42 Hours In Fishville
By Ann Dermody
Terry Scroggins is anxious. The wind has been whipping up, and the forecast for the next few hours isn't good. It's past 9 p.m. and he's safely tucked up in his Alabama hotel room when the first heavy drops fall and the thunder commences. It's been a long day of parading in front of the fishing media for the Palatka, Florida, angler. (Yes, there's such a species as fishing media — a more substantial and ravenous group than you might imagine.) Scroggins' flashy Toyota-sponsored boat is secured on its trailer, all systems checked and double-checked, ready for its big day tomorrow. He'll be up at 3:30 a.m. to take it to Lake Guntersville to fish in his 11th Bassmaster Classic, in front of literally thousands of spectators at the blast-off and tens of thousands more that afternoon at the weigh-in.
"You still get pumped up before the Classic," he says. "But I don't get that nervous anymore. The first one is like going into high school. You don't know what to expect." Scroggins, a ruddy, pleasant-faced 40-something who used to be a tow-truck driver and auto-body guy before turning pro in 1999, is a tour veteran with 163 bass tournaments, five first-place finishes, and 45 top 10s for a total purse of $1.6 million. He has a penchant for hunting, saltwater fishing for grouper, and creating elaborate grilling recipes to cook them. "I don't eat bass," he says. "They're my co-workers. But I'll dang sure eat a grouper."
To the 55 anglers who worked hard to qualify, ready to cast off and head out tomorrow, deteriorating weather is a big deal. Most have spent days scoping the lake during the official practice period with high-tech fishfinders, treasure chests of lures, and expensive rods. The prep work will culminate three days from now with just one angler lifting the trophy every bass fisherman dreams of and netting the substantial $300,000 purse. The spots Scroggins has flagged as hiding the "big ones" will be churned up, and those fish will move to who knows where. "It's out of my hands now," shrugs Scroggins.
Already A Winner
Jeff Lugar has other things on his mind. The plastics production manager from McGaheysville, Virginia, qualified through B.A.S.S. Nation, the name given to the bass clubs throughout the country that give anglers the chance to compete at local, state, and national tournaments, culminating in the opportunity to fish the Classic. He's one of six amateurs who won qualifying spots to this year's Classic, and he will cast it out with the pros for this once-in-a lifetime chance to show their fishing mettle.
Like many enthusiasts, they're guys who'd love to fish professionally but whose reality is holding down a regular job to support families and fishing habits. Lugar's accumulated Bassmaster purse is $450, but his successes last year helped him pick up sponsorships from Triton, Mercury, and Lowrance, which allowed him to buy a new boat. Tonight he says he already feels like a winner: "I'm a working guy. I don't do this for a living. I'm excited and nervous because I want to do well and bring fish back in. This is the Super Bowl of fishing. It's got the most glamour, most showmanship, and for an amateur to be here, it's like bringing home the gold medal!"
Lugar's two sons Travis (18) and Tyler (14) are here to watch. "They both love to hunt and fish, and it's always a competition when we fish together because they try to beat dad for bragging rights. For me, I wanted to leave a legacy for them. For them to see me fish with all those guys they look up to is very rewarding and self-gratifying."
I'm more Lugar than Scroggins. This, too, is my first Classic. I've been told it's eye-opening. It's already proven to be vocabulary-stretching. For example: "I was flipping near the riprap and all I caught was some squeaker. I'm fixin' to get some groceries and hit them springs." Roughly translated: "I was casting into thick vegetation near the rocks along the bridge abutments, but all I caught was a bass not legally long enough to bring to the weigh-in. I'm ready to get something to eat and go to bed."
1, 2, 3 ... Blast Off!
Day one of the Classic dawns cold. Along with the competitors, family members, friends, and the rest of the 3,000-odd crowd at the docks, we're all up before sunrise. Lake Guntersville is 85 miles north of Birmingham, an hour-and-a-half drive through flatlands and town after town of strip malls. For Alabama as well as for the local businesses of Guntersville, publicity for future revenue from the event is significant. The state will see a $20 million boost from this Classic.
Shortly after a watery sun has thrown light on the gathered masses, the anglers circle one by one in front of the stands to cheers and a brief biography read by the master of ceremonies. They all get the deserved fuss, but the biggest cheers are reserved for the well-known faces, the ones who've won and placed time and time again. Kevin VanDam, like Oprah, is so well-known in his field that he goes simply by KVD. Today the biggest cheer is for homeboy Chris Lane, who lives here on the lake. For Lane, who made his home here five years ago, it's an emotional moment, one he'll tear up remembering on the stage in Birmingham tonight. "It took me an hour to get it out of my head," he admits.
Another former Bassmaster champ who lives on the lake, Boyd Duckett won the Classic in 2007 and was the first to win in home-state waters. There's a third local competitor, the one college qualifier Jordan Lee, whose extraordinary story includes being the brother of last year's college qualifier, Matt Lee (see, "The Academics Of Bass Fishing").
By 8 a.m. they're all off. An army of shiny fast boats speeding out to the spots they've scouted, followed by hundreds of other bass boats — legions of fans who adore these guys watching their every cast, hoping to learn how to fish better, or just happy for the chance to see their heroes go to work.
The Hunt Is On
My boat driver, Bobby McDonald, is a retired schoolteacher and avid bass fisherman from Birmingham who's fished Lake Guntersville for over 30 years. He pushes a cowl up over his nose and face, and pulls on thick ski gloves. I take it as a sign to zip up the various layers I'm wearing and put on my hat. For the first 34 years, the Bassmaster Classic was held in summer or fall, but in 2006 it was moved to late winter. McDonald asks if there's anyone in particular I'm trying to track down. Terry Scroggins, Jeff Lugar, Jordan Lee? No, he hasn't seen any of them yet this morning. It's a big lake — 69,000 acres — and they can pretty much fish anywhere they want. I try one last name, hometown favorite Chris Lane. McDonald brightens. We blast off. He guns his bass boat out past the breakwater and across the cold gray water sparkling like crystal, pushing the throttle up, 30, 40 … 60 mph, as the cold bites deep. Abruptly, we round a cove and he pulls back. Before us are about 50 boats, all quiet and using trolling motors, loaded with mostly men bundled up against the weather. They're watching Chris Lane cast and recast, talking to each other about what they've seen him catch, or not catch, this morning.
This is like spotting rare birds. You come around a corner, and there's an angler quietly casting with a handful of spectators around them if they're not well-known, or a flotilla if they are. The psychedelic paint jobs of their boats, touting sponsors, become the plumage that identifies them. They seem oblivious to the watchers, marshals, or cameraman sitting silently aboard. Occasionally, as if startled by our presence, they pack up and tear across the water at 70-plus mph, heading for their next spot. We watch and chase several anglers until it's time to head back to the dock. Suddenly, from behind us, a boat whooshes by at speed, a huge and distinctive "Auburn" painted along its side. "It's Jordan Lee!" I squeal like a ‘60s schoolgirl who's just spotted Paul McCartney. Bobby pushes the throttle in pursuit. Lee's boat is too fast for us, his wake hard to distinguish from the other fish paparazzi and groupies who've joined the chase. It's not altogether lost on me that there's something slightly insane about chasing a 21-year-old around a lake in Alabama in the dead of winter, as he chases an 18-inch fish.
By the time we round the bend under the bridge near Guntersville, he's on his second or third cast. "It's not looking like a great day for him," one of the men watching from a boat tells us. We'll have to wait for the weigh-in to know for sure. Meanwhile, Bobby and I amuse ourselves by waving at the remote-controlled hovercraft camera circling Lee's boat. When we start gesturing and pulling silly faces, it makes its way toward us — likely our only shot at ever appearing on ESPN.
The Real Show Begins
The fishermen's last cast is at 2 p.m. and then it's a helter-skelter race to get the boats back on trailers and the miles eaten up to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). By 3:30 p.m. we're all in our seats, ready to roll. The show's host, Dave Mercer, has a voice that sounds like he's introducing the stars of TV wrestling.
"Are you all ready to see some FISH WEIGHED?" he bellows. The crowd claps politely. "That was a GOLF CLAP!" he mocks, and the BJCC roars back in approval. Then the party starts. One by one, our heroes enter the arena to loud, pumping soundtracks they've chosen, sitting high on the casting chairs of their bass boats, waving like pageant queens. Into the live well they dip, the crowd catching its collective breath in anticipation of the biggest, fattest catch they'll dangle in front of us. Then up on the stage they jump, handing over the official red bag of fish for the weigh master to pile, flapping and furious, into a clear container for the scale. Meanwhile, Mercer asks each what went right, what went wrong.
Many are blaming yesterday's late storm for the low weight counts. Terry Scroggins catches 16 lbs., 15 oz. It keeps him in the middle of the pack. He's not thrilled. For Jeff Lugar, the tally is worse. He weighs in at 11 lbs., 10 oz. But he's not letting that get him down. "I didn't catch a bunch of fish," he grins. "But, HEY, I'm here at the Classic."
The End Of A Long Day
For those watching, it's been a long day, but for competitors it's even longer. Their 3:30 a.m. start won't wind down until the last competitor sweeps into the BJCC, close to 8 p.m. For the leaders and the heavyweight pros with sponsors to please, and fans to entertain, it'll be even later, as a press conference follows the weigh-in. It's a quick dinner before hitting the springs, and then they'll do it all again tomorrow and — if they're lucky enough to make the cut — the next day, too. If they don't make the cut, they'll work the booths of their sponsors in the convention center on Sunday, long lines of small children (and many grown men) queuing up shy and wide-eyed to shake their hands and get a photo or an autograph. These hardened pros will dip on one knee and offer high fives and a "How are ya, buddy?" time after time, their brief encounters creating memories and future fishermen they'll never know about.
By now these guys are like old friends. I cheered and watched them set off to work early this morning. I read their statistics online and studied their forms and successes. If I could bet on them, I would. I chased them down on the lake and watched their faces crack with disappointment or be unable to contain their smiles at the weigh-in. I don't want to go home until I know how this plays out. Who turns that first bad 7-pound day around? Who makes the cut-off? Who faces the long road home pulling his boat, wondering if he'll ever qualify for another Classic?
Back home, I spend the rest of the weekend online checking the leaderboard, watching it flicker and change as the Saturday and Sunday results come in. The following weekend I'll pass up the chance to go for brunch because I'll be glued to ESPN2 watching the final day weigh-in, despite the fact I've known for a week that Alabama native Randy Howell won with a last-day grand total of 67 lbs., 8 oz.; that Terry Scroggins came in 25th beating KVD by one place; and that Jeff Lugar added a healthy $10,000 to his $450 winnings with a 35th place finish. And Jordan Lee? The one I screamed around the lake after? Well, he finished sixth overall, the highest-placing college qualifier ever. I'll spend the following weeks rattling off random statistics to friends and colleagues the way people talk about football or baseball stars. Their looks will alternate between startled, concerned, and bored. I can't help it, I tell them. I've been hooked.
— Published: June/July 2014
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Did You Know?
- The Classic takes place over three days. All fish are caught under catch-and-release rules, must measure at least 12 inches (or the state minimum size), and be alive at the time they're presented for weigh-in.
- After each day's fishing, the boats, fish, and fishermen must trailer back to the convention center for weigh-in. Every day's catch is limited to five fish. A dead fish equals a weight penalty.
- After a second-day cut, the 25 top anglers, based on total weight, advance to the third day. The highest total weight wins the competition.
- Largest bass caught: 11 lbs., 10 oz., Preston Clark, 2006
- Heaviest Classic daily weight: 69 lbs., 11 oz., Kevin VanDam, 2011. KVD won the Classic four times.
- Heaviest daily weight: 32 lbs., 3oz., Paul Mueller, 2014
- 43 of the 55 contenders in the 2014 Classic were BoatUS Angler members.
- The first foreign national to win a Classic was Japanese pro Takahiro Omori, 2004.
- Since 2000, each Classic has attracted approximately 300 working media. The event is covered on ESPN2.
- Only one amateur angler has won the Classic, Bryan Kerchal, 1994. Tragically, he was killed in a plane crash five months later.
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