This week's BASS Federation Nation Championship doesn't look anything like the first incarnation of the tournament in 1973. The name of the event has changed — the first Federation Nation Championship on Tennessee's Pickwick Lake was called simply the "Chapter Championship" — and the format has been altered over the years, with team competition being discarded in favor of a derby that rewards individual accomplishment.
The boats are bigger and faster than in the early days, and fishing tackle has made quantum leaps in both technology and performance.
(Mercifully the old bass fishing jumpsuits, the fashion of the day, have gone by the wayside.)
But Wendell Mann of Snow Camp, N.C., who won the first Federation Nation Championship more than 34 years ago, says there's one thing that's fundamentally the same now as it was in the beginning: it's still the ultimate fishing tournament for the world's amateur bass anglers.
"Even though BASS was in its infancy, a lot of guys wanted to participate," Mann said. "They were hungry to compete. The guys were just waiting for something like that to come along."
Mann, 63, posted the top individual performance on Pickwick Lake in 1973. But in those days, the tournament was more about team competition than individual performance. Teams represented their state Federation Nation chapters and took to the water with state flags flying from their boats.
"It was about guys working together," Mann said, "trying to be the top team."
The Tennessee chapter took the first Federation Nation title, claiming little more than bragging rights for their efforts.
With most of the field fishing shallow water, Mann went offshore to ply deeper haunts, catching the heaviest individual stringer. His prize was a boat and trailer (motor not included), a veritable bonanza, compared to most tournament prizes of the day.
"In the regional tournaments back then, you fished for a cooler, a rod and reel or maybe a little trophy," said Mann, a former dairy farmer who also ran his family's general store.
"There was no money involved. Nobody could make any money fishing then."
A self-described "country boy" with a classic Piedmont drawl, Mann still laughs about a newspaper headline after his Federation victory.
"It said, 'Dairy Farmer Milks His Way to Riches,' and I just couldn't get over that," Mann said. "There wasn't no riches."
Although the top finisher in this week's Federation Nation Championship on Florida's Kissimmee Chain will take home a Triton Boat and Mercury outboard package valued at roughly $50,000, the biggest rewards will be six berths in the 2008 Bassmaster Classic: The top finishers in each of six divisions will punch their tickets to the Classic.
Mann was the first amateur angler to earn Classic entry through the Federation Nation Championship, but it wasn't something he or any of the other competitors expected at the time.
"It wasn't advertised anything like that," Mann said. "It was only after I won the thing that they decided to let me fish the Classic. [BASS founder] Ray Scott decided to let me fish the Classic. He said I had represented all these good old boys and I deserved to be there, too. But before then, it was never mentioned, as far as I know."
Like the contenders in this week's Federation Nation Championship, anglers in the first "Chapter Championship" had to qualify through local, state and regional events. Much as it is now, that left only the best amateurs in the championship tournament.
"Once you had weeded through that many anglers," Mann said, "you had some pretty good fishermen."
The current manifestation of the Federation Nation Championship is bigger and better known than the inaugural event, but just as it was in 1973, it's still the one venue where weekend warriors who work "real" jobs can live out their bass fishing dreams. Some have even said it may be tournament bass fishing at its purest and finest.
"It was competitive, but it was more about me against the fish," Mann said. "We fished with some nice guys, and there was a camaraderie about it."
The highlight of Mann's 1973 victory was meeting established professional anglers.
"Guys like Bill Dance and Tom Mann wanted to be my friend," Mann said. "Tom Mann even called me cousin."
While the more famous fishing Mann went on to great success in tournament fishing and lure manufacturing, Wendell Mann went back to his Piedmont roots, taking over the operation of his family's general store in Snow Camp, N.C. Fishing his last BASS tournament in the mid 1970s, he hung up his competitive bass fishing gear after winning a jackpot tournament on Santee Cooper Reservoir in 1994.
"I don't even fish for bass anymore," Mann said. "I try to hunt or fish about three days a week, but nowadays I mainly fish for crappie and stripers and saltwater fish."
But like the scores of amateurs in this week's Federation Nation Championship, Mann will hold on to the memories of his 1973 title forever.
"I'll never forget it," he said. "I tell my old fishing buddies all the time that I'm a has-been. But they say it's better to be a has-been than a never-was. It's nice to be thought of as a better-than-average fisherman, just like any athlete wants to be thought of as better than average. I was hotter than a pistol that year, and I guess you can't take that away."