Not much sleep happening.
Ninety-some late night conference calls going on.
Inside their heads.
Bassmaster Elites getting on board the Midnight Train.
The locomotive that runs through our head, in the middle of the night, with only one passenger on board.
You. Mr. Elite guy. About to get your ticket punched.
The destination: Postseason for 12.
The destination: Home, for the rest of the field.
Only one gets to hold the AOY trophy over their head.
The rest can only hold on to the hope. Of next year.
The rest, ride the Midnight Train.
The other day I was standing out on the huge dock here at Lake Guntersville, where the Elite anglers tie up.
Out there with me were a couple of anglers sitting on upside down 5-gallon buckets. Fishing off the dock.
Way off the dock, Elite anglers on Bass boats zoomed by.
The dock guys watched the parade. Heads following left. Then right. Legs crossed, eyes on the red/white bobbers. Cigarette smoke curling above their heads.
Wormers with their own Midnight Train. One laid-off. One not looking at the other guy, fearful of the pink-slip contagion. Going around, you know.
They asked what I did.
I told them.
They wondered how I made a livin' doin' that.
I told them I wondered, too.
They kept fishing. Legs crossed. Bobber watching. Smoke curling.
Heads turning right. Then left.
As usual, someone asked me what happens when they win.
As usual I said, "They get a 100 grand."
As usual, no one asked what happens when they lose. No one ever seems to be able to see over that large stack of 1,000 $100 bills.
Comes the Midnight Train for the others. Those who hold only stacks of past-due bills.
Who before flipping the cell phones open, look for the 800 number calls, creditors with questions, and them with no answers.
Sponsor calls, "What happened?"
And them with no answers.
On fishing boards, they read about how they suck, from people who've never had foreclosure riding on a five-pound fish.
No matter if they are cashing a check, or writing a check, at the half-way turn, trust that there is, sleepless in the Elites.
With no answers.
I am going to butcher a quote here. Mainly because I don't even know if it is a quote. Let alone, who said it.
Here's what I think the quote is:
"If you want to learn about the owl, you have to study the mouse."
The 1960s were built on stuff like that.
Last night in the campground we were preparing to have a sort of group dinner of some kind of fried fish. At least they were. I were not. Not a seafood eating kind of guy, I am.
So as I was nibbling on French fries, and whatever it is that a Hush Puppy is, I heard this ... flap ... flap ... flap. Big flaps. Terrydactyl wings above.
So as I looked up, following the finger points, this huge thick-body bird flew right above us and then sort of glided onto a branch in a 30-foot pine tree.
And sat there.
And spun his head around and looked at us.
And most of the people around me, all said at about the same time, "An owl, db, look at the owl." That is a direct quote I trust because all those around me I knew had gone out and bought one of those bird watching books before they started watching birds, so they would know beforehand what it is they could be watching, unlike me, who is pretty content knowing that the thing flying above me is a ... bird.
And can use the $19.95, elsewhere.
So I put the big lens on the camera, cursed the 14 cups of Starbucks I drank, knowing that it would probably be sometime next week before I was steady enough to take the shot with the big lens.
Then sat down and looked to the ground, not the trees.
And studied the mouse.
In the bass jerseys.
A few feet away, Mark Davis was getting his hair cut under the pines. His two sons soon rode up on their bikes to watch. The lady cutting his hair, known to some as the Fishing Diva ... known to me as ... Kim.
Under the tree with the owl, looking almost straight up at it, Steve, Julia and Sophia Kennedy. A few days ago Steve came in third place at the Pickwick Lake event.
Two places back from his, and my friend, Kevin Short ... K-pink.
$80,000 ... BACK.
And when Steve lost his spot to win, he got up and walked on stage and hugged, Kevin.
I can tell you from knowing both these guys, and being friends with both, that the hug wasn't one for the cameras ... it was what sportsmanship is all about.
Competition, and respect.
Mark Burgess sat under a tall pine tree just a few feet from the tree where the owl landed.
Almost night now, he had just come back from a day of practice. Practice that started when it was almost morning ... more than 12 hours earlier.
He was getting fishing rods ready for the next day's practice, the upcoming tournament.
Notice I didn't say, "his fishing rods," because they ARE NOT his. They are "Show's" rods ... Bass Elite Pro Terry Scroggins.
Sometime over the weekend someone broke into Mark's boat and stole 10 rods, and 10 reels, "they took the left hand retrieve reels I use."
When "Show" heard about the theft, he knew he had some of the kind of rods and reels that Mark used, and needed, so without being asked, "Show" turned around and headed back to Mark ... and GAVE HIM THREE REELS TO USE.
The same thing also happened to Skeet Reese when someone lifted ALL his rods and reels from his boat ... one call to Brent Chapman and Skeet was rod-less no more.
Competition, and respect.
When I spun the big lens on my camera out as far as it would go, and I saw the silhouette of the owl in the tree, I knew the universe was up to the message stuff again.
Knew that my owl was the sport of tournament Bass Fishing.
And that the only way to really understand that sport was to live with the mouse.
In doing that, I see them, when the cameras do not. See them away from reporter's notebooks, and fan's black sharpies.
I see them with heating pads around their backs, ice on their ankles, bandages on all their fingers, one hand rubbing while trying to work away the pain in the joints of the other hand.
I see them as we have dinner together the day after winning a tournament, steak, baked potato, salad, rolls and some sort of vegetable. And I watch as across the small camper table from me, Kevin Short almost nods off while eating. Having won, having driven several hours to the next event, having a little sleep as he got up at almost morning the next day to go out and practice to do it all over again.
I see also one thing that I feel is a privilege.
I see them as their family sees them.
I see them as they take the cover off their boats.
I see them hug and kiss their wives and children.
I see them step up on the boat trailer.
I see them swing their leg up onto the boat.
And I watch as they look to the water.
And then comes a moment, a stare that is shorter than when the fishing line is cast and hangs in the air.
And I see.
And their family sees.
And they see.
The Midnight Train.
All aboard ... "
Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com.