Leading the 1980 Bassmaster Classic from Day 1 took a toll on Bo Dowden as the final day neared an end. Bo was one fish short of his limit as he spent an hour wrestling the Classic Ranger 225V across the worst waves New York's St. Lawrence River could summon. Doubt began to roll like whitecaps through his head. He was frazzled. Bo had finished second and third in previous Classics. He didn’t want that again.
I was his Press Angler for the day. Press Anglers usually fished out of the back of the boat. On this day, I didn’t ever let go of the passenger side handrail except to snap pictures of the Natchitoches, La., fisherman.
Bo finally found a calm inlet. He got some bolts back in the Motor Guide bracket, which had literally ripped off the deck during the tempestuous ride. He calmed his nerves by retying the only lure he fished with, a black jig-and-pig, and focused on one more good bite. There was no talking. No questions. No posing for pictures. Just the subtle “plink” of the lure hitting the boulders and then the water.
Then Bo set the hook.
Frazzled turned excited, then fearful, then hopeful. His Lew’s Speed Stick bent double. The drag gave line. Bo fell to his knees, as if trying to see underwater.
“Please don’t be a pike,” he said. “Dear Lord, please don’t let this be a pike”.
It wasn’t. It was a 6-pound, 6-ounce largemouth. He trembled as he held the big bass high in the air, then kissed her and called her “Queen Bee.” More like “Money Bee.” He didn’t know, but it had given him a 10-pound lead over soon-to-be runner-up Roland Martin.
These days on the water, there were no camera boats, no cellphones, no fan flotillas… just Bo and I. This day was my fondest memory of the 18 Classics I have been blessed to be involved in. Bo was from Louisiana, I got to fish with him the final day and we survived the boat ride in.
Some of the story of that day has been told before. Some hasn’t. The day before the finals while Bo was building his lead, I was on a field trip with some of the other press anglers on our day off from the water. Where I come from, most of the rocks are found on gravel roads. But here, I was climbing on rocks bigger than me. I slipped and twisted my ankle so badly I went to the hospital for an x-ray. Friday morning, when Bassmaster Editor Bob Cobb saw me hobble to breakfast on crutches, he told me he would find a replacement for me. No way. I was going if they had to load me in the boat with a fork lift. I went, and to this day, I am probably the only one to spend the day in a Classic on crutches.
Bo was always quiet, but he laughed at me limping down the pier to get in the boat in the dark.
“You sure do want to go fishing bad, don’t you?” he said. “You just keep your life jacket on and hold on to those crutches. It’s going to be a rough ride.” He later added that he might even use one of those crutches to fish with if he needed an extra stiff worm rod.
At day’s end, Bo was the last angler to drive the boat onto the trailer. Our tow vehicle paraded us through downtown Alexandria Bay to the weigh-in site with us still sitting in the bass boat. Police directed traffic. Curious onlookers pondered what all these southern boys were doing riding down the streets in boats like they had never seen before. This was the first B.A.S.S. event ever held north of Tennessee.
I tried to help Bo relax, but it was no use. He nervously took off his life jacket and stuffed his Ranger fishing jacket in a compartment for the ride.
As we neared the crowded line of boats approaching the weigh-in area, I reminded Bo that since he was a Ranger boat dealer and sponsored by Ranger, maybe he should put his Ranger jacket back on. He was about to be in a lot of photos. He reached into the compartment and pulled it out, but it was soaking wet. He had put the jacket right in the livewell with his bass.
I died laughing, but quickly swapped jackets with him and put on my camo rain jacket. If you look closely in some old weigh-in photos, you can see his jacket’s “Press Angler” patch.
I almost didn’t even make the 1,500 mile trip to this tenth anniversary Classic. My wife delivered our first child, son Adam, just eight weeks earlier. But she encouraged me to go. I’m so glad she did.
1980 Bassmaster Classic: Bo Dowden's winning moment.