Only sure things: bass boats, heat

OUTDOORS

Outdoors

July 21, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

And the winner is ...

Four days before the start of the BASS Masters Classic, and it's anybody's guess.

Will Kevin VanDam be able to defend his title? Can Davy Hite take it away from him and add it and the $200,000 first prize to his "Angler of the Year" honors? Or will 62-year-old Roland Martin finally win the one laurel that has eluded him?

More importantly, is it possible for a Yankee gal to survive the soggy heat of Alabama and keep her gray matter from melting into her brain pan like a Gummi Bear on hot asphalt?

So many questions and so little time to answer them this week on Lay Lake.

Fifty-two anglers are expected in Birmingham, hoping to win what's called the "World Series of bass fishing." A lot of them have great stories to tell, and we'll pass them along during the three-day tournament.

One of the best stories may be Marylander Chris Price's attempt to make a name for himself at his first Classic. The tournament sets aside five slots for members of the grassroots B.A.S.S. Federation, and the Church Hill resident qualified by finishing second in April's B.A.S.S. Federation tournament in Shreveport, La.

Can a roofing contractor with $7,650 in career winnings take the millionaire pros to school and finish in the big money? That would be a hummer, wouldn't it?

The Classic has come a long way since the first one in 1971, when anglers and reporters were kept in the dark about the location until the chartered plane took off for Las Vegas and Lake Mead.

It's hard to believe, what with ESPN now owning the BASS organization, that you could run a championship tournament as you would Area 51, but that's how Ray Scott did things for the first five years of the Classic.

Last year, the final day's weigh-in was televised live from the Superdome in New Orleans, with more than 20,000 cheering bass fanatics in the stands illuminated by a laser beam and fireworks show.

But while the Classic has moved from its "good old boy" roots on one level, it is returning to them on another.

Scott is back. The self-proclaimed "Bass Boss," who founded the organization, sold it a few years back to his underlings, but stayed around as the host of the Classic weigh-ins. The relationship became strained as Scott discovered he couldn't let go and the new leadership found his presence a distraction.

Things came to a head when Scott launched an all-out assault on a new tournament created by the organization, going as far as mailing videotapes to fishing writers questioning the safety of an event that combined fishing with speed boat racing. World Championship Fishing died after that first full season - a testimony to Scott's continued influence - and things became frostier.

Apparently, ESPN has ordered a thawing. Bob Cobb, Scott's longtime collaborator who left BASS when the boss did, got a glowing tribute this month in Bassmaster, the magazine he once edited. And Scott will be at the Classic again in all his cowboy hat and massive belt buckle glory, starting with a "kiss and make up" media breakfast on Thursday.

It will be nice to have that rascal, Scott, around to keep the tournament - owned by a media giant and fueled by Citgo's sponsorship - from getting too corporate.

Unfortunately, another Classic classic, angler Rick Clunn, will be missing.

Clunn, the pony-tailed bass master from Missouri, missed the cut this year, ending his Ripken-like string of 28 consecutive Classics.

It was always a delight to take notes as he quietly explained fishing strategy with quotes from the Bible, Eastern philosophers, Thoreau and Hemingway. Such a break from the typical "I'd like to thank Big Booger Buzzbaits" quotes at tournaments.

He doesn't talk like the other guys and he doesn't fish like them, either. Clunn's exploits on the circuit have made him a millionaire and an inaugural member of the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. How many other guys could go into the final day of the Classic - this one in 1976 - leave his tackle box in his truck and still win fishing just the lures he had left on his rods the night before?

Even when Clunn's not in the lead, his reputation alone is enough to make other competitors nervous and distracted.

I'll never forget watching eventual winner Carl Maxfield's shoulders droop during the final day of the 2000 Top 150 championship when he caught sight of the wily veteran's boat rounding the bend of Mattawoman Creek off the Potomac River.

"Clunn," Maxfield said, shaking his head as he nervously fired up another cigarette. Just one word spoken in half-admiration and half-dread was all that was needed.

Hurry back, Rick.

Let's see here. We've mentioned the cash, the characters, the history of the Classic. What's left? Oh, yeah, the water.

Lay Lake is a lot like that Certs "it's a candy mint, it's a breath mint" commercial, displaying more than one personality.

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