Bassing: hook line and sinker

Tom Henschel

Never in the history of fishing has there been a price on the head of a fish to equal the reward an angler would reap for catching the world-record largemouth bass today. By all knowledgeable estimates, the fortunate fisherman who breaks the existing, longstanding record could become a millionarie overnight.

The current record of 22 pounds, 4 ounces–monstrous by bass’n standards–was set more than a half century ago by George Perry, then 19 years old. Perry, fishing from a homemade 14-foot boat in the backwaters of a Georgia river, received a grand total of $75 in merchandise as the prize for his prize catch.

Things have definitely changed. With six-figure cash prizes possible, as well as income from advertising endorsements, personal appearances and speaking engagements, a life of fortune and fame awaits today’s bass-fishing record-setter.

A number of anglers claim to have caught this much-sought-after, record-breaking bass during the past several years. In one instance, a Florida angler and his family reportedly ate what could have been the record bass. The fisherman failed to properly document the fish as a record catch and, consequently, ended up with only a fish tale and possibly the most expensive fish dinner of all time.

That the world’s record has not been broken in more than 50 years is something of a puzzle to many bass-fishing enthusiasts. The two states most favored for producing this evasive bass are Florida and California. (Florida bass have been stocked in Valifornia waters, where they have reached trophy proportions in a short time). Biologists and other experts, while skin diving, have reported observing bass exceeding 22 pounds while skin diving, or when electrically shocking waters to stun fish temporarily for population counts.

In 1980, an angler in California landed the second-heaviest bass caught in the United States, a fish weighing in at 21 pounds, 3-1/5 ounces. There’s evidence that a new world-record bass exists, but the fish has proved to be as elusive to anglers as the Loch Ness monster has been to zooligsts.

It’s even more amazing that this record remains unbroken when you consider that approximately 65 million fishing licenses were sold in the United States in 1982. The large-mouth bass, also called the black bass, is the most widely sought freshwater game-fish species. The highly pugnacious fighter, found in every state as well as Mexico and Central America, is the target of millions of anglers. And the ranks of bass-fishing anglers are increasing at a rate only exceeded by such personal sportspersons as joggers.

The serious modern-day bass fisherman is a remote cousin to his angling counterpart of 50 years ago. A fully rigged bass boat today could set the fisherman back $15,000 or more. Boats capable of carrying anglers off a speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour are common. It’s also not unusual to find bass boats rigged with highly sophisticated electronics to aid in fishing.

A well-rigged boat is likely to have one fish-finding sonar unit at the bow, another at the wheel and a third, chart-type recorder for marking fish and detailing the bottom. Water-temperature gauges and instruments that measure the pH and oxygen content of the water are other devices considered desirable by many serious anglers. If you really want to go all out, you can even install an onboard fishing computer. More than 750,000 lure selections by type, color and type of retrieve to be used with the lures are programmed into the computer. The angler enters all variables, such as the season of the year, weather, wind and other pertinent information. The device then provides a readout on what lure combination should be most productive and how to fish the lure.

Likewise, today’s bass-fishing tackle is far removed from the era of the cane pole. Exotic materials such as boron and graphite are being utilized in fishing-rod construction for lighter weight, increased sensitivity to strikes, longer casts and improved hooking potential. Innovations in fishing lines, lures and related tackle have made the contemporary bass fisherman the most well equipped and technically advanced angler in the history of fishing.

Although a great deal of the continually increasing popularity of bass fishing can certainly be attributed to the sheer pleasures and relaxation of the sport, other contributing factors have appeared in recent years. One of the foremost is the organization of anglers into an effective international group that promotes bass fishing. Another is the tremendous interest promoted by tournaments and professional fishing.

Nearly 17 years ago, Ray Scott, an Alabama resident and devoted bass fisherman, organized the nation’s bass anglers within one group known as B.A.S.S. (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society). The goals of the organization were to promote bass fishing and stage tournaments throughout the country and to inform members about their favorite sport.

Initially, the plan was met with a great deal of skepticism. However, the B.A.S.S. group now has become the largest fishing organization in the world, with more than 400,000 members and a network of 1,600 affiliated B.A.S.S. chapters. The society’s annual fishing tour last year awarded anglers more than $1.4 million in prizes and cash. The culmination of this year’s tournament trail, the “world series” of bass fishing, will be the $100,000 B.A.S.S. Masters Classic at Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on the Arkansas River, August 16, 17 and 18.

Scott’s concept of “play-for-pay” fishing has spawned a new breed of bass anglers: the pro fishermen. The pro is an angler who competes for cash and is likely to have the backing of a number of sponsors, such as lure, line, tackle or engine manufacturers, boat builders or other companies interested in the exposure possible through the professional bass-fishing circuit.

For the top pro anglers, the rewards can be substantial. For example, the all-time money winner, Roland Martin of Clewiston, Florida, had won more than $200,000 during his pro fishing career as of this spring. Ken Cook of Elgin, Oklahoma, won more than $150,000 in an eleven-month period, the most ever won by an individual angler in a year.

Although pro bass fishermen account for only a handful of the millions of fresh-water anglers in the country, they are easily identifiable heroes to the average fisherman. Unlike fans in sports such as auto racing, in which a normal fan would never be able to afford a racing car, the typical bass fisherman is able to purchase the same boat and tackle used by his favorite pro. Likewise, he can fish any of the same waters as the pro angler. Bass fishing truly becomes a participation sport, even if it is not on the same level for the amateur as for the big-money tournament winners.

“Through our tournament anglers we have tapped a tremendous wealth of knowledge for the public,” Scott said. “This idea-swapping brought about by tournament fishing has been tremendous for everyone. Valuable information on fishing is now getting out that is no longer being coveted by a jealous fisherman.”

Scott characterized the successful pro as one with an “inordinate desire to win, and someone who has never stopped learning about fishing.” But, he said, the element of competition in tournament fishing is sometimes misunderstood.

“Competitive fishing, as it is today, does not pit man against man,” he commented. “It’s not like professional boxing or bowling. This is a game of man’s skill against the almost unpredictable actions and activities of a very special fish, namely the largemouth bass.”

Scott and his organization have also been instrumental in spearheading efforts to improve the standards of recreational waters and bass fishing. In 1974, as president of the B.A.S.S. organization, he filed suit against 214 companies that allegedly were polluting Alabama waters with toxic waste. Through such efforts the Bass Research Foundation was formed. To date it has underwritten recreational fishing projects with funds or more than $1,500,000.

Scott feels the effects of pollution are not as serious as they were in the past and that more attention is now being paid to the environment. He also believes that the abundance of fishing has not seemed to lessen the odds of productive fishing, because of wise conservation practices adopted by many states. One point of conservation required in all B.A.S.S. tournaments is that all fish must be weighed in alive and then released. This procedure is significant because some tournaments may produce thousands of pounds of fish. This rule has become the standard for nearly all bass-fishing tournaments throughout the country.

Scott said one trend that has developed in the tournament circuit through the years is that “the cream has come to the top.

“There is a cast of about 100 accountable pros who will show up in the top 20 places of any tournament without surprise,” he said. “This has statistically proven that the element of luck is not such a great factor. Anybody could go out for an hour and get lucky, beating another guy. But, when you stretch out a tournament over three or four days, you’ve eliminated a lot of the luck factor.

“There are just some anglers with a sixth sense that allows them to computerize all the given factors and use them to their advantage. The average guy can spend a lifetime trying to put it all together, and it’s just never there. But there are a magic few who seem specially blessed when it comes to fishing.”

Cliff Craft, a veteran pro from Sugar Hill, Georgia, who has qualified three times for the B.A.S.S. Masters classics, suggested tournaments have a way of “weeding out” the anglers who cannot take the pressures of competition. He said that winning oftentimes may be determined by catching only a single fish in the final hours of a given tournament’s last day.

“On the final day of the Super B.A.S.S. Tournament, I lost a fish that would have won another $88,000 for me,” Craft recalled. “I had the fish up to the net twice, and he escaped each time and finally pulled the hook.

“That becomes something that’s very had to live with. I’ve been trying to rationalize and pretend the whole thing didn’t happen and that I never even had the bite. A tournament can make the difference between financial security for the rest of the year, or finding another job.”

Craft, who started bass fishing as a hobby and turned pro in 1976, did finish fourth in that tournament, however, and won $12,000. He attributes his success in pro fishing primarily to the experience he has gained over the years.

“It would be very difficult for a newcomer to do well on the entire tournament circuit,” Craft remarked, “Someone without much experience may win a tournament, or do well for a while. But he is bound to pay his dues dearly. If the ego bursting doesn’t kill him, the financial drain may.”

For an angler to achieve any sort of pro status, Craft explained, he would have to fish in all of the major B.A.S.S. tournaments throughout the country. He estimated the cost between $700 and $1,200 per tournament. Costs of a suitable boat, tackle and the days of practicing for tournaments must also be added. On the average, most pros will practice fishing at least 150 days per year.

“The costs become almost prohibitive for the average person without a sponsor,” he said. “If we so-called pro fishermen had to depend upon our winnings without sponsorship, most of us would quickly end up in the poorhouse.”

DuPont Stren, the official line of the B.A.S.S. circuit and this year’s classic, has played an active role in tournament fishing for more than a decade. Sam Waltz, a spokesman for this major fishing-line manufacturer, echoed Craft’s remarks on corporate sponsorships. “There are only a few fishermen that can make a living off tournament fishing,” Waltz said. “Most of professional fishermen must parlay their success into personal appearances and endorsements. If they can make a series of agreements with three to five sponsors, it’s enough with their winnings to make a comfortable living. These benefits are more valuable than reward in sales.” Chevrolet has also become a major sponsor of these tournaments.

DuPont now works with about 25 tournament fishermen. Waltz said that as a policy the company does not put up prize money for tournaments or pay entry fees. But DuPont does supply its pro anglers and field testers with free fishing line and provide them with other income through appearances and product endorsements.

“Tournament fishing has brought excitement to the sport, increasing numbers of anglers and overall improvements in tackle,” Waltz said.

Although fishing is still largely regarded as a male sport, one group has set out to change this assumption. Bass’n Gal, a women’s fishing organization, was formed seven years ago and has grown in size and status remarkably fast. Bass’n Gal currently has more than 11,000 members, with more than 50 affiliate club organizations.

“Women have always fished throughout the centuries,” asserted Sugar Ferris, founder of Bass’n Gal. “The biggest reason that bass fishing is still regarded as a male sport is that women rarely have been given the opportunity and encouragement to develop the skills necessary to become successful anglers. Our organization has changed that, and we’ve proven it doesn’t take big biceps to pull in a lunker bass.”

Bass’n Gal stage five tournaments throughout the year around the country. The Bass’n Gal Classic, to determine the women’s world champion, will be held this year in October at a location to be announced later. First prize in that championship tournament will be $20,000 in cash and prizes. The reigning Bass’n Gall world champion in Doris Canik of Many, Louisiana, who won a Ranger Bass Boat and cash, totaling $20,000 in 1983.

Ferris also pointed out that women purchased 21 million fishing licenses last year, compared to only 9 million in 1970. The impact by women on the tackle industry and in related products has amounted to an annual expenditure of more than $128,000,000. Consequently, a number of manufacturers have been designing gear and clothing specifically suited to the female angler.

Thomas recommended that women contemplating starting bass fishing should “make awfully sure that they are going out for the first time with someone who definitely knows something about the sport. Because if you do go out and don’t catch fish, you’ll quit and will really be missing out on a great sport.”

Most professionals agree that one of the keys to becoming a better angler is practice. They advise the beginner to become as accurate as possible in casting with both spinning tackle and conventional bait-casting gear. Likewise, they suggest developing versatility with all types of bait, such as plastic worms, plugs, spinner bait and even live bait. But the single most common recommendation offered by the pro anglers is to accumulate and utilize as much knowledge as possible. Applied knowledge, they all agree, will most often prevail in the long run over luck.

Exactly how rich professional bass-fishing purses will become in the future is anyone’s guess; there seems to be no upper limit. Ray Scott, for example, is predicting that within two years B.A.S.S. will sponsor a $1,000,000 supertournament. But one fact remains obvious–there are big bucks in bass’n.

COPYRIGHT 1984 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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