he retired and moved to the lake. He'd move steadily along a bank and fish until quitting time. The next day, he would start out where he finished the previous day, and continue fishing. He burned very little gas, but he did wear out trolling motor batteries fairly often. And he caught fish steadily, all along the shore.
3. Master structure fishing. Some of our finest fishing, especially in winter, involved jigging spoons over deep points and brushtops. Powell used only flasher depthfinders, and he could read his flasher better than most people today can understand digital sonar. He could tell whether the blips below were made by bass or crappie, and whether they would bite.
4. Go subtle often. When we weren't fishing spoons or topwaters, we fished tiny grubs, which he always modified by snipping off half of the curled tail. (This was long before the advent of cut-tail finesse worms, and it was just as deadly.) When bass were especially difficult, he pulled out his secret weapon.
He made me promise not to tell anyone about this secret lure, and I haven't, until now. It started with a 4-inch Luck "E" Strike Ring Worm. He cut the worm in half, leaving about 2 inches of tail, including the curl. He threaded this onto his standard 1/16-ounce ballhead jig and tied it to 4-pound Stren. He fished it on a medium action 7 1/2-foot Cabela's spinning rod. It was and is a vacuum cleaner. I hope he doesn't mind my finally revealing his secret.
5. Pass it on. If you need a mentor to improve your fishing skills, find one. If you don't, be one. I am forever grateful for the hundreds of hours John Powell and I spent on the water, your "student" will be, too.
Growing up with BASS | December 20, 2007
Dad told me I was foolish to give up a good-paying, steady job doing what I loved doing and move to Alabama to go to work for BASS. He had a point.
At the time, late 1978, I was outdoor editor for the Houston Post, where the hardest part of my job was deciding which invitations to go hunting or fishing I would accept each week.
I had no thoughts of leaving the Post, until Ray Scott made me the offer I couldn't refuse: He said he wanted me to replace Bob Cobb as editor of Bassmaster Magazine. I knew, even then, that no one could replace Cobb, but editing Bassmaster would fulfill a lifelong dream. Since grade school, I knew I wanted to edit an outdoor magazine. Plus, I loved bass fishing. How could I say no?
Instead of the huge pay increase I planned to ask for, I accepted a cut in pay and moved my family to Montgomery, Ala.: Cradle of the Confederacy. Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. And world headquarters of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.
Five and a half years later, Scott finally made good on his promise, and Cobb handed over to me the reins of the magazine he created almost from scratch. Newcomers to B.A.S.S. might not remember Cobb or appreciate the impact he had on the organization, the sport, the industry and the field of outdoor journalism. Let's just say it was enormous and leave the elaboration to a future blog.
A few years into my tenure as Bassmaster editor, the magazine was still growing rapidly in size and importance, and the wonderful old Houston Post folded. ("Folded" what a fitting term for the death of a newspaper, don't you think?) My dad said shortly afterward, "I guess you were right to go to work for BASS after all."
BASS was 11 years old when I signed on. In a couple of weeks, it will hit 40. What a ride it's been so far, for the organization and for me.
Thanks to attrition, relocation and other passages of life, I'm now the most senior member of the staff. These days, to work for one company for 29 years means either that a person lacks ambition or that he has a government job. The truth is, I landed in my dream job early and couldn't imagine going somewhere less fun.
(In rereading what I've written, I noticed this is beginning to sound like a swan song. It's not. Bassmaster.com Editor Ken Duke suggested I devote my first blog to telling how I came to be where I am, and I just got carried away, remembering.)
In future posts, I'll relate more of the early history of BASS, which fits well within our celebration of the organization's 40th birthday. I'll also discuss other topics as they occur to me, or you suggest them, and I'll always try to keep it interesting to Bassmaster.com visitors.