Picture this. Richmond Coliseum is packed with nearly 20,000 fans, the big event is coming down to the wire, and one contestant stands to the side intently awaiting the still undecided outcome.
A grown man taps him on the shoulder, pushes a card bearing the picture of the "player" and asks for his autograph. He not only gets it, but also a handshake before he manages a quick thank you.
"Oh, no, thank you for asking. It's nice of you," said the contender. "It's my pleasure."
No eight-buck charge for the signature. Guido Hibdon of Gravois Mills, Ark., really did appreciate the attention. He's not the traditional athlete, his field is professional fishing and he is typical of heroes in a brand of competition that gains hundreds of thousands of new followers each year.
I watched that scene at Richmond last year at the weigh-in of the last day of the 20th annual BASS Masters Classic -- the eighth I've covered for The Evening Sun -- and I wasn't surprised. I expected it; that's the way it is with the pros on the fishing circuit.
No pampering; they don't want it. Fishing is their life, they love it -- and they love fellow fishermen. They know their fans make their multimillion-dollar circuit possible, and they appreciate the support. They are unique in contemporary big-time sports.
They average more in age than their counterparts on the diamonds, courts, gridirons, links, and ice, but they are also in a profession that requires skill, reflexes, knowledge, stamina, coping with pressure -- and a bit of luck. One cast can mean a difference of $50,000 or more.
And 40 of the best in the world come to Baltimore for the 21st BASS Masters Classic Aug. 18, spend three days practicing in upper bay tributaries, then three days for the $50,000 first prize that caps another year on the Bass Angler Sportsman Society circuit.
More was paid out in some of the regular competition, but for this one they and their wives are invited all expenses paid to fish and to take a chance at winning $50,000. In other tour
naments they pay entry fees and all expenses, though for some, sponsors pick up all or most of the tab. Their scores are figured in pounds they catch.
Offhand, many tend to think of bass fishermen as southern rednecks, but they're not -- nor are they all southerners. Of the 40 coming to Baltimore, there is representation from 17 states from California to New York, and Michigan to Florida. When not bass'n, some play chess, tennis, bridge, or bowl. Eight are golfers, and others relax by saltwater fishing, or designing lures.
They have a common bond; chasing bass. What is a typical bass pro?
The average age of classic contenders is 42; he has caught 1,744 pounds of bass in competition, and his average lifetime BASS tour winnings are $196,794. He is fishing his fifth classic, has entered 72 tournaments, been in the money 41 times, is married and has two children, stands 6 feet tall, and weighs 193 pounds, and averages $841 a day in competition winnings.
Collectively, the field has checked in 69,776 pounds of fish, and won $7,871,750 in competition that didn't really become big time until the early 1980s. This year's average earnings for them is $29,571 for 213 pounds of bass, which figures out at $40 a pound.
The giant on the tour is Mark Davis, 27, of Mount Ida, Ark., who stanbs at 6-3, and weighs 350 pounds. He towers far above the classic's elf, Dennis Stacey, 33, of Marion, S.C., who is 5-9, and weighs 145 pounds, but both are proficient at catching bass.
Manuel Spencer of Palatka, Fla., is the old
est at 57; Kevin Van Dam of Kalamzaoo, Mich., is the youngest at 23 -- and one of three bachelors in the classic. They're all dedicated outdoorsmen; 28 list hunting -- mostly turkeys and deer -- as their favorite hobby.
Thirty are full-time pro fishermen competing in local to national events, two are guides, two conduct TV outdoors shows, another is in radio, and there are car and boat salesmen, two pipefitters, even a grocery clerk.
Thirty-five fished in the Maryland Invitational BASS Tournament on the Potomac earlier this year: Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., finished seventh, and Jim Nolan of Bull Shoals, Ark., finished 212th. Nixon, incidentally, is BASS's all-time money winner, pocketing $837,761 for 93 money finishes in 125 tries.
The hottest on the tour is Rick Clunn, 45, of Montgomery, Texas, last year's winner, the only to ever win back-to-back classics, and the only to win more than two. He has won over $500,000, and will be trying for his fifth classic win.
Buy bass'n hero's boat
Pictures, maybe a handshake, or even an autograph would be a lasting memento of the BASS Masters Classic for most anglers, but how about something even more appropriate? Like the bassboat one's hero fishes in during the World Series of bass'n, when it comes to Baltimore next month.
All classic identical Ranger bassboats, fully rigged and with 150-horse Johnson or Evinrude outboards, will be sold before the classic even starts, and the buyers can be from the general public.
Unless a particular boat has already been requested, a BASS circuit follower can call Ranger Boats in Flippin, Ark., and ask for the boat his favorite will be fishing. All boats will be re-serviced and just like new. For information, call 1-501-453-2222.