Liquid courage

On the first day of practice for the 2001 Louisiana Bassmaster Top 150 at Toledo Bend, I fished with a pro sponsored by Evinrude. Three months earlier OMC, the parent company of Evinrude, had filed for bankruptcy, so I guess strictly speaking the nameless angler wasn’t “sponsored,” but he still had a big old ‘Rude strapped to the back of his boat.

OMC’s uncertain future meant that there was no service crew available at the event, nor were replacement parts likely to be available. As we launched the boat at the Jolly Roger Marina on the stump-filled upper end of the lake, the pro’s traveling partner (his bravery bolstered by a Mercury on his transom) told my partner not to take any unnecessary chances.

“If you break it, you’re done,” he said.

Nothing broke that day, largely because he took no chances.

The service crews get things done. They keep the pros floating and have saved tournaments, seasons, careers and perhaps lives more than once. At the same time, their presence also encourages the anglers to take risks.

If you know you can get a new lower unit bolted on that evening, you’re more likely to take some chances. If powerheads are a dime a dozen, then the rev limiter becomes just a recommendation, as does the low water pressure warning horn.

If you saw any of the amazing photo galleries from the recently-concluded Elite Series tournament on the Alabama River, then you know that risk-taking is where it’s at these days. I was absolutely amazed by the pictures and the photos. In some, it looked like the bass boats were sitting below a tsunami. In others, they were traversing water where you wouldn’t dare canoe, kayak, paddleboard or surf. Jared Miller and some big boulders may have invented a new Olympic biathlon event – half bass fishing, half pinball.

The photo galleries were awe-inspiring but at the same time they were a train wreck. It was the outdoors equivalent of Dennis Rodman in the early ‘90s, Britney Spears in 2007 (the shaved head era) or Mike Tyson any time in the past 30 years. You didn’t want to look away because it was almost certain that something memorable was about to happen.

Fortunately, nothing really memorable did happen.

No one was hurt. No boats were irrevocably damaged. No rules were broken.

If a pro wants to take his $70,000 floating rocket into hazardous territory, that’s his business. Contrary to popular opinion, most of them don’t get ’em for free, so if they think the risk is worth the potential reward, that’s their decision to make. Truth be told, even if they cracked it into a thousand pieces of semi-wrapped fiberglass, they’d probably still be able to recover the trolling motor, the electronics and a few other peripherals, so it’d likely be only a $50,000 loss – not including the hospital bills, any potential lawsuits, the environmental remediation fees and the reimbursement to the search and rescue crew.

It would be irresponsible for me to whitewash history and claim that there have never been injuries in bass tournaments caused by irresponsible or risk-taking boat driving. The incidents to date have been well-documented. My fear is that eventually someone is going to get seriously hurt or killed.

Yes, these guys are all experienced drivers and there may only be an incident once every tens of thousands of hours of seat time, but in many ways it’s similar to the airlines. On a per mile basis, air travel is probably safer than driving to work or walking your dog, but it’s the crashes that we remember. If this Alabama River tournament had been held 10 years ago, we’d have little or no photo or video evidence of it. The stories of anglers running Moccasin Gap would be rumors instead of demonstrable fact. Had Jared Miller or his Marshal been injured, the footage would’ve led the news on more than one station.

Had I been a rider at the Alabama River this past weekend and known my boater was going to run a rocky Disney flume ride, I would have bailed. I’d like to think that even if I’d been competing for $100K, I still wouldn’t have taken the risk. In fact I know it – the chances that I’d take my boat into that stuff are slightly lower than the odds that 2 Chainz will sing the national anthem at next February’s Classic.

You can’t blame the service crews. They’re de facto enablers of this sort of risk taking, but they’re doing their jobs and tending to run of the mill problems as well as the results of these nautical high wire acts. I’m also not going to blame the equipment. These types of problems long precede the introduction of the big 250s that are de rigueur today. Back in the days of 150s, and even before, there was a rumor that Ranger Boats had two boat graveyards behind their Arkansas factory – one for Roland Martin’s boats and one for all the others.

It’s not the size of the motor that causes the damage; it’s the size of the cojones. Arbitrary boundaries won’t change things much, either. If the tailraces had been off limits, pros would still be racing each other to spots, trying to jump into backwaters and running stumpy flats no deeper than your ankle at full throttle.

B.A.S.S. has made efforts to ensure that safety is a priority. At the 2007 Bassmaster Classic, B.A.S.S. Tournament Director Trip Weldon made the difficult decision to disqualify fan favorite Gerald Swindle for running too close to other boats. At other times, Weldon has elected to cancel a day of competition, even when the conditions were only bordering on unsafe. He knows that there are 100 pros who are desperate to win and won’t hesitate to occasionally take chances that no objective observer would consider reasonable. You can’t legislate common sense, but anyone who has been around him understands that Trip feels a great responsibility to put people in the position to make the right decision (and often suffers criticism for it). Fortune may favor the bold, but it also preys upon avarice and competitiveness.

Up until 2012, the Elites were allowed to have multiple boats in order to adapt to different waterways. For example, in addition to the standard 20- or 21-foot fiberglass bass boat, some pros had high-sided craft for the Great Lakes or jet boats for situations like the Alabama River. It was alleged that this created an unfair playing field for those who couldn’t afford multiple vessels. I don’t know if I buy that argument – anglers have different levels of equipment available to them already (e.g., electronics, even rods/reels/lures) based on the size of their wallets or the depth of their connections – but if nothing else it leveled the playing field. At the time I thought that meant the end of escapades like those we witnessed this past weekend. I was wrong. Then again, if jet boats had been allowed, how many more pros would’ve been up in the whitewater ping-ponging around?

“Personal responsibility” is a term that is used all too often, and usually because a writer or speaker is lazy. I’ve sat here at my keyboard for 20 minutes trying to find a better term, though, and that’s what this boils down to: Each angler has to use his best judgment, weighing costs and benefits. What risk is worth $100,000 or $10,000 or a spot in the Classic? At some point an angler may push it too far – although perhaps not quite as far as some of his peers – and something catastrophic will result. I hope it doesn’t, but I’m all but certain it will. When it happens, the haters will rejoice. Unfortunately, some fishing fans will also celebrate it – these are the same fans who wait for fights at a hockey game or cheer on crashes on the NASCAR track. I’m not among them, but I have to admit that this past weekend’s risk-taking fascinated, horrified and thrilled me simultaneously.

As the result of Bassmaster Magazine, the internet and hordes of other learning tools, the average skilled fisherman knows what it’s like to flip the same cover as Edwin Evers or crank a ledge that’s been graced by KVD’s crankbait. You can use the same drop shot rod as Aaron Martens on the same drop. As a result, pictures of those activities don’t thrill us anymore.

We want to know why the pros are different, and we can’t help but gawk as they search for every advantage. If anyone’s enabling them, it’s those of us who cheer them on and don’t have to turn a wrench or patch fiberglass well into the night.

It’s the same reason that the NFL marketed what should have been called “Greatest hits, tackles and beheadings” until the concussion frenzy scared them in their wallets. They still market it, just more quietly, and blood hungry folks like myself eat it up every Sunday. We don’t want to see anyone injured, but the fact that the possibility is there keeps us on the edge of our seats and clicking through the photo galleries.

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