Classic crowds gather from afar

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The "Super Bowl of Bass Fishing" doesn't have a 50-yard-line, so spectators take every chance to see their favorite anglers on the day of the competition. That includes lining the boat ramps of Lake Tohopekaliga at 5:30 a.m., beneath a cloudy, moonless sky, pointing digital cameras and index fingers at the 51 anglers debarking on the first morning of the Bassmaster Classic.

One of the first anglers onto the water is Tim Horton. Someone from the banks yells: "All right, Mr. Horton, give 'em hell, buddy. I've got your name on my hat. Don't let me down!"

On the banks nearby, a local Channel 13 reporter looks into a camera and rehearses her lines about how people have come from as far as Massachusetts and Minnesota to gather here. A hairbrush laid lengthwise along the camera's microphone is a testament to the blustery winds, which cut through many of the fans' scant T-shirts and jean shorts.

When someone complains about the cold, a fan named Ronald Taschler, down from eastern Pennsylvania, points out that the wind is blowing straight from the north. Well prepared in long pants and a Bass Pro sweatshirt, Taschler, along with his wife, Marie, have brought their Shih Tzu, Missy, to the lake to watch the boats. They're staying with their son, who has a house nearby, and have spent the week getting their fill of Disney rides. Of the Mission Space ride at Epcot, Marie says, "I was ready to pass out. Thank God it stopped when it did."

When Ronald mentions that he's a retired spray painter for Mack Trucks, a man in front of him turns around and says he drove Macks for 30 years before retiring in South Florida. John Accamando empathizes with the work ethic of the older anglers.

"Some of those old guys fishing tournaments 20 years ago, they just wanted to go fish," he says. "Now you've got sponsorships, commercialization, people catering to you, flying you in."

"Big money," Ronald Taschler adds.

"All they wanted to do," Accamando finishes, "is go fishing."

Nearby, the TV folks have latched onto a spectator from northern Florida named Karen Brown. With a microphone pointed at her, Brown explains why she's at the docks at this early hour.

"It's exciting; I like to come out and see the expressions on the fishermen's' faces," she says, looking a bit like a startled deer herself.

Brown doesn't fish much herself, but she does like to accompany her husband, William, and their son Daniel, who are huddled with her beside the boat ramp.

"You look at the glamour, and the average person doesn't realize the hard work it took for them to get where they are," she says. "These guys put on a good face, but I'm sure they've got the creepie-crawlies right now."

"You've got your favorites," her husband adds, "and you feel apprehension right along with them."

By a 6:15, the ramp spectators have moved with the anglers to the launch point, between a little marina and a cinderblock yacht club. All along the water, fans crowd, perhaps 200 of them now, standing on picnic benches and filling bleachers.

Perhaps the angler with the most visible fans is Jimmy Mize, whose friends and family have donned T-shirts with his name on them, including four who wore shirts with M-I-Z-E spelled one letter per chest. Babe Shull, a friend of the Mize family, sits holding a "GO MIZE" sign written in pink marker, with another small "go Mize" scribbled in the lower corner.

Cheers erupt from the crowd as the announcer reads the names of the anglers as they put water between them and the marina. Mize gets a raucous roar, as does Mike Diagonally. Sunlight seeps through the cloud cover. The chill is fading. It looks like a fine day for fishing.

Then, when the anglers have sped off, a second rush begins, this one for the free brats at a huge grilling trailer. The first customer to get his brat is Frank Ay, who slathers some mustard on his dog and takes a few steps from the condiment table before tearing into his free sausage breakfast. Of course, Ay did wake up at 2:45 a.m. to make the drive from Coconut Creek, Fla., to the event, and plans to make the round trip back to pick up his wife and daughter later in the evening, so his hunger is understandable.

As for his strategy to be first in line, Ay says: "I figured once the boats were done launching, everyone would come running."