The Only Bigmouths Were the Fish
My short, bewildering seasons covering the professional bass circuit.
Over the past two years, I've caught rattlesnakes and salmon, fired pumpkins from catapults, and learned the finer points of shark fishing, duck calling, and catfish noodling. Mostly, I've covered bass tournaments. A bass-fishing contest is a brash affair—50 to 100-some boats, their 250-horsepower engines roaring at daybreak, speeding around big public lakes at up to 80 mph. Unless you grew up in a johnboat slinging spinnerbaits into the hydrilla, the sport is as odd as you'd imagine: Dixie as produced by Bruckheimer and directed by Fellini. Covering it as a reporter for the ESPN Outdoors Web site, correspondingly, has to qualify as one of the more absurdist errands in sports journalism.
Take, for starters, the launch. This is when the fishermen arrive, back their boats down a ramp and into fog-dappled water, and make their final preparations for the day: strapping rods and reels to the decks, punching coordinates into GPS units, modifying baits with Sharpies. Anglers are almost unfailingly gracious about answering questions. Entry fees and expenses may run $70,000 for those who fish the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society's Elite Series—that's BASS for short—and nearly all of the competitors need exposure they can sell to sponsors. But at this hour, they're also playing a poker game. They do not like to say where or how they expect to catch fish, lest they tip off their rivals. (Some even display baits and rods they have no intention of using.) The bass-fishing reporter, then, must not spook the fishermen by asking questions that deal with strategy or technique. Instead, it's best to approach cautiously, doing one's best to replicate the patter of the bait shop: Have you seen many fish spawning? How about that cold front that's coming through? The result, hopefully, is pointillistic nongibberish for your readers—weekend anglers daydreaming of smallmouth while stuck at their desks.
Yes, the game reduces you to talking about the weather. In no other sport, with the possible exception of hot-air-balloon racing, does weather matter more. On mornings when you have no freakin' clue what to write, stick to the forecast. Bright skies hurt anglers fishing shallow, because their shadows alarm the fish. Rain can help anglers aiming for bass in creeks, because runoff attracts baitfish, which in turn attract bass. And if lightning gets too close, it raises lines and quivers rods like tuning forks. Too much lightning and the whole day gets scrapped, with everyone sent home to eat pancakes and watch golf. Such cowardice rankles Rick Clunn, a four-time winner of the Bassmaster Classic. (No one else has won more than two.) At a 2007 tournament on Alabama's Lake Guntersville, Clunn told me of a victory he'd scored on the same water years earlier by bolting at an incoming storm. "Everybody's paranoid," the sixtysomething groused. "Lawyers dictate that we live our lives by fear instead of by adventure and excitement."
As the competitors explode off the dock for a day of Adventure and Excitement, the reporter drives back to some South Texas Hampton Inn or Central Alabama Holiday Inn Express to file a story and nap before noon. He returns to the lake before 3 p.m. to see a bunch of fellows bedecked with logos—Triton boats, Yum baits, Falcon rods, Toyota trucks, Yamaha engines, Busch beer—walk across the weigh-in stage brandishing the catch of the day. That's right: Owing to the voracity of online news, most deadline fishing reporters do not get to see any actual fishing.
Let's say you tried to cover a baseball game the way I reported on a BASS tournament. You'd start by watching the ceremonial first pitch. Next, leave the stadium, only to return three hours later to read the line score. Then have a go at interviewing the players, knowing they'll keep mum on how all the runs scored for fear the opposing team will glean some useful information about how to swing the bat.
Interviewed backstage, cordial competitors simply say nothing or offer a couple of bare details: I caught 'em deep, or I was flipping a jig. In the world of recreational fishing, anglers delight in describing their catches. On the BASS circuit, the pros prefer to zip it. You know what loose lips do to entire ships—imagine what they'd do to a bass boat. On occasion, a journalist can do even more harm than revealing where they're biting. Twenty years ago, in the days when reporters routinely rode with anglers on competition days, an angler named Jim Bitter caught what should have been the clinching fish in the Bassmaster Classic. Riding with him was the late doyen of fishing scribes, Tim Tucker, who asked Bitter to hold the fish for a photo. The fisherman obliged, and his catch wriggled free and out of the boat. Later, when he realized that the one that got away cost him the tournament by 2 ounces, Bitter wept.
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.