So there I was, 15-feet behind one of the greatest fishermen of all times, looking over his shoulder while he competed in the world's biggest bass fishing tour. In this surreal moment, a thought occurred to me. Let's say you were a huge football fan–a passionate Packers fan. What would you pay to spend an entire game on the field–not on the sidelines, on the field? You'd be included in every huddle. You'd hear all of the instructions from the coaches. You'd see tackles happening right in front of you (and you would never be touched). You'd hear every comment made between teammates and opposing players. Aaron Rodgers himself would tell you what the next play would be. What would that experience be worth to a real fan?
Alright, let's say you loved Brad Paisley. For four consecutive nights of the tour, you got to sit right in the middle of the stage during the concert. You got to hear the music, but you also got a chance to feel what it was like to have 20,000 adoring fans aimed at you. You heard every joke or comment Brad made to his bandmates. He laughed and told you (only you) when he missed a note. You got to dodge flying hotel room keys (or whatever else Brad Paisley had to dodge). What would a music fan pay for that experience?
How about riding along with your favorite NASCAR driver for 500 miles of Talladega?
What would these experiences be worth to the true fans? Unfortunately for them, price wouldn't matter. The opportunities just aren't available at any price. But fortunately for me, I'm passionate about tournament bass fishing. By signing up as a Bassmaster Elite Tour Marshal, I got the opportunity to spend three days on the river at LaCrosse, WI in the boats of some of the world's greatest bass fishermen. It was absolutely surreal and impossible to match in any other activity!
For super bass geeks like myself and my brother, Craig, the experience began as we pulled into town and started to see the Elite pro rigs everywhere. "Hey, there goes Chris Lane!" "Dang! Look at the size of the truck Skeet drives!"
Even the pre-tournament meeting was exciting. The same pros we'd seen on TV and in the magazines were just walking around everywhere. The room was buzzing with anticipation, everyone wondering who they'd be paired with. It was easy to overhear discussions of top 5 preferred pick lists throughout the room. G-Man, Ike and KVD seemed to be mentioned more often than most, but the fact was there wasn't a bad draw in the group. Any interaction I'd ever had with these guys revealed that bass fishermen are generally nice, approachable, good guys.
Day 1. Boyd Duckett. That's a solid draw, I thought to myself. Classic champ. Business mogul. Cool! Boyd had an easy smile, a quick wit and wasn't afraid to make eye contact when he talked. Maybe that's just part of being a good businessman, but it made it effortless to share a boat with him for a day.
As we floated around prior to takeoff, most anglers made hurried, last-minute adjustments to tackle while Boyd clipped his nails. Well, I wasn't expecting that. He's certainly cool and confident, I thought.
"I've just been on the road the last couple weeks," he smiled sheepishly when he noticed I was watching. "Sometimes I get behind on my personal upkeep."
"Plus, you'll need your hands to look their best when you're holding up a biggun' for the camera later," I kidded.
When it was finally our turn to takeoff, we ran upriver and into the lock with about 25 other competitors headed toward the next pool of the Mississippi. From there we headed several miles north as the other boats peeled away from the group to their starting spots–except for one. We cut out of the main river and flew through a zig-zagging maze of shallow, backwater channels, matched turn for turn by the other boat. Eventually, the two boats settled in the exact same location.
"Iaconelli," Boyd grumbled.
From the hundred mile stretch of river available, and thousands of miles of twisting, backwater shorelines to choose from (nearly all of it "bass-y" looking), these two had selected the same spot.
"That's exactly the part of this bank I wanted to start on," Duckett whispered to me as he idled past Ike an extra 30 or so yards before he started fishing.
I'm sure both would have preferred that the other wasn't there, but there really wasn't anything tense about it. They exchanged a few cordial words, and both started catching fish. Within a few minutes, Mike fished up to and around Boyd, leaving his original starting spot open. Duckett waited until it was clear Ike was going to continue up the bank before he settled into "the spot". Almost immediately, Duckett started catching fish on nearly every cast. Iaconelli was catching them too. So, my first hour as a Marshal in this tournament was spent watching two Classic Champs catch 50 to 75 bass!
While this area was clearly loaded with keeper-size fish, there didn't seem to be much over 2-1/2 lbs here. Back through the lock we headed, looking for a kicker.
"Looking for a kicker", seemed to be a theme common to all of the competitors this week. There didn't seem to be any shortage of 2-pounders, but 4s were tough to come by.
Our next spot, was a large shallow grass bed on the downstream side of an island, leading into an immense weed flat. Almost immediately, we were joined by fellow Elite pro, Kelly Jordan. (I had the pleasure of riding along with Kelly during the 2012 event on these same waters. Check out the details here http://blog.
Kelly informed us that several other boats had been fishing here over the course of the morning. "We were catching them pretty good earlier, rIght where your boat is. Oh, and I'm gonna need one of them lucky smokes," requested Kelly. Boyd was glad to oblige, and for the next several minutes the two parked side-by-side, smoking and fishing the same spot. Kelly really didn't seem to enjoy the cigarette he asked for, but he was dedicated to the plan. After a few minutes of this casual gathering, both of these fierce competitors felt the need to get to work. Kelly motored off and Boyd set his sights on this weed flat.
"Alright," he focused. " I've been throwing my swim jig over the weeds and they don't seem to be responding. Kelly said he was catching them on the outside edge where the current is strongest, but they don't seem to be there now. Hmm. I don't think these fish leave. I'll bet they're tucked into the weeds and just kind of inactive." He picked up a finesse rod with a small bullet, and 4" texas-rigged centipede. "I need something that will fall right in front of them, but is small and tempting enough that even a neutral fish can't resist." And just like that, the spot that had been vacant of fish the past several minutes was suddenly loaded. Duckett caught several fish, many on consecutive casts, and culled a couple times. Unfortunately, they were moves of ounces rather than the pounds he was looking for, but it was still awesome to see him figure it out.
At the end of the day, Boyd was in the middle of the pack.