Big-money Texas bass fishing: Of course Bubba won
Midway through the award ceremony of the 20th annual McDonald’s Big Bass Splash in Lake Fork, Texas, I realized I was being barraged by a stereotype. Men with blonde beards, overalls and T-shirts that read “Vegetarians: An old indian word for bad hunter,” sat on lawn chairs and chanted, “Give Bubba the boat.”Most smelled like the hot, humid air that kept the 7,000-odd fishing fans crowding into the shade. The announcer – Bob Sealy, owner of Sealy Outdoors – riled up the crowd by giving away $325,000 in prizes. With a new boat on the line, it took no time for one of the finalists to arouse a cheering section. This was Bubba. He won the boat.Somehow, I didn’t need a passport for this vacation, although a walk on the Moon would have been more familiar.My father, the brain child, had proposed last spring a weekend of fishing on Lake Fork, a big bass lake with more stumps than homes and smack dab in a dry county. It sounded like fun, and furthermore, it sounded like a cultural event.
I couldn’t have been prepared for its enormity. Slightly fewer than 4,000 fishermen showed up from 31 states and three countries. A dozen gaming officials policed the event (and ticketed the many violators), and if you were in the money, you could expect a complete boat inspection and a lie-detector test.It’s a new trend, competitive fishing. Wal-Mart sponsors a multimillion-dollar tour for pro anglers and, like the neighborhood poker tournaments that mimic the Big Time, amateur anglers traveled to eastern Texas for bragging rights and boatloads of cash.Truly, size mattered. Each hour, the angler with the largest fish was cut a $1,200 check. The Top 10 were paid money, meaning that over the three days, 270 fishermen were being paid. In just one hour of the three-day tournament, 112 largemouth and smallmouth bass were weighed in, meaning most took their turns surrendering to the likes of Bubba.The Top 5 for the three days earned even bigger prizes. The biggest bass (almost 12 pounds) landed one fisherman a black Hummer (see stereotype reference, paragraph 1) worth $60,000, and other prizes ranged from $21,000 boats to campers to an ATV.This should perplex the outside world, who figures fishing to be little more than a peaceful hobby. As luck had it, my seat on the return flight home was next to second-homeowner Zoanne Smith of Wildernest who had a hard time believing such things existed.
“How can fishing be competitive?” she asked. “I thought that was the whole point, to get away from that stuff.”That was then. This is now. Next year, Sealy has promised $500,000, and by the 25th anniversary, there will be $1 million at stake. With dollar signs in our eyes, we woke up each day at 5:30 a.m. and were fishing by 6. An hour later the sun rose, and after a few more hours, boats raced to and from the weigh-in area with the urgency of a teeny bopper’s shopping spree.On Friday, my dad landed a 2-pound bass. We measured it (tournament rules stated no fish could be weighed in between 16 and 24 inches in length), and this fish was 15 3/4 inches – perfect.We placed the fish in the livewell (this was a catch-and-release lake), and took off down the boat lane, packed with 60 mph boats creating a rush hour, literally, of boats carrying fish (or blank checks with gills).
We reached the weigh-in and my dad took the $600 seat on the hourly Top 10 row. For the next half hour, I watched as anglers weighed in their catches. A small crowd applauded (who were they? why was this interesting?) and, with 10 minutes to go, my dad was bumped from the money. A local radio station (KMOO) announced the unseating.By the end of the 27 hours of fishing in 90-plus-degree heat, we were waving the white flag. Our livewell was empty. Out of curiosity, we wandered back to the weigh-in for the awards, to see our competition, to catch a glimpse at the weekend’s best amateur. We stayed long enough to want to leave (it was the heat as much as the company), but while we watched Bubba walk away with the boat, we made plans for next year. There’s a $500,000 purse – and a big fish – with our names on it.Ryan Slabaugh can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 257, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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