Bass Fishing With The Pros
Georgia angler Dave Altman lives his dream trip on the B.A.S.S. trail.
Dave Altman | February 20, 2005
Editor’s Note: The following journal was kept by Dave Altman of Lawrenceville who fished as an amateur in his first B.A.S.S. tournament in January 2004 on the Harris Chain of Lakes in Leesburg, Fla.
Sunday, January 25, 2004
• 1:45 p.m.: Packing is never fun when you’re traveling on business. Packing is always fun when you are going fishing. Preparing to meet the world’s best professional and amateur fishermen, I am beyond ready. Three tackle boxes and two boat bags full of gear. Eight rods laid out when only six are allowed. More lures and plastics than I will use in two years. Putting heavy line on my baitcasters — and wondering if a guy who is used to finesse fishing for dink spots on Lanier can make the transition to central Florida largemouths. I am determined not to fail (at least not for a lack of preparation).
• 7:30 p.m.: My 1998 Toyota 4Runner is loaded to the limit while a cold, icy rain pounds Atlanta. I wonder if the city will have one of its infamous ice storms and delay my departure to what will certainly be one of my life’s great events.
Monday, January 26th
• 7:30 a.m.: It’s time to head south. Climbing into my truck, the last thing I am thinking about is the health of my vehicle. I turn the key. I hear a click, then another. No ignition. No nothing. The unthinkable has happened. My truck won’t start and it’s the week of the CITGO Bassmasters event. After 20 minutes of trying (and cussing) it finally cranked. I made the decision not to chance the interstate. So I went right to the Toyota dealership and found out I had to have a new starter. That’s $636.98, and I hadn’t even left town. I figured I’d have to finish in the top 20 to even recover the cost of my starter (forget the entrance fee, gear, hotel, food, etc.). What a way to start a dream week.
• 1:30 p.m.: Left Atlanta in a misty, icy rain at 1:30 p.m. It was 29 degrees with ice on the bridges as I came south down Interstate 75.
• 7:50 p.m.: Arrive Mt. Dora — just down the road from Leesburg. The drive took nearly seven hours, including stops at two Wendy’s and two Shell stations. I stopped at the Wal-Mart looking for lake maps and Senko worms. Found neither.
Leaving my wonderfully supportive wife at our home with her mother should make me feel guilty, but I feel most guilty about not feeling guilty. Fishing is therapy for some and punishment for others.
• 8:30 p.m.: After calling home, I am unpacked at the Hampton Inn. Friendly, clean, and breakfast starts at 6 a.m. The only problem with breakfast at 6 a.m. is that the fishermen will already be gone. Made a note to tell the manager to start breakfast at 5 a.m. during B.A.S.S. tournament week (fat chance). I will read (another) Jeffrey Deaver paperback and go to bed…. probably not sleeping (again).
• 11:15 p.m.: I am wondering whether I will ‘scratch’ in the amateur standings. Going fishless would mean paying the ultimate lifetime price of listening to the grief my younger brother will give me upon my return to Atlanta (“Dave, if you scratch, just find an apartment in Leesburg, and don’t bother coming back.”) Brotherly love at its finest.
Tuesday, January 27
• 5 a.m.: Up before that, meeting Tom Mann Jr. at 6 a.m. We will eat a big breakfast, and then go find the fish. He tells me at breakfast “fishin’s tough here” — not exactly words of encouragement for the guy who has waited a lifetime to fish with the pros.
• 6:45 a.m.: We launch Mann’s Ranger at the Lake Eustis ramp. Heavy congestion on the highway but even more so on the ramp, but I didn’t mind. It is like watching a Mardi Gras parade—green Fuji boats, rainbow Wave Worm boats, red Beef Jerky boats, blue CITGO boats, many of them wrapped like bullet-shaped $50,000 Christmas gifts. These men are really, truly little boys who fish for a living. Here were all these guys I had been watching on TV for so long — and they’re loading their boats down a crowded ramp like I would on a Saturday morning at Lanier or West Point. No fishing partners, no one to back them down, no one to pick them up (no ‘courtesy cars’ on this Tour). Just the world’s best fishermen and their extraordinary rigs. Unbelievable.
• 7:30 a.m.: My first fish. A chunky 2-pounder on a Senko worm given to me by Tom Mann Jr. Wow, I thought, at least I won’t totally scratch. At least I caught a fish in practice. As I’m reeling it in, Tom says “shhhhh…keep it in the water and try to shake it off.” He must be kidding. I’m thinking about driving 546 miles only to “shake-off” my first fish. As I was to learn, these guys like each other a lot, but there’s a limit to their friendship when it comes to letting each other know where the fish are. I learned how to shake off a worm bite (completely counter-intuitive to someone who is just dying to catch a fish, even in a practice round.)
• 4 p.m.: Coming in after battling cold temps and uncooperative fish. I loved every minute, but then again I was not having to depend on the fish biting to pay my cable bill.
Wednesday, January 28
• 7 a.m.: (“No need to get up quite as early,” said Tom. “It won’t do us much good.”) More encouraging words. Fishing was even tougher on the second day. Five fish all day — four of them Tom’s. We did not fish the canals, only open water. Tom did catch a 12-pounder, which he says was an eight.
• 3:30-7:30 p.m.: Registration was incredible. A junior-college auditorium served as the staging area. All the best pros in the world were there, sitting in the bleachers with bums like me. An exciting B.A.S.S. video kicks things off… and the Top Eight anglers in the world (those who have already earned one million in prize money) are recognized and presented with “E” flags for their boats, indicating they have already qualified for the Elite 50 series, the B.A.S.S. super-season that pits only the top moneymakers together. I sat two seats away from Denny Brauer, who was on a Wheaties Box and on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the same year, but tonight he is wearing a golf shirt and jeans. What a drag it must be for all these guys to have us in the boat (but all were professional and gracious).
My name was called in Flight Seven. I am paired with young Casey Iwai, a second-year B.A.S.S. pro out of Laveen, Az. He was born four years after my oldest daughter, which makes him one year older than my youngest daughter. As I meet him in the hallway afterward to say hello, I realize how old I really am.
• 8 p.m.: Another dinner at Chili’s, and I’m back in my room, re-lining a worm rod and watching the rehashing of Howard Dean’s defeat in New Hampshire. Finally, after hooking myself twice with a Husky Jerk while tying a Palomar knot, I turn the channel to an old Clint Eastwood movie, thinking it will take my mind off things. It did not.
At 12:15 a.m.: I am sending emails to my wife and kids, too pumped to sleep. I am so thankful to be here and know that it must signal the beginning (or ending) of something in my life.
• 12:30 a.m.: My 5-mg tablet of Ambien, after fighting for 45 minutes with the Moonpie I stupidly ate at 11:30, is finally doing what it should do. It is shutting me down for a ‘nap’ before my 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and 7 a.m. debut on the B.A.S.S. Tour.
My second career looms.
Thursday, January 29th
• 4:30 a.m.: Time to get up. My cell phone is my alarm. It has never failed, and does not today. I shower, don’t shave and look at my checklist (which includes such hard-to-remember items as: lifejacket, hat, gloves, rods & reels and tackle box). I leave nothing to chance because I am about to become “Super Amateur.” I wonder if I will even get a bite.
• 6 a.m.: I meet Casey at the ramp. The boat launches out into a sea of darkness illuminated by 150 small red-and-green bulbs that signal the front and back running lights of the world’s most expensive fishing machines. Aside from the quiet idling of a similar number of 225 hp engines, the eerie lights provide the only indication that the Harris Chain’s wakeup call will begin in less than an hour. Pros chat with each other across their boats and then put on their masks and gloves while the amateurs fidget. An official stands with a bullhorn, waiting until 7 a.m. to call the first flight of boats.
• 7:15 a.m.: Our boat passes through the B.A.S.S. inspection team. The pros greet the B.A.S.S. men and women on the dock as they idle by — it is a close community. Livewells are required to be open and life vests on — these B.A.S.S. folks are serious about their tournaments. In less than 30 seconds, we are racing at 60 miles an hour in 37-degree temperatures that seems to peel the skin from your face. Everything that can be covered is. Sunglasses shield your eyes, not from the sun, which is not up, but from the searing cold and extraordinary speed generated from the B.A.S.S pro’s equivalent of the Miss Budweiser. You hang on tight and hope your pro is not going to run for 30 minutes — wanting him to pull into first good-looking spot you see. (I resist the temptation to shout, “Hey, Casey, there’s a good-looking cove right over there.”) Our ride is less than five minutes, and we have traveled — as the frozen crow flies — about four miles.
• 7:50 a.m.: Casey’s first bite results in our first keeper. He swings it into the boat and gets it into the live well fast. Whew, no one was looking.
• 8:24 a.m.: My first bite in the first tournament. I rear back and set the 5/0 hook (it felt like a good hookset). A 2-pounder takes my Senko worm and goes airborne. He throws the Senko, and I am devastated. Fortunately, 30 minutes later, another (smaller) bass bit the same Senko. It was my first — and last — fish of the day. I had three other bites (at least the ones I could feel). Casey had four fish before 11 a.m. His catch would weigh just under 10 pounds. Watching him throw jigs and drop baits between marina boats, ropes, and docks with incredible accuracy was proof enough that these guys, like the ones on the PGA Tour, play a different game.
• 3:30 p.m.: Weigh-in. Another memorable sight. Boats beached against the grass on the shoreline. They just pull right up — nothing fancy. Men are in their boats swapping stories, fans are armed with their disposable cameras, mingling and straining to see the pros. Children play near the colorful boats. Grandstands are packed as the anglers wait in line, fish in hand, for their names to be called and to be introduced to the crowd. The pros are making sure their sponsor shirts and hats are neat and visible. The ritual is about to begin.
• 5:10 p.m.: A long line of exceptional fishermen stretches from the grassy bank to an official tent. It weaves in and out of seven tubs of super-oxygenated water that all fishermen are asked to dip their bags of fish into as they await going on the ESPN stage. The men look at their bags and keep fresh water in them. They are bonded with the fish they have shared the day with. It is in their interest to keep their fish alive. The first dead fish means four ounces off your total; the second is 10 ounces off. No one wants any penalties when a $100,000 paycheck is sometimes decided by a few ounces.
In this extraordinary and almost bizarre setting of grown men with shopping bags of fish, I am an intruder. I have no Team Triton shirt or Mercury hat (they give you B.A.S.S. hats when you register—but that’s mostly for the ESPN cameras). I wish now that I had bought one of those cool Team Triton shirts on-line for $59, but I had to draw the line somewhere (Earl Bentz will never know the difference).
Now, at age 51, I am standing in line with the world’s greatest fishermen with my one little fish (weight: 1-lb., 7-ozs.). I am standing beside the legends of the sport, names like Shaw Grigsby, Roland Martin, Harold Allen, Tom Mann Jr., Kevin Van Dam and newcomer stars like Tim Horton, Mike Iconelli, Brent Chapman and Alton Jones. Across from me is the personable young Texas pro Kelly Jordan, who hoists an 8-pounder out of his sack — and says he caught it on his last cast of the day. This bass looks like it could eat my bass for dinner. The leader, Alton Jones, brought in a sack (I am learning the lingo) weighing 27 pounds. Could Alton have been fishing the same lake I did?
I found out as I was waiting that the line I was in had a dark purpose. For me, it was the unthinkable. After the scales and the judges and the tanks of bright, blue, oxygenated water, the ultimate purpose of this line was to go up on stage where they announce your name and the weight of your catch (that’s right, even those of us who had ONE fish!). Uh oh, I just remembered an email I meant to respond to — or is that my cell phone ringing? I try to ‘go back,’ pleading with the BASS judges that, “Hey, it’s only a little fish and I don’t really want to go up there in front of a couple of hundred local fans and have it announced to the world (perhaps, God forbid, even on the ESPN Ticker) that Dave Altman of Lawrenceville has weighed in one fish of less than two pounds!” In the name of Jimmy Houston, where the heck is the door? It turns out I was in the line of no return. I had to go on stage — and suffer the humiliation of seeing my one fish held up to the crowd to a mere smattering of polite applause. I will be eternally grateful to the nice folks of Leesburg that they did not cajole me during my 10 seconds of fame on the ESPN stage.
• 5:45 p.m.: I draw Harold Allen as my partner tomorrow. Harold has been fishing since I graduated from college in 1974 — and is one of the true pioneers of the B.A.S.S. tournament trail. He knows everyone. He has 25 Top 10 finishes, including a $50,000 first-place payday in Louisiana. I am told he likes to worm fish, which suits me fine. I have proven I am really good at worm fishing — having boated a very impressive 1.7-pounder on Day One (I’m sure that Kelly Jordan is, at this moment, worrying whether I will bring in another heavy sack). Harold is a legend — and it will be nice to be paired with a guy closer to my age (no disrespect intended to the young pro Casey Iwai, but he was probably hoping to draw someone who, like he, was born after 1980).
• 10:30 p.m.: Ironically, I find myself again watching coverage of Howard Dean’s failing campaign. Tonight, it appears that Howard will not be the only loser this week (my only problem is that I don’t have any campaign manager to fire after my dismal performance in Day One).
Friday, January 30
• 9:15 a.m.: Harold goes to the spot where he caught 13 pounds yesterday. It’s a grassy area. We are, thank God, fishing open water. The canals are great for the pros — not the amateurs. In fact, they would be bad for the pros, too, if they had to fish in the back of the boat. We fish the grass for three hours and pick up two fish between us. We hit a small marina and Harold catches three keepers within 15 minutes. He is throwing a six-inch junebug worm on a Texas rig.
• 1:35 p.m.: After two hours on Lake Useless (uh, I meant Eustis), we return to Harold’s favorite place — the grasslines along Big Lake Harris. Harold catches a few more, as do I, but no keepers.
• 3:15 p.m.: Harold slams a hook set on a big fish. “It’s a mule,” he shouts. Harold plays the fish low as, like a freshwater Jaws, it circles the boat twice. Harold is moving from front to back to front again, allowing the fish to tire herself. “The biggest mistake you can make is to try and force the fish,” he said later. As he lips the fish into the boat, its huge, thick body is pure wildness as he slams shut the door to the livewell. “Man, I needed that,” he says. “That might have put me in the money.” That was exactly the case, the bass weighed just under eight pounds and helped Harold finished 20th and pocket a check for $4,700.
• 5 p.m.: Weigh-in. Everything like yesterday except many of the guys who did not make a check head out early. They are either going home for a day with their families or getting an early start to go to Smith Lake, the spotted-bass-filled, deep-water reservoir in Jasper, Ala. They will fish six tournaments in eight weeks throughout the Southeast. They drive their own trucks and stay in cheap hotels, some of them rooming together. They make a living, but they are not rich (with a few exceptions). They appreciate getting an extra $20 from their amateurs to help pay for the gas that these huge engines eat. There will be no turn-down service tonight at the Days Inn. No room service. No massage. They will eat early and go to bed — thinking what might have happened if they had fished the canals instead of the grass, or vice versa. They put today behind them and begin focusing on the next tournament.
• 6 p.m.: Results are posted. With three bass that weighed 5-lbs., 13-ozs., I finished 59th out of 150 and earned a check for $650, enough to cover the entry fee and some hotel expenses. Best yet, I’ve earned bragging rights (for at least a few months) with my brother.
• 6:20 p.m.: I have my picture made with Shaw Grigsby. What a class guy. He didn’t finish in the money, and he was signing autographs and talking to the locals with a big smile on his face. That’s what being a professional is all about (Allen Iverson, take notice).
• 7:22 p.m.: I leave Hickory Point heading north. All I could think of was what an extraordinary experience this had been. The other amateurs agreed. The pros are living their dream of fishing for a living. For the amateurs, it was something beyond that. Many of us experienced first-hand the thrill of big-time tournament fishing, and the memories will remain as sharp as the point on a No. 5 hook.
Dream chasers unite! There is hope in every cast!
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