So there I was, 15-feet behind one of the greatest fishermen of all times, looking over his shoulder while he competed in the world's biggest bass fishing tour. In this surreal moment, a thought occurred to me. Let's say you were a huge football fan–a passionate Packers fan. What would you pay to spend an entire game on the field–not on the sidelines, on the field? You'd be included in every huddle. You'd hear all of the instructions from the coaches. You'd see tackles happening right in front of you (and you would never be touched). You'd hear every comment made between teammates and opposing players. Aaron Rodgers himself would tell you what the next play would be. What would that experience be worth to a real fan?
Alright, let's say you loved Brad Paisley. For four consecutive nights of the tour, you got to sit right in the middle of the stage during the concert. You got to hear the music, but you also got a chance to feel what it was like to have 20,000 adoring fans aimed at you. You heard every joke or comment Brad made to his bandmates. He laughed and told you (only you) when he missed a note. You got to dodge flying hotel room keys (or whatever else Brad Paisley had to dodge). What would a music fan pay for that experience?
How about riding along with your favorite NASCAR driver for 500 miles of Talladega?
What would these experiences be worth to the true fans? Unfortunately for them, price wouldn't matter. The opportunities just aren't available at any price. But fortunately for me, I'm passionate about tournament bass fishing. By signing up as a Bassmaster Elite Tour Marshal, I got the opportunity to spend three days on the river at LaCrosse, WI in the boats of some of the world's greatest bass fishermen. It was absolutely surreal and impossible to match in any other activity!
For super bass geeks like myself and my brother, Craig, the experience began as we pulled into town and started to see the Elite pro rigs everywhere. "Hey, there goes Chris Lane!" "Dang! Look at the size of the truck Skeet drives!"
Even the pre-tournament meeting was exciting. The same pros we'd seen on TV and in the magazines were just walking around everywhere. The room was buzzing with anticipation, everyone wondering who they'd be paired with. It was easy to overhear discussions of top 5 preferred pick lists throughout the room. G-Man, Ike and KVD seemed to be mentioned more often than most, but the fact was there wasn't a bad draw in the group. Any interaction I'd ever had with these guys revealed that bass fishermen are generally nice, approachable, good guys.
Day 1. Boyd Duckett. That's a solid draw, I thought to myself. Classic champ. Business mogul. Cool! Boyd had an easy smile, a quick wit and wasn't afraid to make eye contact when he talked. Maybe that's just part of being a good businessman, but it made it effortless to share a boat with him for a day.
As we floated around prior to takeoff, most anglers made hurried, last-minute adjustments to tackle while Boyd clipped his nails. Well, I wasn't expecting that. He's certainly cool and confident, I thought.
"I've just been on the road the last couple weeks," he smiled sheepishly when he noticed I was watching. "Sometimes I get behind on my personal upkeep."
"Plus, you'll need your hands to look their best when you're holding up a biggun' for the camera later," I kidded.
When it was finally our turn to takeoff, we ran upriver and into the lock with about 25 other competitors headed toward the next pool of the Mississippi. From there we headed several miles north as the other boats peeled away from the group to their starting spots–except for one. We cut out of the main river and flew through a zig-zagging maze of shallow, backwater channels, matched turn for turn by the other boat. Eventually, the two boats settled in the exact same location.
"Iaconelli," Boyd grumbled.
From the hundred mile stretch of river available, and thousands of miles of twisting, backwater shorelines to choose from (nearly all of it "bass-y" looking), these two had selected the same spot.
"That's exactly the part of this bank I wanted to start on," Duckett whispered to me as he idled past Ike an extra 30 or so yards before he started fishing.
I'm sure both would have preferred that the other wasn't there, but there really wasn't anything tense about it. They exchanged a few cordial words, and both started catching fish. Within a few minutes, Mike fished up to and around Boyd, leaving his original starting spot open. Duckett waited until it was clear Ike was going to continue up the bank before he settled into "the spot". Almost immediately, Duckett started catching fish on nearly every cast. Iaconelli was catching them too. So, my first hour as a Marshal in this tournament was spent watching two Classic Champs catch 50 to 75 bass!
While this area was clearly loaded with keeper-size fish, there didn't seem to be much over 2-1/2 lbs here. Back through the lock we headed, looking for a kicker.
"Looking for a kicker", seemed to be a theme common to all of the competitors this week. There didn't seem to be any shortage of 2-pounders, but 4s were tough to come by.
Our next spot, was a large shallow grass bed on the downstream side of an island, leading into an immense weed flat. Almost immediately, we were joined by fellow Elite pro, Kelly Jordan. (I had the pleasure of riding along with Kelly during the 2012 event on these same waters. Check out the details here http://blog.fishingforward.com/2012/07/11/riding-along-with-the-bassmaster-elites-2.aspx ). Boyd and Kelly typically room together and share quite a bit of information. In fact, Boyd said that when he heard Kelly had an early launch number, he had instructed him to come and fish this spot.
Kelly informed us that several other boats had been fishing here over the course of the morning. "We were catching them pretty good earlier, rIght where your boat is. Oh, and I'm gonna need one of them lucky smokes," requested Kelly. Boyd was glad to oblige, and for the next several minutes the two parked side-by-side, smoking and fishing the same spot. Kelly really didn't seem to enjoy the cigarette he asked for, but he was dedicated to the plan. After a few minutes of this casual gathering, both of these fierce competitors felt the need to get to work. Kelly motored off and Boyd set his sights on this weed flat.
"Alright," he focused. " I've been throwing my swim jig over the weeds and they don't seem to be responding. Kelly said he was catching them on the outside edge where the current is strongest, but they don't seem to be there now. Hmm. I don't think these fish leave. I'll bet they're tucked into the weeds and just kind of inactive." He picked up a finesse rod with a small bullet, and 4" texas-rigged centipede. "I need something that will fall right in front of them, but is small and tempting enough that even a neutral fish can't resist." And just like that, the spot that had been vacant of fish the past several minutes was suddenly loaded. Duckett caught several fish, many on consecutive casts, and culled a couple times. Unfortunately, they were moves of ounces rather than the pounds he was looking for, but it was still awesome to see him figure it out.
At the end of the day, Boyd was in the middle of the pack.
Day 2. Jason Williamson. I had heard and read that Jason was a fairly affable guy. I make a very conscious effort as a marshal to let the pro lead any conversations, because I want to have as little impact as possible on the outcome of his day. I respect the fact that these guys are trying to make a living here and I know from experience how a stranger in the back of your boat can be surprisingly distracting. Everyone's different. If the pro wants to chat, I'm glad to participate, but I try to let him set the tone. In Jason's case, I believe I can literally count the number of words spoken over our 8 hours together, including the first hour-and-a-half spent sitting in the cab of his truck waiting out the weather that delayed day two's launch. He wasn't unpleasant or mean or unprofessional but very quiet and stoic. So, unfortunately, I don't have a lot of insight into his personality or philosophies. He was apparently super focused on the job at hand.
Once we got on the water, it was interesting to watch his approach. He is a masterful flipper, putting the bait quietly into impossibly small spots.
Perhaps the highlight of that day came about an hour from weigh-in. Jason had been flipping flooded trees and brush most of the day. We had encountered several other competitors following a very similar approach, including eventual winner Tommy Biffle. There was a boat ahead of us and a boat behind us on this shore. I looked out across the channel and spotted four other boats doing the same thing along that shore. Then I noticed a boat that was a full two to three casts away from the tree line. And more than that, he was fishing with his back to the shore! Then I recognized the boat as Aaron Marten's. That is so cool! I smiled to myself. How awesome must it be to know how to catch the fish that no one else seems to be able to catch? (I rode with Aaron last year and was completely blown away! This guy is amazing! You can check out the details of that day here blog.fishingforward.com/2012/07/11/riding-along-with-the-bassmaster-elites-2.aspx Jason caught a better bag today than he had on day one, and finished in 74th place.
At the end of day two's weigh-in, my brother and I gathered with the other Marshals in hopes of getting paired up with one of the remaining top 50 anglers for day three. I say hope because we were both on the waiting list. As luck would have it, only 50-ish Marshals showed up for the pairings. Our chances looked good. My brother was paired first–John Crews, who ultimately finished the tourney in third.
"Good draw!" I told him. "That'll be a good day!"
A few minutes later, Marshal Director, John Stewart called out, "Boat 25. Kevin VanDam and…" The remaining Marshals all held their breath. "Joe Blow (I can't remember his name)" The crowd was silent. "Joe Blow? Going once. Going twice. Alright, next name.
Just then my brother leaned over and told me confidently, "It's you, dude."
John Stewart looked at his list and called, "How about, Kurt Mazurek?"
'Right here!" I responded enthusiastically.
"Are you sure you can go tomorrow?" John kidded.
"One-hundred percent." I assured him.
"You owe Joe Blow a big thanks," he joked.
Everyone who knows me is well aware that VanDam has been my favorite pro fisherman for many years. This was going to be awesome!
Back at the hotel room that night, I stood in front of the sink looking into the mirror. Craig sat watching a classic Seinfeld rerun on TV. Suddenly, he called out with disgust from the other room, "Wait a second! Are you shaving?!"
"Yeah," I answered as innocently as possible.
"Are you shaving because you're riding with KVD tomorrow?"
I paused, realizing I'd been caught. "Well, I don't want him to think I'm a bum," I tried weakly to defend myself then we both burst into laughter.
Day 3. Kevin VanDam. Saturday morning dawned with more threats of severe storms. Fortunately, there was a break in the weather long enough to get things started on time. Being in Kevin's boat had a different feel to it. Even when he was just beached at the ramp, talking on his cellphone before the tournament started, a crowd stood watching and snapping pictures. He seemed to take it all in stride–gracious and humble.
As we waited for takeoff, his mind worked overtime, trying to make a final decision on his plan for the day. Fortunately for me, he verbalized many of those thoughts.
"I want to go north, but I'm afraid all the rain we had last night and the past several days is finally going to ruin my fish up there," he rationalized. "I've got something good down south that I don't think will be as affected by the rain, but I caught them pretty good yesterday up north. It just depends on how fast the creek I'm fishing is going to rise. I'd hate to spend the time locking through to find the place a mess." Back and forth he went, weighing his options. He looked at the sky to the west and cringed a bit at the sight of yet another storm cell forming.
I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to interfere or influence his decisions. As we took our place in the line of boats and idled through the long, no wake section, I could tell he still hadn't made a final call. Just before he pushed the throttle down he said, "I think I'd be safer is to head south."
His casts were surprisingly short and impressively fast and accurate. It didn't take long for him to boat a couple keepers. I'm so glad I'm right here watching this, I thought. But then the daylight turned to dark as the storm that we had seen approaching earlier finally found us. The volume of rain that fell over the next several minutes was epic! The wind howled and thunder rolled as I huddled down in the passenger seat. VanDam never missed a beat. His cadence was consistent. His casts remained accurate. His posture never slumped. He kept catching fish!
The storm passed and KVD continued to catch fish. But I started to notice something change about his demeanor. He never stopped casting but he was busily analyzing, observing, computing, and deciding. He had been working this area for a couple hours and he had 4 smallish keepers in the box. He looked at the western sky one more time and announced, "Alright, we're going to make a move."
Through the lock and into the next pool we went. We headed north and ended up in a spot not too far from the area where Duckett and Ike had started on Day 1.
"Looks good," he confirmed as he jumped to the front deck. "Probably should have started here," he admitted. But unlike a lot of anglers, he didn't dwell on it. He never mentioned it again. He started catching fish. And every fish he caught brought him closer and closer to maximum efficiency. As time went on, he changed spots more frequently, but not in a desperate way–instead, a very calculated way. He had determined exactly how the fish were using huge expanses of available cover and only fished the highest percentage spots quickly and accurately to maximize efficiency. On several occasions, he called the exact spot or cast where he would catch his next fish.
He pulled up to a large, windswept point of reeds, much like dozens of others he had been hitting. On his second cast he was rewarded with the kicker he knew he would eventually catch.
"That's a game changer!" he shouted as he swung the nearly 4-lb. largemouth into the boat. I could sense his intensity ratchet up yet another notch. "Now, one more like that!" he hoped.
For the last hour of the day, his fishing was fast but not frantic. His casts remained accurate and controlled. He was focused and unemotional. But despite his best efforts, the clock ran out before he found "one more like that".
At the end of the day, I couldn't help but think that today hadn't gone exactly like the day in the boat with VanDam I had always imagined. He didn't invite me to fish his private pond in Kalamazoo. He didn't ask for my cell phone number or say that we should do this more often. He didn't comment on my neatly trimmed beard. But the truth is, I really couldn't have asked for more. He was friendly, cool, professional, and gave me a first hand lesson in what it takes to be the best. I'm sure he would argue that it wasn't his best day, but I think the most insightful lessons came in the moments between the fish.
Mixed in with my three days on the water, were tons of priceless, behind the scenes, bass geek moments. At the end of day two, I had a one-on-one, philosophical discussion with the legend, Rick Clunn. I've learned so much from that man! Friday evening Craig and I had dinner with Elite Tour rookies, Josh Bertrand and Cliff Pirch, and Cliff's father, Dennis. Those are some great guys and exceptional fishermen! Oh, and here's one more peek into the life of KVD. I was glad to help him get his boat on the trailer at the end of day 3. As I sat behind the wheel of his Tundra, a man approached the window.
"I just want to shake your hand," he blurted and offered his hand. I smiled sheepishly as we shook. He continued, "Man, I have waited my whole life to meet…wait a minute. You're not Kevin," he accused.
"Sorry," I told him sincerely as he left dejected. I wondered to myself if this level of easy access to the world's best performers is what fosters that kind of fan dedication. Maybe it's because the Elites compete on 100-percent public playing fields all across the country. Maybe it's because of the rare opportunities that the Marshal program offers. As fans of this sport, we've got it pretty good! I thought. I wondered how often that sort of fan adoration happened to KVD. Just then I caught the reflection of my well-trimmed beard in the rearview, and guessed it probably happened a lot.
Originally published July 2013