Decatur mayor would rather be on the water

Jeremy Starks
Jeremy Starks

DECATUR, Ala. — There's at least one first in the Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel on north Alabama's Lake Wheeler. The 2009 Elite Series tournament marks the first time that a mayor has served as a tournament marshal.

Actually, such a distinction isn't likely to make the "Guinness Book of World Records," as this is only the third tournament where marshals, or non-fishing observers, have been employed.

Though the Open series still accommodates co-anglers, the Elite Marshal program was developed so that the top touring pros could compete only against each other, and not the guy in the back of the boat.

A marshal's job is to observe the pro and report catches throughout the day to the tournament headquarters via a mobile phone that's provided each day. The marshal is expected to be grounded in Elite Series tournament rules, and provide any needed assistance to the pro short of fishing advice and help landing a bass.

Don Stanford, a retired postal employee who was elected Decatur's mayor in November, is one of 81 marshals entered in the tournament. He spent his first day cruising wind-tossed Lake Wheeler with Mississippi pro Pete Ponds. It wasn't some sort of political appointment either. Stanford is a devoted bass angler and has fished a number of local and regional tournaments.

"It's a great opportunity for me to meet and share time on the water with some of the pros I admire and whose careers I've followed for so long — who wouldn't?" Stanford said at Ingalls Harbor Thursday morning as contestants waited for the green light from tournament director Trip Weldon.

The marshals must be members of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and each have to pony up $100. In return, they get lots of goodies provided by sponsors, and the chance to schmooze with the stars of professional bass fishing.

On the evening before the tournament started, the marshals were briefed on their roles by assistant tournament director Chuck Harbin. Next door, Weldon went over the rules with the pros.

Afterward, the dividers between the two rooms were removed and the two groups mingled during a social hour hosted by the City of Decatur.

Marshals serve for three days during an Elite Series event, and then the top 12 pros go it alone in the championship round. Between opening day and the last round, however, the marshals get to spend some quality time with the likes of Rick Clunn, Shaw Grigsby, Kevin Van Dam and Alton Jones.

"The marshal program has been an unqualified success," Harbin said. "I try to talk with all of them when they come back and I've heard nothing but praise for the experiences they've had. The fishermen have been really good about it, too.

"Some of the marshals have told me that their partners went out of the way to explain why they were fishing a certain way or with a particular lure. Some of the pros have even invited their marshals to come up to the bow of the boat and get right beside them."

The marshals in the Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel also got to share a rough ride across wind-driven Lake Wheeler with their pros on Thursday. Gale-force winds picked up during the day in advance of an approaching front, and made crossing open waters of the lake a kidney-pounding adventure.

"It's been a long time since I blew across Lake Wheeler at 80 miles an hour," the mayor said. "I think we touched down about every third wave."

Still, Mayor Stanford wasn't complaining when he and Ponds made it back to Ingalls Harbor, dripping wet from the rain and the spray. Although he didn't say it, perhaps the mayor thought it: any day on the water is better than a day in the office. 

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