LAKE WALES, Fla. — Forty-four-year-old Alton Jones has been tournament bass fishing for over two decades now. He has thoroughly experienced how gruelling that can be, especially a four-day, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. event, like those on the Bassmaster Elite Series. There are three practice days before the tournaments start.
But compared to the appearance schedule he kept the week after winning the Bassmaster Classic on Feb. 24, when he flew from coast-to-coast, these past two weeks of Elite Series tournaments in Florida have been a relief.
"I've never had a time in my life where two back-to-back tournaments have helped me catch up on my rest," Jones said Sunday morning. "When we started the tournament at the Harris Chain, I don't think I've ever been that tired."
You can see that a well-rested Jones is a more efficient fisherman by looking at the results of the two tournaments. He made the top 50 cut at the Harris Chain of Lakes last weekend, but finished 37th. He made the top 12 cut Saturday at the Kissimmee Chain and is among those fishing for the $100,000 first-place check today.
There is essentially no cell phone coverage at Camp Mack's River Resort, the headquarters for the Citrus Slam at Kissimmee, and the place where Jones and his family are staying in their motor home. That's just fine with the newest Classic champ. He's still found time to answer a couple of media interview requests each day. But it won't be until Monday when he begins exploring again those many business opportunities created by winning the Classic.
"We won't leave here until Wednesday," Jones said. "I'm going to do some TV stuff the next couple of days. We're going to fly home Wednesday, take Easter weekend off, then go to D.C."
That's D.C. as in Washington, D.C., where Jones and his family have been invited to the White House to visit President George Bush. Jones and Bush first fished together when Bush owned the Texas Rangers baseball team. They've stayed in contact as Bush moved into the Texas Governor's office and then the White House. Jones received a call of congratulations from President Bush the day after the Classic.
According to marketing people in the know, it's estimated that a Classic winner can at least double his $500,000 Classic check through sponsorship opportunities in the next 12 months. And someone, like Jones, with some media savvy, can push that multiplier higher.
Jones gets a serious look on his face when he talks about the responsibilities that come with being the Classic champion. As someone who qualified for it 10 times before winning it on his 11th chance, he has had a decade to watch winners come across the stage, then observe how those winners handled themselves the following year, when they essentially become spokesmen for the fishing industry. It's a safe bet that Jones will handle those responsibilities as well or better than any previous champion.
But he got into this sport to fish, and that's what has allowed him to clear his head the past two weeks.
"Fishing has really been a good safety net for me, a safe haven," Jones said of these back-to-back tournaments. "This is where I like to be — fishing."
Even though he's in 9th place going into today, 7 pounds, 8 ounces behind leader Kevin VanDam, Jones knows he's got a shot at another $100,000 check.
"VanDam is certainly in the driver's seat," he said. "The wind is going to lay down enough for him to fish his open water stuff. If I was in Vegas, I'd be putting my money on KVD."
However, Jones also saw Mike McClelland overcome a near-10-pound deficit last Sunday at the Harris Chain to win the Sunshine Showdown. And he's had the bites to be in first place here today.
"This is one of those tournaments I may look back on with great regret," Jones said. "I've had the bites this week to have about a 15-pound lead right now. I'm just fishing such thick stuff that I can't get them out. I'm getting a good hook in them. I'm getting them pinned (in the vegetation), and before I can get to them, they're coming off.
"(Saturday) I had a chance at a 20-plus bag. The day before I had a chance at 24 to 26 pounds. You can say it's poor execution, but a lot of it is when you're fishing heavy cover like that, some of them are going to get away."
Jones is fishing in the south end of Lake Kissimmee in water about a foot to six inches deep. You could snap a photo of Jones in that thick vegetation and swear his boat was on dry land. He's using three lures — a Yum Dinger, which is a Senko-type soft plastic, and two soft plastic frogs — a Yum Buzz Frog and a Zoom Horny Toad.
"My bigger bites are coming on the frog," he said. "If I'm smart, I won't throw anything but that today. If I was going to get lucky enough to get five of those big ones, they're going to come on that frog."
He's catching some spawning bass, but he's not sight-fishing. Running a trolling motor through that thick vegetation doesn't allow you the stealthy approach required for sight-fishing.
"Every time I catch a big one, if I go over and look where she bit, there's a bed," Jones said. "I'm making long casts, as far as I can throw it. When I get a big one, it's on the very end of that cast."
No matter what Jones catches today, he at least will have cut into the hours before he and his family get to go home on Wednesday. Jones' wife, Jimmy Sue, home schools their son and two daughters, which allows them to stay together on this tournament trail.
"That's the only way it really works for our family," he said.
On Wednesday, when they fly out of Florida, it will have been 32 days since Alton Jones and family have slept in their own beds at home in Waco.