Bass fishing's meritocracy

I was a late addition to the guest list for the Bassmaster Elite Series Night of Champions banquet on the Wednesday immediately preceding the 2013 Bassmaster Classic. In fact, I wasn’t on the guest list at all but about two hours before the dinner was to start at Tulsa’s Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, I got a call from JM’s version of Don Corleone (a.k.a. Steve Bowman), with an “offer” to write a story about Brent Chapman’s Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year acceptance speech.

After arriving at the hotel, I made my way through the registration line where I was assigned a previously-empty seat at Table Five. Sounded innocuous enough. I headed into the cocktail hour, took advantage of the open bar and said a few hellos to anglers, industry folks and their families.

When the dinner bell rang, I started my search for Table Five. Unfortunately, it was not in a back corner or near the bar, but rather right in front of the stage. As I approached, I saw my dinner mates: three corporate-looking guys in suits, Kevin and Sherry VanDam, and Ott and Jennie DeFoe. Everyone was friendly, but still I’ll admit to a certain amount of intimidation.

I’m not sure whether this group chose to sit together, was placed together by design, or just by random coincidence; but it’s not every day that you get to see the greatest angler ever directly interact with the fastest-rising star on tour (maybe they were seated together because they both have capital letters in the middle of their last names?). Accordingly, what could have been awkward turned into a tremendous opportunity.

It’s rare that I get to see the pros interact with one another freely. Sure, I’ve socialized with the pros, ridden in their boats and fished with them, but because they know I’m a writer, I’m sure that their behavior and words are somehow affected by my presence. It’s fishing’s version of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, wherein the act of observing alters the reality being observed.

As I watched, I engaged in conversation with the lovely Jennie DeFoe, who was exceptionally friendly. Unlike her husband, though, she’s not a public figure, so I don’t think it would be fair to disclose the contents of what we talked about, but 10 minutes of talking to her helped me understand more about her husband that any 10 interviews I conducted directly with him could ever accomplish.

Meanwhile, I watched how Kevin and Ott interacted. Here you had a 40-something four-time champion, still in his prime as an angler, conversing with a 20-something fast-ascending rocket still in search of his all-but-certain first title. What’s weird to me, though, is that their body language didn’t seem to demonstrate that they were elder and youth, or teacher and student, or coach and athlete. Sure, VanDam seemed to be a little more socially confident and perhaps took the lead on some matters, but I’m guessing that would have been the case if they were both at the same age or same experience level. It’s just a difference between their personalities. Most of the time they acted as relative equals. VanDam clearly respected DeFoe as an angler and as a person, and DeFoe clearly DeFerred to KVD on certain matters, but the gap between them was narrow.

After being around many of the Elite Series pros, you can tell who is generally respected and who is not. Some of it is akin to the gossipy cliques of teenage girls, but for the most part it’s a meritocracy – if you can catch fish, and you do it the right way while treating people well, you’ll be held in relatively high esteem. It doesn’t mean that your peers will socialize with you, or even like you off the playing field, but by “doing it right” you earn your spot on tour. And if you find someone you click with, whether they’re 20, 40 or 60, whether they’re from your part of the country or from across the globe, you can build a relationship that seamlessly spans the gap between mentorship and best friends.

While the VanDam/DeFoe interaction was my prologue to this year’s Classic, it served as almost a mirror image to the way the event ended with Cliff Pace’s victory. Pace, as most of us know, has a tight relationship with Gary Klein. When I asked him a few days after the Classic whether Klein was primarily a mentor, a confidante or a friend, he quickly answered “all of the above.”

What makes their relationship so strange on its face, at least to me, is their age difference. Not only had Klein started with B.A.S.S. before Pace was born in 1980, but he’d already won an event and fished his first Classic. In fact, he fished 20 Classics before Pace made his first B.A.S.S. cast. Yet Pace was the first one of them to win the Classic trophy. So who has the upper hand in their relationship now? I’d guess that it’s no different than it was a month ago, or a year ago, or a few years ago – it’s a partnership borne of mutual “addiction to the bite.”

The old cliché is that “politics makes for strange bedfellows,” but in bass fishing we have a social structure that consistently defies convention. Of course there are natural bonds like those between the Lane brothers or between other anglers from similar backgrounds, but there are also those that make you scratch your head in surprise. It’s the ultimate meritocracy – you’re primarily judged by what an impartial scale says at the end of the day, but also by whether you do things “the right way.” I left Tulsa with a better understanding of that dynamic thanks to a last-minute assignment for which I was severely underdressed.

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