MONETA, Va. — This one arrived second-hand, so its clever author is unknown, but someone did say on Friday at Smith Mountain Lake that the heat was so bad, a dog was chasing a rabbit and they both were walking.
The Blue Ridge Brawl presented by Advance Auto Parts is the first event of the Bassmaster Elite Series that has been fished in serious summer heat — a heat that conservatively could be called the worst heat in the history of the world.
Maybe that's pushing it a bit. But only a bit.
How hot was it? As hot as a Grecian men's bathhouse, according to one TV personality backstage. So hot that the prolific crowds at the weigh-in eschewed chairs set out for the shade of nearby oak trees, and still fanned themselves like they just smelled skunk. So hot that out-of-shape reporters huddled alongside a production truck backstage just to feel the exhale of the truck's air conditioner.
When one scribe beckoned Day Two leader Boyd Duckett away from the sun, the angler was all too happy. "I'm from Alabama," he said. "I know when to get into the shade."
The mercury rose to about 93 degrees by the beginning of the weigh-in, which doesn't sound like a killer, but under a cloudless sky, and coming off a mild spring in much of the south, it felt like leaning into an oven to check a lasagna, all day long.
So what do the best anglers in the world do when the temperatures spike? Mike McClelland lays off the Diet Coke. Rick Clunn soaks himself with a wet rag. They all try to rest after their 12- or 14-hour practice days and drink water like a camel before a drug test.
"It's hot and it's brutal," angler Jason Quinn told the crowd. "But if you stay focused you can catch a lot of fish."
Jon Bondy, a fishing guide in the off-season, has actually suffered heat stroke on the St. Croix river, on the Maine-New Brunswick border. It was a two-week stretch during which the temperatures soared into the 90s every day. He didn't recognize how far he was pushing his body until his body broke down and left him bedridden for two days.
"Your entire body feels like you want to throw up," he said of heat stroke. "If you feel that, you'd better get in bed and drink five bottles of Gatorade, big bottles."
He and other anglers cited their physical conditioning as a safeguard against the heat. Fishing is a culture of handling heat — a sport packed with Southerners, honed during summers out of school — but they held no illusions that they're immune to the sun.
"You can get really weak," said Jeff Kriet, who finished the day tied for 49th. "You've got to make yourself drink. To me, it's not that hot, but this is the first hot one, and your body's not acclimated."
Kriet hails from Oklahoma, where a cloud-free August day can hard-boil an egg inside a hen, but the hottest tournament he ever fished was in July on the Tombigbee River. About four times a day during practice, he would hop into the river to cool off. During the tournament itself, all he could do was wet a towel and wrap it around his head.
"You have to be so mentally in shape that you don't notice the heat," Clunn said. For him that means avoiding air conditioning, working out in the hottest portions of off-days and finding outdoors activities (mowing, e.g.) to put him in the worst heat while at home. "You have to minimize the softness of our society when you prepare for heat," he said.
As for the fishing in the hottest hours, some anglers find it to their advantage. Clunn likes to fish ledges and docks in that numb noontime hour when fish seek shade, meaning he has to be most acute during the most punishing portion of the day. "The best bite is dead in the heat of the day," he said.
Fred Roumbanis said he's seen the water temperature rise by 6 degrees, to 80, since practice, and is relying on the heat to drive fish to lower depths, where he has done a nice job of sacking them.
"When it's 90 out and there's no wind, everybody wants shade," said Bill Lowen. Anglers take that opportunity to hunt the fish under docks and in deep water — all the deeper in the crystalline waters of such a pristine puddle as Smith Mountain Lake. "Fish are just like us," Lowen said. "They don't want to be in the blazing sun."
Typically, when Lowen weighs in, his wife squeezes off a blast from an air horn. When Lowen took the stage to silence Friday, emcee Keith Alan surmised, "It's too hot for the air horn."