Each year I page through Bassmaster for details on the Bassmaster Classic, to see if a popular guru won or a newcomer entered the spotlight at the beginning of a pro career. With this comes a panorama of cherished memories, beginning back in 1967 when Ray Scott planted the seed.
Back then, my wife and I were dwelling in Rogers, Ark., and I was writing a weekly "Uncle Homer Outdoors" column in the Rogers Daily News. I was working on a tight deadline when a knock called me to the front door.
It was Ray, with his broad-brimmed hat and matching smile. He apologized for intruding into my day but said he needed my advice on an event that could make or break his career. Deadline be darned, I had to listen, because it had to do with bass fishing — my favorite sport.
Ray's idea had to do with organizing the All-American Bass Tournament. The event would determine the nation's best bass angler, and would be held on nearby Beaver Lake. At that particular time I did not hold tournament bass fishing in very high esteem because of some cheaters who had been caught with pre-planted bass in a couple of events. Ray explained that he would have rigid rules, and penalties, to guard against this. He laid out his entire program and I was impressed with its rules and goals. But, I told him, my press support would depend entirely on how it performed for the good of our bass fishing sport.
I bird-dogged it closely and was pleased with the overall performances of Ray and the contestants. There were 102 anglers from 13 states who each paid $100 to enter. The winner, Stan Sloan of Nashville, Tenn., won $2,000, and the next nine places paid off, as well.
Ray's All-American tourneys took only four years to blossom into the inaugural Bassmaster Classic tournament. The first was held in Las Vegas in 1971, and between Ray and Harold Sharp, it was run like clockwork and received bountiful national publicity. The next year's event was eagerly anticipated.
Ray came up with a challenge for the outdoors press. He did not tell us in advance where the Classic would be held. Journalists from all over America flew to Atlanta and boarded a plane together. Midway through the flight, Ray strolled down the aisle and said, "Well, gentlemen, would anyone like to guess where we are headed for the Classic?" No one ever did because it had been kept amazingly secret. Then he enlightened us.
The press corps evolved into something special. We weren't competing for scoops on each other. We were more of a brotherhood, making enduring friendships that were rekindled every year at the Classic, and that still exist to this day.
At the opening breakfast in the wee hours of the morning, names were drawn to see with which pro we would be fishing. Over dozens of years I fished with all of the Classic winners at one time or another. I never met one whose friendship I did not enjoy and cherish as something special.
I have been asked which one stands out in my memory of the Classics, and I have to say it is the one held at Clarks Hill, N.C. At the end of one day's vying, all of the boats headed for the weigh-in. One boat with a powerful outboard carried Vernon Fowlkes, a Classic sponsor, and his press corps partner. They were running wide open into the main area when the steering cable on the engine broke and threw the engine into a full torque. The powerful prop flipped the boat over on its side, throwing both men into the water. The boat made a complete circle and the prop struck Fowlkes' body, killing him. Ray followed through with a tournament ruling that all competing boats had to be equipped with a "kill switch" that cut off power in such emergencies.
Another memory from that tournament is a happy one. Each year Ray held a special event for the pressmen's amusement. The one at Clarks Hill was a "catch a greased pig" contest. We drew names, and my partner was Ricky Green, one of the top 25 pros at that time.
As they greased the pigs, each of us was given a suit to don to protect our own clothing. Ricky asked, "Do you know anything about catching a greased pig?" I replied, "No, but I'm guessing that the least greased areas will be the hooves. Let's go for them; you take the front ones and I'll get the rear."
When they turned that big pig loose, it tried to scat past us and we dove onto it at the same time. Ricky nabbed his target hooves and I clamped onto mine. We won the trophies and the cash prize. And the rest of the tourney, our buddies all squealed at us.
I have been blessed to fish in 32 Classics over the years, and I cherish a limit of keeper memories. I was asked to give the benediction at each one, but I took it one step further. I wanted to give credit where it was lacking. I asked all of the wives of the pros to please stand. Then I said, "All of you pros are used to applause and fans and followers, and you know what it means to soar with the eagles. And indeed you have ... but you soared with those eagles because these buddies at home were the wind beneath your wings!"
Few reading this could possibly know the load carried by married couples in this sport. I once asked a pro,
"How many circuits do you have to fish to make a living?" He replied, "Four — eight tournaments in each one."
I continued, "During the busy season, with all of the traveling demanded of you, how many days a week will you average at home?" He replied, "About three days a week." I came back: "Is your wife happy?"
And he retorted, "About three days a week!"
But that's the heavy side of tournament bass fishing. BASS has elevated it to a profession where many are making a well earned living. Their tournament winnings, plus income as celebrities on the payroll of sponsors, result in surprising incomes.
Yes, Ray, I tip my old bassin' hat to you. You have come a long way from Beaver Lake 40 years ago, and your tireless, focused efforts have resulted in a respected image of professional bass fishing tournaments and participants.
Let your Uncle Homer close by sharing my favorite Fisherman's Prayer: God grant that we may fish until our dying day ... and when at last we come to rest, we then most humbly pray, when in His landing net we lie in final sleep, that in His mercy we'll be judged as good enough to keep.