Carl’s Australian Army

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Once I crossed the border from my home state of Virginia into Tennessee, I stopped at the first two convenience stores I could find to look for Foster’s Lager. I wanted to get ready for the first Australian Bassmaster Classic contender, Toowoomba’s Carl Jocumsen. Alas, there were none of the big oil cans to be found. It turned out not to matter.

“Foster’s is just about the worst beer in Australia,” Jocumsen told me this morning as he prepared to launch on the final day of Classic practice in downtown Knoxville. “The Australians don’t drink it.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t otherwise indulge. A group of hearty Aussies showed up to watch the take-off this morning in the rain – and remember, in the words of Alan Iverson, this is not game day, we’re “talking ‘bout practice – some of them with the benefit of a good night’s sleep, others having come nearly directly from some of Tennessee’s late night establishments. They were doing “shoeys,” literally drinking beer (not Fosters) from a shoe, at Clancy’s Tavern at 10:30 pm, and before they knew it, it was 2 am. “I thought you were just having ‘one last drink’ at 11 o’clock,” said Steve Morgan, director of Australian Bass Tournaments, to a friend. “It was a long drink,” replied his disheveled friend.

Being out late was not enough to keep this hearty group of 30 to 40 Aussie fans from drinking in every aspect of the Classic week festivities, especially since one of their own was competing. They’d traveled nearly a full day to get to Tennessee, and the base expenses started off around $3,000 apiece, exclusive of what they’d spend stateside. Again, that was not a showstopper, merely a speed bump, even though many of them had never previously left Australia. Some had only been as far away as New Zealand or Bali.

“We had some of the worst flooding in the history of New South Wales last year,” said fan Suzie Melchior. “We kind of had a ‘#$%& it’ moment. We needed a holiday. Maybe that hardship will just make us cheer a little bit louder.”

Her friend Brett Hyde “slept in my boat for the night, out in the shed” during the flooding. He dragged the whole family – his wife and two daughters – across the globe to see this spectacle. Jocumsen said that sort of dedication is admirable, but not necessarily atypical for his mates: “Aussies love someone who goes out of the country and experiences success. They love to watch you have success when you test yourself against the world and they love an underdog. Believe it or not, the American Dream is a big thing over there.”

Still, the idea that they’d make the long haul, rather than just watching the event play out on Bass LIVE, remains a bit surprising or perhaps perplexing: “I don’t even know that many people,” said Bassmaster photographer James Overstreet. “I couldn’t get that many to come to my funeral.”

When Morgan started the “bass” tournaments in Australia, it was his dream to develop a prodigy and then enable him or her to travel to the US. Jocumsen through his success – he remains the ABT’s all-time leading money winner, long after he ceased competing in ABT tournaments – earned the right to be the first. In some respects, he’s still carrying the flag for the others. Indeed, a substantial percentage of those who traveled here to see him this week were his former competition. “He took a lot of our money,” Adrian Melchior said from the dock, and then noted the expense of the trip he couldn’t bear to miss. “He’s still taking our money. At least he does it with a really big smile.”

Tournament fishing is not yet a huge deal in Jocumsen’s home country. A top prize might be $5,000, or a modest boat. Jocumsen’s Classic qualification got him press coverage on Australia’s Wide World of sports and their Channel 9, but what really shocked him was that they reached out to him, rather than as the result of any self-promotion. It remains an uphill climb for recognition and respect among the masses, but that doesn’t diminish the dream in the slightest. In that respect, Jocumsen is proud to have blazed a path, not only as his country’s first Classic qualifier, but even just to have found a way to make a sustainable living on the water, overseas. Now it’s time not only to build his personal legacy, but also to mentor the next generation. Aspiring Australian pro Tommy Wood is here this week, watching Carl, seeing what his future might hold. Over the next three months, he plans to Marshal in multiple Elite events and also compete as a co-angler in several of the Bassmaster Opens. 

“I’d love to help someone else make it,” Jocumsen said. “And help him avoid the mistakes that I made.”

“It is awesome to have those footsteps laid out in front of you,” Wood said, as he watched Jocumsen blast off through the rain. Until that moment, the highlight of his week had been stepping into the overwhelming tackle selection at a Bass Pro Shops, but watching the competitors live his nascent dream took it to another level.

As the anglers idled out single file this morning, emcee Dave Mercer commented that despite their numbers, the rain-soaked Aussie fans didn’t muster much enthusiasm for anyone other than Carl. That proved not to be true. They cheered mildly for Gerald Swindle and a little more for Takumi Ito, whose path to this point has been at least as challenging at Jocumsen’s. At least there are bass in his home country, although they speak a different language. In both places vehicles drive on the left side of the road. They offered up substantially louder applause and whoops and hollers for Jeff Gustafson, likely not because he is Canadian, but rather because he traveled to their soil and waters last year and took in the Aussies’ fishing culture. Just because they want Carl to experience the American Dream doesn’t mean that any of them are prepared to discount their heritage or their homeland.

The only non-American-born angler to win the Classic to date was Japanese pro Takahiro Omori in 2004 at South Carolina’s Lake Wylie. With Jocumsen joining multiple Canadians and multiple Japanese pros in this year’s field, it’s far from a certainty that it will happen again, but the odds are about as high as they’ve ever been.

The Aussies intend to have a great time here this week no matter who wins. “They’re a passionate but respectful group,” he said of them. The only thing that could make it better for them in the immediate future is if Jocumsen were to be hoisting the trophy late Sunday afternoon. The celebration would involve no Bloomin’ Onions, nor any of Outback’s signature Toowoomba pasta (“It’s like if you tried to make something sound American by naming it after a rural town in Arkansas,” Jocumsen said.) There might be a few beers, though. “Anything not an IPA or a craft beer,” Morgan said. “It has to taste like beer, not Kool-Aid.” They’ve all booked their return flights late enough to allow for extra time to recover, and they’re hoping that they need every minute of it. The dream is still alive and kicking, and Carl’s Australian Army stands at attention, waiting to watch it play out.