The Ultimate Fish Story
AS THE LAST GASPS OF HURRICANE Hugo blew through Washington a few months ago, the man who’s known across the country as Mr. Bass stood by the Potomac River in his trademark cowboy hat and lizard-skin boots, weighing fish. “Boy, what a creel!” he’d exclaim in a rodeo announcer’s brogue as he tossed a fish on a scale. “Now that’s a Potomac River beauty! Three pounds, five ounces-mark it!” [P] Mr. Bass, a jowly former insurance salesman from Alabama, had come north to preside over a high-stakes professional fishing tournament, the BASS Top 100 Pro Am, which was held on the Potomac for three days last September. Armed with an enormous set of electronic scales and a microphone, he greeted America’s top fishing pros as they swaggered in from the docks carrying perforated bags filled with their day’s catch. [P] The 100 samurai anglers had come to compete for a tournament purse of $190,000. Each morning at drawn they sped past Washington’s fog-shrouded monuments in 19-foot metal-flake fibergalss boats rigged with sonar depth sounders, pH meters, light-intensity probes, underwater temperature gauges, foot-powered electronic trolling motors, several hundred artificial lures, and a small arsenal of graphite fishing rods. All of this technology was marshaled for one reason: to stalk the micropterus centrarchidae, a scaly green fish with spiny fins and flaring gills that Mr. Bass likes to call “the most-sought-after critter in America.” [P] “The reason we’re all after the bass so much is that we can’t figure him out,” Mr. Bass explains. “He’s unpredictable, a phantom, a solo operator. There’s a certain mystique about him. He’ll drive you crazy!” [P] Mr. Bass, whose real name is Ray Scott, is the founder and president of the Bass Anglers Sportman Society, a Montgomery, Alabama-based federation of 2,000 amateur fishing clubs that’s turned a lazy pastime of the rural South into a commercial juggernaut. Drive down any interstate in America for five minutes and chances are good that you’ll see one of Scott’s crested BASS logos, with its leaping, gape-mouthed fish, pasted to the window of some mud-splattered Cherokee or Chevy truck. The BASS tournament circuit – highlighted by the prestigious Bassmasters Classic, a kind of anglers’ Super Bowl that packs in sellout crowds of some 12,000 fisherfolk – has created a new class of millionaire sports celebrities and has fueled the technological transformation of the sportfishing industry. Meanwhile, Scott has become something of a folk hero; he’s recognized across the Bass Belt as the father of a new sports universe for the rural man. [P] Scott’s fishing empire is as lucrative as it is ubiquitous. His various angling ventures – which include a popular cable television show and Bassmaster magazine, a slick monthly journal with a circulation of 540,000 – reeled in $30 million in revenues last year. “You can argue that bass fishing is a huge waste of time and money,” says Scott. “But what a wholesome way to blow your paycheck.” [P] Once the butt of jokes on “Saturday Night Live” (remember Dan Aykroyd’s classic Bass-O-Matic skit?), the elusive bass has achieved a high status as the all-American fish. Today there are an estimated 26 million bass anglers in the United States, and bassing represents the fastest-growing segment of the $28 billion sportfishing industry. Scott attributes much of the growth to what he calls “the verticalization of America.” Modern America, he explains, is a country not of broad cultures but of deep subcultures. With more money and time on their hands, middle-class Americans have become serious about the pursuit of leisure, and hundreds of specialized industries have sprung up to meet their demands for refined recreation. [P] “One of the great things about this crazy country of ours is that you can specialize in anything,” muses Scott. “Hell, you can specialize in salt and pepper shakers if you want to. Or better yet, just salt shakers. In my case, I specialized in a single species of fish and built a whole world on it.”
SCOTT SAYS THAT THE IDEA FOR A professional bass-fishing circuit came to him in a vision one night in 1967 after an afternoon squall had ruined a fishing trip to Mississippi’s Ross Barnett Reservoir. “In a rainstorm I had a brainstorm,” he quips.
Across America, hydroelectric power projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority had converted cold-water streams into hundreds of new lakes that proved to be ideal habitats for bass. By the 1960s bass could be found in every state except Alaska. A new generation of sportsmen had grown up fishing these artificial lakes with artificial lures. They’d perfected revolutionary techniques and learned subtle secrets about the fish’s behavior. A high-stakes tournament seemed to be the perfect way to bring together the far-flung tribe of bassheads and at the same time to showcase the new technology of this emerging sport.
“The whole thing has gone far beyond my wildest imagination,” Scott concedes. “Fishing used to be a sport for rich guys in cute little knickers. Now everybody’s got the bug. These people are seriously ill!”
The affliction spread to Washington in the 1980s. A few decades ago a bass-fishing tournament on the Potomac would have been unthinkable. Though the river had once teemed with life (Captain John Smith noted in 1608 that his men could dip the fish out of the river with a frying pan), it had become so polluted during the 20th century that in 1967 Lyndon Johnson declared it “a national disgrace.” Today, after a 20-year campaign that included the construction of the Blue Plains water treatment plant – among the world’s largest – fishing experts are talking up the river as one of the new bass hot spots in America.
“We spent 300 years trying to ruin the Potomac, and we almost succeeded,” says Ken Penrod, a local bass specialist and fishing guide who’s written a book about the Tidewater Potomac. “Twenty years ago the river was dead, but now it’s staging a remarkable comeback. There’s more spawning than ever before.”
The BASS tournament weigh-ins were held each afternoon at Maryland’s Smallwood State Park, just downstream from Mount Vernon. One of the locals unfurled a hand-painted banner that said WELCOME, BASSERS, TO GOD’S GREATEST FISHIN’. All the luminaries of the fishing world were on hand; they looked like Nascar drivers in their denim shirts emblazoned with the patches of their corporate sponsors: Zebco reels, Skeeter boats, Stren fishing line, Mercury Outboards. Roland Martin, the gum-smacking author and television star who’s built a world-famous mecca for bassing fanatics on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, strolled in from the river with his usual limit. Also on hand was Gary Klein, this season’s angler of the year and a fairhaired California who claims that he’s never had a real job in his 31 years. Rick Clunn, the cerebral East Texan who quit his job as a computer programmer for Exxon “to chase little green fish around,” was also there. He practices a chillingly efficient Zen style of fishing that’s won him three world championships and $2 million in prizes and endorsements. “You have to achieve a spiritual connection to the water,” he advises his disciples. “You have to become the bass.”
The tournament’s $45,000 first prize went to Guido Hibdon, a Missouri lure designer and former world bass champion. Hurricane Hugo cut the tournament short, but not before the pros had landed 2,573 pounds of Potomac centrarchidae. Few of these fish perished, however, and none ended up in a frying pan. BASS practices a policy of mercy dubbed “catch n’ release” to help ensure that every bass snagged in a tournament will eventually grow up to be a full-grown lunker. After the fish were measured and weighed, BASS technicians placed them in a metal holding tank filled with a bright green liquid known as Jungle Fish Formula, a “scientifically designed” electrolyte potion that would keep the fish alive until the wildlife commission released them back into the Potomac.
Though he still shows up at tournaments, Scott has turned over the day-to-day management of BASS to Helen Sevier, a savvy former cookbook marketer. “Colonel Sanders didn’t fry up a whole lot of chicken in his later years,” he says of his diminished role. A sometime angler herself, Sevier is credited with devising the company’s wildly successful marketing approach, which relies heavily on direct mail. Still, it’s a little ironic that Scott chose a woman to rule BASS’s overwhelmingly male kingdom. Women aren’t even allowed to compete in the society’s tournaments. In the late 1970s a group of irate fisherwomen took BASS to the New York Supreme Court on the issue, but in what’s come to be known among bass fishermen as “the great pissing decision of 1978,” the court sided with the male anglers, who contended that the presence of women would interfere with their right to pee off the sides of their boats in privacy. Since then, fisherwomen have developed their own angling circuit, Bass N’ Gal, and the bassing universe remains sexually segregated.
With Sevier at the company’s helm, Scott has embarked on an unusual project that promises to do for deer hunters what BASS has done for fishermen. He’s set up something he calls the White Tail Institute, a kind of hunter’s think tank that conducts scientific studies on the feeding and breeding habits of the white-tailed deer, which he calls “the second most-sought-after critter in America.” Among its various projects, the institute is building a deer sperm bank for future eugenics studies; to that end Scott has been collecting the testicles of trophy bucks for several years now. He’s also marketing a high-protein variety of clover that he claims “the deer just can’t resist.” He says that all a landowner has to do is plant a plot of the new miracle seeds in the spring, and when deer season rolls around, it’ll be a cinch to bag a trophy buck.
THE EMERGENCE OF PROFESSIONAL BASS fishing has paralleled another development, one that might be called the rise of mass country. BASS’s weekly television show, “The Bassmasters,” is aired over the Nashville Network, a cable channel that’s been enormously successful at mass-marketing the themes and values – real and imagined – of rural America. TNN offers its 48 million household subscribers a patriotic format of homestyle-cooking shows, stock-car races, Winnebago tours, country-music videos, and, of course, high-tech fishing derbies. Spend an hour watching this slick package of downhome American and you begin to wonder whether there’s any authentic country left.
Image factories such as TNN have brought a sense of class consciousness to a stratum of American society that had long resisted modern brand-name materialism. TNN’s viewers understand that bass fishing is no longer just a Sunday-afternoon pastime; it’s an expression of class identity. You can’t just go out on the lake in a banged-up metal rowboat with a cane pole and a Mason jar filled with night crawlers; you’ve got to get yourself over to Wal-Mart and buy a sonar depth finder and a few of those new “weedless” spinner baits. Today you can drive the impoverished back roads of the United States and see modest ranch-style homes with $25,000 Ranger bass rigs parked in the garage and gleaming satellite dishes on the roof that are no doubt reeling in “The Bassmasters” or “Bill Dance Outdoors.”
With all these developments, it was only a matter of time before politicians began to appreciate the growing power of the fishing subculture. President Bush, himself an avid angler, has had much better luck tapping into the bass constituency than he’s had hooking bluefish off Kennebunkport. In fact, Bush and Scott are personal friends and fishing buddies. Together they’ve forged an unlikely alliance that’s helped to reshape the weekend sport of the Democratic Deep South into a thoroughly Republican enterprise. Scott served as Bush’s presidential campaign chairman in Alabama and has openly endorsed him in his influential Bassmaster publications. For his part Bush has lobbied behind the scenes for legislation that’s favorable to bass fishermen and has even appeared with Scott as a guest of honor at Bassmaster Classic weigh-in ceremonies, hurling slimy fish onto the electronic scales with folksy relish. When Mr. Bass comes to Washington, he lunches with Bush at the White House, and on at least one occasion Scott says that he and his wife spent the night as guests in the Lincoln bedroom.
Scott recently contemplated a run for governor of Alabama – on the Republican ticket, of course. Like Bush, he’s a flag-waving sort, and in his more expansive moments he’ll tell you in grandiose terms that bass fishing is ultimate metaphor for all the glories of the American way. “I went to Russia not long ago,” he says, “and I didn’t see too many fishing poles. But oh, the beauty of the American system! Only the American system gives the average man the leisure time and the disposable income to get out on the water every week in a bass boat and pursue the primeval urge that resides in the souls of all men: the urge to catch a fish.”
With all the momentous changes associated with perestroika, can Russian bass derbies be far behind?
W. Hampton Sides lives in Alexandria and is writing a book about 10 subcultures in America for William Morrow & Company. This is his first article for Regardie’s.