There’s something nice and fishy about the Bassmaster Classic

by Brian Clarey

Southmont, NC is a thin, unincorporated strip of loosely populated country about 40 miles or so from Greensboro proper. It sits in a crook of High Rock Lake formed by Abbotts Channel, Highway 8 and the railroad tracks, and today, in the early morning, the main road teems with high-torque trucks and long boat trailers that swerve into the gravel lot at the marina and ease their loads into the drink.

Before dawn the bass boats shot down Abbotts Creek into the big water to find the holes and crannies where the black bass hide. It’s the first day of the Bassmaster American tournament – the first of three majors on the professional bass fishing circuit – and the competitors, 51 in all, have been scoping the lake for the past three days, tracking fish, memorizing contours and marking honey holes. Now they’re out there putting this knowledge and their finely-honed skills to the test in $50,000 power boats that zip across the surface of the lake like deranged, supercharged water bugs.

There’s more than $600,000 in prize money to be won, with $350,000 or so to be divided among each day’s big catch and big bag with a bit left over for the also-rans. But the serious money, $250,000, will go to one man at the end of the four-day fishing binge, split between the waters out here in Southmont and then Lake Townsend on the edge of Greensboro for the finals.

But there’s tournament history out here in High Rock. It saw its first Bassmaster Classic in the spring of 1994, when angler Bryan Kerchal, a short-order cook from Newton, Conn., became the first amateur to win a bass fishing major. Kerchal died in a plane crash outside Raleigh just a few months later, and the tournament is steeped in his legacy.

The Bassmaster Classic came twice more to High Rock – once in 1995 when Mark Davis took a tip from the locals and used crankbait on his way to earn the Bass Angler Sportsman Society’s Angler of the Year, and again in 1998 when Denny Brauer threw tube lures into the crags and crannies on the shoreline to fool the big bass.

Mickey Rhevark knows the lore as well as he knows the lake itself, which he’s been fishing for the last 20 years.

“That first classic that they had here?” he says. “David Fritts – he’s from Lexington? A lot of the guys in those local clubs, they was jealous. They went out a week before and just fished the hell out of them fishing holes trying to mess up his chances.”

Right about now Rhevark’s fiddling with a cap on the gas tank of his 12-foot jon boat, a hollowed-out fiberglass hull with a little Suzuki four-stroke mounted at the stern. The motor, which has lain undisturbed since fall, coughs and wheezes in the shallows by the slip.

“I think we’ll be all right,” he says to his fishing buddy, 17-year-old David Baker. “Let’s take her out.”

The surface of the lake carries a light chop, less than a foot, which constitutes rough seas here on High Rock, and spray comes over the gunwales.

“Where we goin’? Baker asks.

“Let’s go to Sailboat Neck,” Rhevark says. “Check it out.”

They’re looking for bass pros, though there are a couple rods laying in the little jon and if either one of them senses a bite, they’re gonna go for it. This stage of the Bassmaster American is different from other sporting events in that anyone with a boat and the gas to fuel it can come out on the lake during competition and cast a line. It’s something like walking onto the course at Augusta National during the Masters and playing a few holes, and it’s not unheard of for a duffer to have a better haul than the pros fishing his lake, though it is considered kind of rude.

Still, there are plenty of local anglers out here though most are gunning for crappie, bream, carp and striper and there are eagles and blue heron aplenty chasing down fish as well.

Sailboat Neck, AKA Skip Jack Harbor, has a row of high-masted sailboats wearing winter wrap and bobbing pontoon boats docked along one bank. “It’s kind of like the yacht club,” Rhevark says.

He’s sitting in the fishing chair on the deck, squinting his eyes against the sun, his white hair flared out from under his cap in wisps. He sets his sights.

“There’s one,” he says.

It’s a 21-foot Triton with a Mercury 250 rigged to the stern and wrapped with a flashy design and a dozen or so sponsor decals, like a waterborne NASCAR vehicle. Aboard it a fisherman in a black jumpsuit dangles his line by the banks.

“He’s fishing a good spot,” Rhevark whispers. “That’s one of my spots. He can catch a fish out there.”

It’s Fred Roumbanis, one of the Californians who have started infiltrating the field in this sport that was once the province of sunburnt, squint-eyed Southerners and beefy, mustachioed Midwesterners.

But in the last five years or so, since the sport has undergone a full marketing makeover under the influence of ESPN, professional bass fishing has become… sexy.

There’s more money involved each year, through tournament purses and individual sponsorships – another Californian, Skeet Reese, reportedly makes more than $500,000 a year through sponsorships – as truck manufacturers, auto parts stores, sunglass makers and whiskey distillers hone in on the purchasing habits of the faithful. Along with legions of devoted fans, there are magazines, websites and extensive television coverage devoted to this sport, and the fishing press comprises a small corps of information gatherers and disseminators.

The sport is loud and fast. And it’s accessible, both to guys with the five-figure bass boats and the regular joes like Mickey Rhevark, who has been fishing this lake since he was 11 years old.

“I know this lake so good,” he says now from the fishing chair of the jon boat, “I can watch it on the TV, I can see the background and know where it’s at.”

Baker silently steers the jon away from Roumbanis and across the big water, around a point and then under a rusty railroad bridge to Flat Swamp. Rhevark continues his monologue.

“Spring and fall is the best time out here for bass,” he says. “When it warms up they got all them eggs in ’em. They’re bigger; they weigh more. Summertime they shrink up. The average fish in this lake’s gonna run probably three to five pounds. A six, seven-pound fish, that’s a big thing. I caught me a six-and-a-half, seven-pounder once. The day I caught him it was Sunday, so none of the little stores was open so I couldn’t weigh him. I had to get him home and weigh him on the bathroom scale.”

At the Flat Swamp section of the lake, a wide channel with a bottom that’s littered with tree stumps and a steep dropoff in the middle, two pros share space with a pontoon boat full of local duffers who are working the Hole in the Wall, a lone recessed cove in the long, straight treeline.

Mike McClelland, of Bella Vista, Ark., sits in the middle of the channel casting slowly, reeling patiently. Over by the banks Ray Sedgewick, another pro, casts short, well-placed strikes where the tree branches dangle in the water.

“He’s got a cast from hell,” Rhevark says, watching and talking him through. “Come on baby, come on baby, get ’em in there… he’s in a good spot.”

Sedgewick teases the line once more and then pulls back to set the hook, reels in slow, and the bass breaks the water next to the boat. He lands it on the deck by hand – no nets allowed – unhooks it and drops it into his livewell.

“Man, that’s a good spot,” Rhevark says. “Me and Motley finished second in our club tournament, and every one of those fish we caught was right there. We was using spinner bait, though, and he’s using soft plastic.”

As the jon makes its way back to Abbotts Creek he points to a row of piers on the right.

“When the sun gets up, [the bass] draw up under the piers for shade,” he says. “I can’t believe no one’s fishing the piers. That little young guy who died on that airplane? When he won the classic he caught his big fish over yonder. He had some kind of little fish whistle around his neck, and every time he caught a fish he blew it.

“I used to be into it real bad,” he admits, “but after the classic came it got so popular, that’s about when I quit. It had so much pressure. Once the Bassmasters comes out to a lake, everybody wants to come fish there.”

The weigh-in that afternoon goes down in the Special Events Center of the Greensboro Coliseum. Trucks roll into the room and cross in front of the stage pulling boats and fishermen as music blares and colored spots wash over the crowd. On stage ESPN emcee Keith Alan calls the names while flashbulbs pop and the cameras roll, compiling footage for a broadcast on ESPN2 next week.

“That’s the challenge the sport faces,” says Sam Eifling, a member of the fish press who will file dispatches for several times each tournament day. “They have to make weighing fish sexy.”

McClelland rolls up and steps from the deck of his boat to the stage with a mesh bag that’s wriggling with a limit catch – five fish that total out at 18 pounds, 7 ounces with one big bass making up more than a third of the total weight. He’ll finish the day in third place.

Kevin VanDam, out of Kalamazoo, Mich, is a tour veteran, the sport’s Cal Ripken, three-time winner of BASS Angler of the Year since 1992, his rookie season. He’s a lean, boyish 40-year-old with a couple million in career earnings and a penchant for spinnerbait. He also won the Bassmaster Classic as recently as 2005 and is, today, the No. 1 ranked bass fisher in the world.

He rides in as metal music blares off the walls and presents a dripping, twitching fish bag that weighs 14 pounds, 15 ounces, enough to put him at number 11 after the first day.

Skeet Reese lounges on the deck of his bass boat as it approaches the stage with a dazzling smile and good deal of panache. Reese, a former go-go dancer who has been on the tour for more than 10 years, wears his California roots on his black and yellow sleeve with tailored uniforms, highlighted hair and a glowing tan. He looks a little bit like an outdoorsy Bill Pullman. And he’s money, with nearly a million in career earnings and endorsement deals that are reported to be the highest in bass fishing.

“I really try to go out and set an image,” says the 36-year-old Reese. “My hair changes all the time. I branded my yellow and black [fishing clothes] and the hair and it’s worked to my advantage. We’re all out here because we love fishing, but I’m a business. I’m Skeet Reese Incorporated.”

“There are five guys on the tour making over $300,000 in sponsorship dollars,” says Tim Tucker, who has been writing about competitive bass fishing for Bassmaster magazine, and other bass-related media outlets for 25 years. “Skeet Reese is the highest – he makes about $560,000. Kevin VanDam is at about $500,000. I thought I knew something about the business side, but I was shocked when I found out what these guys were making. When I first started these guys were happy with $300 a month. When I started it was big bellies, stogies in the teeth. ESPN has brought a lot of the changes in the last four or five years, and they know how to do this – they know how to dress a sport up. The ESPN influence has been largely on the theatrical side.

“Is it better?” he continues. “That’s a good question. In some ways it’s a lot better. But I miss some of the old stuff. Guys used to pull pranks on each other and it wasn’t so cutthroat. But at the same time, a lot of these guys are my friends, and I love the fact that there’s never been a better time to make a living at this.”

Tucker, who is from Gibsonville but now lives in Florida, was working the 1994 Bassmaster Classic that Bryan Kerchal won just before his death.

“We were working on a book together,” he remembers.

“[He was] a great kid and he would have had a real impact on this sport.

“Hey?” he asks, shifting gears. “Is that topless carwash still here?”

Day 2 at High Rock sees a bitter cold that lingers even as the wisps of steam rise from the water and the sun lays a golden, dappled stripe on its surface. Joel Etheridge of Birmingham, Ala. pilots a BASS media boat, a 21-foot Triton with a 250 strapped to the stern, through the chill at very high speeds.

He and 11 of his buddies, the “Dirty Dozen,” drive the BASS organization’s boats to all the events and squire media types around the fishing grounds as needed.

He eases the throttle – a hotfoot pedal on the floor – as he approaches John Crews, who finished the first day in 13th place. Crews throws casts along the rocky bulwark where Highway 8 bisects Abbotts Creek. He slings a few 30-yard casts, each dropping within an inch or so from the waterline and Etheridge restarts his motor.

“Thank you John,” he calls out, and turns to the media types. “Y’all ready to hang on?”

He cruises High Rock Lake, and there’s Aaron Martin pitching the shadows by the docks of some of the newer homes on a point. After lofting the spinnerbait a few times he pulls up his trolling motor and makes a dash about a hundred yards away to work the area around a fallen tree.

“Time is money,” Etheridge says. “In a lot of ways it’s, ‘How many casts can you make in a day?'”

Jeff Reynolds, an Arizonan who in 15th place has a solid shot at finishing in the money, trolls towards another fallen tree by the shore but pulls up before he gets near.

“That was odd,” Etheridge says. “Maybe he fished it yesterday and didn’t get a bite.”

He passes Mike Iaconelli, one of the sport’s superstars, fan casting with crankbait in Flat Swamp. The day’s buzz on Iaconelli is that he’s caught about a dozen fish under 12 inches, too short to qualify.

McClellan occupies the same spot he did yesterday, methodically working the drop in the channel by the swamp. Crankbait. Swimbait. Worms. He throws a long, fluid cast, makes three slow cranks of the reel, waits, three more, waits. Again and again.

He switches to a jig, pours something on it from his well. It’s a bottom bumper that will leave a scent trail on the lakebed.

VanDam is out here, too, working the banks of a little cove with one foot on the trolling motor. He covers a lot of water, dropping casts quickly, every six inches or so.

“His strategy is, ‘If I can make more casts, I’ll beat you because my bait’s in the water longer,'” Etheridge says.

VanDam pulls his line from the water, jumps in the cockpit and moves… moves… across the big water to another cove and picks up again. He’s got a strike within a minute, sets the hook, reels quickly and boats the fish. Then he’s off again.

There’s been a lot of movement on the leader board today, and this afternoon at the Coliseum’s Special Events Center sees McClelland holding his position in 4th place and picking up the biggest fish of the day, a 6-pound, 9-oncer. Ishama Monroe, one of bassfishing’s most popular personalities, has moved from 27th place to 7th, Roumbanis has moved from 30th place to 10th on the strength of his own 6-pound fish. For this he gets a check for $1,000.

But the biggest catch of the day goes to Kevin Wirth. He was fishing a shoreline in the morning with a young observer in the boat, and the kid fell into the water with convulsions.

“He’s purple. No breath of air. He’s lifeless, totally lifeless,” Wirth, a former jockey who has ridden in the Kentucky Derby, later said. “I drug him dead up on the boat ramp.”

Rescue personnel and BASS officials revived John Clift, 24, and brought him to a nearby hospital where he was treated and released in fine condition.

Wirth is done – he didn’t weigh in at all on Day 2. But the top 12 will continue tomorrow at Lake Townsend, which has been divided into six fishing holes. They will fish two to a hole for an hour and 10 minutes per hole. The final 1:20 will be happy hour, when the fishermen go to their spot of choice.

On Sunday a red helicopter buzzes Lake Townsend at sunrise. A cameraman leans out the open port and captures the morning glory. Yesterday was a tough one: Eight of the fishermen caught less than five pounds, and two of those – Ish Monroe and John Murray – made the finals.

Fred Roumbanis couldn’t fulfill the five-fish limit, but he managed to land three big ones that weighed in at 14 pounds, 10 ounces with two biggies that weighed more than six pounds each, enough to give him more than five pounds on his nearest competitor.

He caught them here in the marina, where right now Ish Monroe is working the brush by the mouth of the creek.

He sees one down there. Saw it yesterday, in fact. And now he’s going to land it.

Monroe is a big-shouldered Californian of 32, handsome and hip; he’s got 768 friends on MySpace and his ride-in music to the weigh-ins is “This is Why I’m Hot.” His winnings amount to more than $500,000, making him one of the best in the world. He’s also the only black guy among the top-tier pros. All of these things make him highly recognizable, a perfect poster-boy for the sport. He knows and understands, even enjoys, his role.

“I’m always myself,” he says. “Regardless if I make a million dollars or I make no money, I’m still the same guy.”

Still, he’s famous enough, he says, that he can’t walk in public without getting recognized.

“It started last year,” he says. “I’m in plain clothes, at the airport, shoe stores, restaurants. People recognize me. They come up to my house.”

But now he’s working that fish in the brush… watching… casting… teasing the line, making it dance.

And then… strike!

The line goes taut and then… then… his rod snaps. He yells. Raises a murmur in the crowd.

“He dropped enough F-bombs for a year,” a spectator chuckles.

This is Hole No. 1, where yesterday Roumbanis landed all of his big fish, indeed, where all of yesterday’s fish were caught. Monroe is first in the hole and he means to pull some big ones out.

He makes his strike out by the jetty – a quick cast and a tight jerk to set the hook.

“Fish hole!” they shout from the marina.

He reels the fish in and quickly disengages it from the lure before resuming his exploration of the rocks.

“Hey Mark,” he jokes to a fishing press photographer, “you showed up late.”

All the while he’s casting, reeling, watching.

Relations between the fishing press and the competitors is cozy – so much so that they all sit together backstage at the weigh-in and watch the returns; they trade fish tales and verbal jousts; they know things about each other’s personal lives.

For instance, everybody knows Roumbanis is expecting his first child. They also all know that expectant and new fathers generally do very well in tournament fishing.

In that regard, perhaps, no one else had a chance.

This afternoon at the coliseum it is revealed that John Murray caught the big fish of the day, a shade lighter than five pounds, with just a few minutes left to fish.

“You know, these fish are smart,” he says. “They’re well-trained – they’ve been caught a lot.”

Monroe finishes with a little more than six pounds of fish, enough for third place.

And McClelland blanks the day: No fish at all.

“I had one bite,” he says. “It felt like a decent fish. But when you go to fish a totally new body of water, and such a short time at each hole, it’s hard. Especially for someone like me who likes to get on one point and fish for a couple hours.”

The money, and the trophy inscribed with Bryan Kerchal’s name, goes to Roumbanis. His winnings from the Bassmaster American total $253,000, not a bad weekend’s work, and the win should lure more sponsors to his cause as surely as the 4-inch, margarita mutilator-colored Roboworm on the end of his line brought him all of those fine bass.

He weeps a little on the dais as he accepts the trophy, and even as he gets out to the parking lot to pose for pictures and sign autographs he still can’t believe he won this thing.

“I just can’t believe I won this thing,” he says.

He places the trophy on the deck of his boat as the fans gather, and he jokes with them and the fishing press.

Back in the coliseum’s Special Events Center, the BASS pontoon boat, loaded with the day’s catch, pulls out of the auditorium and heads towards Lake Townsend to bring the fish back home.

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