Another difficulty of bass journalism is that the fishermen often have no idea what's going on. Clunn's a believer in what he calls "the dynamic universe." He sees fishing as a constant struggle to marry action with an environmental truth that's instantly obsolete—exactly what Heisenberg would've said if you handed him a rod and reel. When an angler can anticipate the natural world (wind, water, sun, fish), he achieves sublimity. Before he won the 2007 Classic, Boyd Duckett pondered the fishing zone: "I don't know if it's just your presentation is better or you truly have the mental ability to make things happen." This is his way of saying that, despite the endless array of casts, rigging, and baits, catching fish comes down to something unknowable, something borderline spiritual.
What the pros rarely admit is that the lake changes so much day to day, hour to hour, mile to mile, that someone else could follow their recipe and catch squat. I came to treasure the honest assessments, like when an angler named Jeff Kriet—after a day of unexpected great fishing at a tournament in Greensboro, N.C.—practically shouted, "Dude, the whole lake turned on." When asked why, fisherman Skeet Reese blurted, "We don't know! None of us know!"
While I was rarely satisfied with my daily fish wrap-ups, there were great pieces to be found out on the lakes. At that Carolina tournament, someone on Kevin Wirth's boat apparently suffered a seizure, fell into the water, and likely would have died had Wirth not grabbed him by the scruff and towed him to shore. Kriet swore he saw a buzzard in someone's backyard play with four separate toy balls, including a beach ball the bird finally speared with his beak. And 28-year-old Fred Roumbanis nearly tripled his career earnings with the $250,000 first-place check, then had the presence of mind, through his gathering tears, to peek down at the few sponsors' names printed on his jersey, thank them, and cement his career. He then drove overnight to Oklahoma to be with his pregnant wife, who bore their first child hours later.
My favorite fish stories are just barely piscatorial. Bill Lowen was bass fishing, I suppose, when he killed a duck by running into it with his face. And yes, I was driving home from a tournament the night I saw lightning strike a semi trailer just ahead of me, blasting flaming chunks of debris onto Interstate 40, and forcing me to swerve as the smell of fried ozone filled my car. Then there are mornings such as one on Lake Champlain two summers ago, when the sunrise coincided with a storm; the world hallucinated in oranges and purples and double rainbows before plunging back into lightning and darkness as "The Star-Spangled Banner" wrapped up, as the boats tore off into the pelting rain. As I watched the sky cycle through the spectrum without ever reaching a shade of blue, I understood what Rick Clunn meant about the dynamic universe.
Again, I'm writing about the sky. Maybe that's what I should've been writing about all along. A hyper-aggressive, rapidly updated news feed about bass fishing is pretty ridiculous. Like the event itself, outdoors writing requires patience, meditation, and silent, predatory observation. In a fishing event, you have the three basic templates of conflict in one venue: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. Hemingway wrote about fishing. Zane Grey wrote about fishing. I wrote about the catching and displaying of fish, and guys with sponsored truck wraps and Power Tackle PG104 7-Foot, 6-Inch Flipping Sticks.
Telling stories about fishing is as natural as pissing off the back of a boat. Fishing journalism is a slightly less natural enterprise. When a fisherman can't tell you how he caught that 8-pound largemouth he just brandished by the gills, the great outdoors are a little less great.