Think of names that shout tough — John Wayne, Clint Eastwood.
How about Max Leatherwood?
Leatherwood, a staple at B.A.S.S. tournaments across the country, is tough on anglers when it comes to their fish. The 59-year-old from Prattville, Ala., works the tournament “Bump Station,” checking on the count and health of the fish caught as well as measuring for length limits.
“Rules are rules,” he said, adding his job is a simple black and white proposition. “Rulers don’t lie.”
At the Bassmaster Classic, he was set up at Wolf Creek Park, where he checked the livewells of the 53 anglers and sent them on their way to Tulsa’s BOK Center for the weigh-ins. The numbers were recorded and passed on to tournament officials running the weigh-in.
Carrying his blue Bassmaster Official Measuring Board, Leatherwood reached into the icy water countless times, moving fish from bags into a livewell or from one livewell to another.
It’s no doubt he handled more fish than anyone else in Oklahoma that week, and that includes tournament director Trip Weldon. Weldon had to lift the 548 fish totaling 1,472 pounds, 2 ounces, but he had the luxury of handles.
Leatherwood was more up close and personal, snatching countless bass by the back, belly or lip, and often coming out with a handful of 40-degree water, never once complaining about the cold. A questionable fish was placed on his magic ruler.
One angler brought in a “short” fish, one that barely didn’t meet Grand Lake’s 14-inch minimum length requirement. Leatherwood disqualified it.
“I hated to do that to that guy,” Leatherwood said. “These B.A.S.S. Nation guys and Weekend guys, they come here to the Classic, it’s the biggest event they’ll even fish in, everybody’s watching them and it’s got to be embarrassing. He’ll probably come up and tell you it’s a rookie mistake. ”
Rules are rules.
Leatherwood recalls one tournament on the Women’s Bassmaster Tour where the fishery had a slot limit -- fish had to measure between two lengths. He said he had to disqualify a number of fish that day, big and small, and he recalls a wildlife officer asking why he was so tough.
“Can you imagine if I said ‘That’s good enough,’ and that got out between 100 ladies?” Leatherwood told him. “He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t think of that.’ “
Besides, rules are rules.
There was another close call in the Classic. Leatherwood put the fish down and it was just short of the 14 inches. He turned it over and the tip of its caudal fin cleared the 14-inch line.
“It either had more meat on one side or relaxed some,” he said.
The anglers approach Leatherwood in differing fashions. Some nervously watch over him like hawks while others sit back and let him do his work. First-time Classic competitor Brandon Card was biting his lips on Day Two as he witnessed Leatherwood slap three of his fish on the ruler.
Sometimes Leatherwood, who has gotten to know the anglers through his seven years working with B.A.S.S., has a little fun with an angler.
On Day One, four-time Classic champion Kevin VanDam went about his business stowing gear on his boat as Leatherwood looked over his 19 pounds, 12 ounces of fish. No issues. On Day Two, with four fish for 11-2, KVD was taken aback a bit as Leatherwood put one of his fish on the board.
“Are you kidding me?” KVD squealed.
“Ha,” Leatherwood said. “I just wanted to get you going.”
Would he have hesitated busting KVD for a fish? Nope. Rules are rules.
Leatherwood said he’s been an outdoorsman his whole life and fished in a bass club many years ago. Were you any good?
“No,” he snapped back. “That’s why I’m here.”