Letter from Shreveport — From the April 2013 issue

The Super Bowl! (Of Fishing)

In search of a hero at the Bassmaster Classic

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The earliest guide to sport fishing is attributed to the prioress of a Benedictine nunnery in Hertfordshire, England. Juliana Berners’s A Treatyse of Fysshynge wythe an Angle, which was first printed in 1496, is basically a how-to guide, with detailed advice, including illustrations, on assembling rods, lines, and hooks. It also offers strategies for catching different species of fish. “The samon is a gentyll fysshe: but he is comborous for to take,” Berners observes. “For comynly he is but in depe places of grete ryuers: and for the more parte he holdyth the myddys of it: that a man maye not come at hym.”

Berners goes on to dispense advice on pike, flounder, trout, and bream — but no bass. The Micropterus genus of bass — the largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted, which are known collectively as black bass — is native to North America. In the 1770s, the Philadelphia-born naturalist William Bartram traveled through the American South and later wrote one of the first accounts of bass fishing (though he called them trout). He described two men — colonists, not American Indians — sitting in a canoe, one holding a rod and line attached to “three large hooks, back to back.” The hooks were

covered with the white hair of a deer’s tail, shreds of a red garter, and some particoloured feathers, all of which form a tuft, or tassel, nearly as large as one’s fist, and entirely cover and conceal the hooks.

Bartram went on to describe the moment the fish “seizes the supposed prey” and is jerked into the boat.

Bass came to the northeast by way of the Erie Canal, which was completed in 1825. As the railroads expanded west, people stocked the tank ponds with them (the fish were filtered out before the water was added to the locomotive’s steam engine). The country’s great dam projects accelerated bass fishing’s ascendancy: trout streams were wiped out, replaced by vast warm-water expanses that favored bass.

But bass fishing didn’t become popular as a participatory sport until after the Second World War. Between 1946 and 1968, the number of anglers in the country tripled, from 13 million to 39 million. In his book Bass Boss, Robert H. Boyle, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, tells the story of how the Classic was created. In 1967, during a business trip to Mississippi, an insurance salesman from Alabama named Ray Scott took a day off to go fishing. After he got caught in a hailstorm on the lake, Scott returned to his hotel early. Restless, he turned on the television. He started watching a basketball game, but as he did he wondered why he had never seen fishing on television. “In a microsecond I saw it all,” Scott told Boyle. “I saw a hundred bass fishermen competing, tournament-style. It just came to me. I knew it would work.”

A few months later, Scott hosted his first tournament, on Arkansas’s Beaver Lake. It drew 106 anglers and charged a $100 entry fee. Scott lost $600 funding the venture, but the tournament was a hit. Soon after, he established BASS and a magazine, free with membership, called Bassmaster. (Currently, there are about 520,000 BASS members.) Meanwhile, he kept organizing tournaments, including the first Bassmaster Classic, which was held on Nevada’s Lake Mead in 1971.

Scott sold BASS to a group of investors in 1986 (who in turn sold it to ESPN in 2001), but the charismatic founder still comes to many of the major events. When I met him, Scott told me his advocacy for bass fishing was more than mere salesmanship: “I’m a prospector,” he said. “You know who the first prospector was? Jesus. I’d sell a guy a subscription to BASS for ten dollars and write him a personal thank-you letter. Ten dollars doesn’t even buy you shotgun wad, but I’d get that guy to sign up several of his friends, and so on — just like how Jesus did it in the Gospels.”

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is a California-based journalist and the cofounder of the news aggregator againstdumb.com.

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