Three days as a Bassmaster Marshal

By Bobby Brumback

“May I ask why you passed up all those laydown trees to fish this mat of vegetation?” Bobby Lane Jr. had just blasted a 1 1/4 ounce creature bait through the weeds and yanked out a 2 pounder. “I like to fish the mats,” was all he said. Most of us mortal amateurs would have probed every branch on those trees on our way to the mat. We might have even caught a bass. But the B.A.S.S. pros do exactly what they feel they need to do to have a larger stringer. Sometimes the explanation of why they do what they do is as simple as that.

Learning on Guntersville

If you are reading this to capture some insight on how the Lake Guntersville tournament was won, you will be disappointed. If, however, you would appreciate an inside look into the lives of professional anglers, their decision-making process on the water, and their tournament ethics, then marshaling a Bassmaster Elite Series event may be your vehicle to discovery. Marshalling may not be for everyone. If you don’t think that sitting behind a professional bass fisherman for eight to nine hours a day without fishing is something you would consider, then don’t.  But those hours can open a window into the men and techniques of our sport that you could never fully appreciate from an article or TV show.

The Diet Mtn Dew Bassmaster Elite at Lake Guntersville was my first experience as a marshal.  I am from Baltimore, and we have no impoundments like Lake Guntersville. I wanted to experience a classic southern big bass reservoir during the spring. Let me confess that I do not follow the Bassmasters Elite tour because I am intensely interested in who wins. I’m not. I want to be a better fisherman and learning from better fishermen is the way to get better. Period. Others follow the sport and root for their favorite angler like I would root for the Ravens or Orioles, but it’s not the same to me. I just thought that being a marshal would be fun and would increase my fishing IQ.

Marshals meet the day before the tournament to get the rules clarified. Understanding the rules is important, and sure enough, those rules were tested a couple of times in this event. I’ll say more about that later. That afternoon, you get paired with an angler for the first day of the tournament. You meet him at a group dinner, finalizing plans as to where and when you meet the next morning prior to launch.

Day 1

I was paired with Dennis Tietje, a fifth-year pro from Louisiana, my first day. He represented his state’s federation team for a decade before joining the Elite pros. We ran up lake to a creek where he had killed them in practice. There were four or five locals fishing the area when we arrived, but no tournament anglers. He was stunned that no other pros had chosen this spot as he was sure they had found it during pre-fish.

Our conversation started slowly, as would be expected from two strangers in close quarters. I learned his family farmed rice and crayfish. As he cast his ChatterBait over flats between 3-7 feet deep, a pair of local anglers, sitting on the best spot within this location, pulled up a huge bass in plain view. They estimated it weighed 9 or 10 pounds. By this point Tietje had only caught two bass, both of which were short of the 15-inch minimum. Tietje talked with them cordially. They weren’t moving off that spot, but the interaction was completely pleasant.

Tietje worked his way around them, literally circumnavigating their boat. They didn’t mind and seemed quite interested in him. At one point, they started to give him information that they thought would help him. Tietje cut them off immediately. “I can’t accept any information. I know you’re just trying to help, but we are not allowed to gain information from any local sources during the tournament.”  

That’s when the 8 pounder hit his ChatterBait. Once in the livewell there were some heavenly “thanks” and a couple of high fives. I learned right then that if you want to start a conversation in a bass boat, land an 8 pounder. The rest of the day was great.

I learned about his family, his recent ankle injury, the effects of Katrina on his farm, how his kids chose the colors of his boat and the controversy at the Sabine tournament. I learned that he brings a Dr. Pepper with him every trip, but he doesn’t permit himself to drink it until he has a limit of bass.

I learned about fishing the spawn without sight fishing. His feeling was that, to paraphrase, “you can go to the bank and catch one 5 pounder, but when they are just moving up, you might stay out here and catch five 5 pounders.” I met his wife and son on the dock prior to weigh-in, where he tipped the scales with 19 pounds, 9 ounces. He told me early on that it would take 17 pounds a day to make the Saturday cut. He didn’t know then how prophetic he would be.

Day 2

The second day I was paired with Kenneth “Boo” Woods. He is a young, second-year pro from Kentucky who travels with his wife and two small children to these events. Day 1 was miserable for Woods. He lost his trolling motor for 3.5 hours in the morning but was able to find good fish in the afternoon. Unfortunately, he said his execution failed him, losing two bass over 6 pounds at the boat. He was in dead last place starting Day 2 having only weighed in two fish the day before. Needless to say, he was dejected.

Early Friday morning, a front moved through northern Alabama with lots of thunderstorms. The launch was delayed an hour, and we raced off in the rain. An easy conversationalist, Woods said that talking kept him from being too hyped up during the day, and he welcomed comments and questions.

We started where he had seen a big fish on a bed at the back of a creek late the day before. The creek had been completely muddied by the rain, but he knew the location of the bed. If that fish was there, he could not make her bite. In the back of another off-color creek, he started throwing a topwater. I inquired if the muddy water and decreased visibility would lessen the effectiveness of such a bait. I told him that the waters that I fish are mostly clear, so when they do get muddy, we tend to stay away from topwater presentations. What he was doing was foreign to me, and I tactfully told him so. Just as those words left my mouth, an explosion occurred and a 4 1/2 pounder came into the boat. Lesson learned. By the way, it’s not a marshal’s place to question or critique the choices of the angler, but I think it’s OK to converse about his choice and why he made that choice over other options.

Woods’ right shoulder was hurting him, and he has the most amazing method of retrieving a worm with just his left arm and hand I’ve ever seen. After making a sidearm cast to avoid lifting his right shoulder, he advances the bait by lifting the rod with his left hand from 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock. Then he uses his fingers on his left hand, while still gripping the rod, to free spin the handle on the baitcaster, taking up the slack line while lowering his rod for the next bait advance. His right hand is doing very little.

Popping a worm out of the short grass on flats adjacent to spawning areas was his most effective technique of the day. He caught no other big fish but landed and culled quite a few, weighing in over 15 pounds at the end of the day.

On a personal note, he has a separate business with his father, and I could detect some conflict in him trying to balance being a B.A.S.S pro with his other job. He is a devout family man, and being with and caring for his wife and two small children are among his highest priorities. I was able to briefly meet his family at the weigh-in, where, while Woods was out of earshot, his wife told me she had him “pretty well trained.”

What I gleaned from my day with Woods was that this whole tournament thing is really, really hard on your life, distinctly harder than one who only has an outside impression of its rigors can imagine. It takes a special type of person with a special and very understanding family to make this work on a consistent basis. 

Day 3

On Day 3 the field was cut to 53 anglers. Tietje ranked 54th after Day 2. His total weight was 34 pounds, 9 ounces, exactly what he thought it would take to make the cut. The angler ranked 53rd, Jaret Lintner, with over 35 pounds, was in. Tietje’s tournament was done. I texted him to tell him how sorry I was and encouraged him on in the next Elite Series tournament in California. It’s hard to be so close and not get a check for your efforts.  It’s the second time in two tournaments this near miss has happened to Tietje.

Paired with Bobby Lane Jr., Day 3 was a completely different experience. We talked little at first as he worked ChatterBaits over a spawning flat. The camera boat was with us for 30 minutes or so, waiting for Lane to hook up. He landed a 3 pounder in the morning light, and the camera boat moved on.

As the sun got higher, he went into sight fishing mode and my lesson began. Unless you are really experienced at it, I found it hard to see some of the lighter spots that he called “beds,” much less whether there were fish on them. But man, does he have patience. I have never had such a fresh experience fishing in my life. Lane was informative through conversation and observation. The combination of his technique, including boat position and Power Pole use, his persistence and his confidence in what he was doing were spectacular.

I was stunned how much time he didn’t fish. I told him he really put the “sight” in sight fishing. Like my previous angler interactions, my relationship with him grew throughout the day. Let me also mention that marshals cannot help the fisherman in any way. That includes bed spotting. But I was able to look and appreciate what he saw and learn what bed fishing was all about. This was nothing but a fantastic learning experience.

After 1 o’clock, he pulled up on a bed he had seen on a previous day. He had a hard time locating it due to the shade the trees cast across the water. He estimated the fish to be 3 pounds, no 2 pounds, now back to 3 pounds. The poles went down and he started to work. After about 15 minutes of repeatedly placing a lizard into the bed, he swung and missed.

Here’s some marshalling advice: You don’t want to be in the backswing of any professional angler. I’ve no injuries to report. Anyway, he tried other baits and worked the bed for another 20 minutes or more. Finally, he set the hook and landed a beautiful, fat 5 1/2 pound female. However, he said, “she’s hooked in the face,” as he swung her over the gunwale. The hook was imbedded above the outside of her mouth, between the jaw and her eye. “Rules are rules. She’s got to go back.” He released her very gently.

What I didn’t know prior to this tournament is that under B.A.S.S. rules, fish caught sight fishing must be hooked on the inside of the mouth. If the hook enters the fish at a point outside of the mouth, it’s not a legal catch. The entry point of hook penetration must be verified by the marshal.

By sight fishing, I mean that the angler is directly viewing a bedding fish as it takes the bait. This applies even if a fish is landed while sight fishing and it comes unhooked prior to hook verification. If you cannot verify the entry point of the hook inside the mouth when a fish is caught while sight fishing, the fish is released and the catch doesn’t count.

Fish caught by methods other than sight fishing that are hooked outside of the mouth do count. My impression is that these rules are meant to prevent the snagging of fish that are vulnerable and visible on the bed.  

What’s key here, in my opinion, is that I didn’t have to say a word. Lane knew the moment he saw the location of the hook that she was not a legal catch. He didn’t wait for me to make a ruling; he’d already made his own. I really appreciated his character that day.

What happened next really surprised me. Lane waited to see if she returned to the nest. She did and he fished for her, let it calm down for 15 minutes and then fished for her some more. He made hundreds of casts at the fish, but she never took the bait.

When I asked if he could catch a fish that had, 15 minutes prior, been hooked and landed, he said he didn’t know. But she was still sitting right in front of him, and he was persistent beyond belief in trying to get her to strike. Lane weighed in over 15 pounds that day, finishing the tournament in 28th place. He would have loved to come in with a huge bag and make the final 12, but there would be no Sunday fishing for him.

Tournament wrap-up

Rule violations and angler integrity were tested elsewhere during this tournament. Paul Elias erroneously placed a sixth fish in his livewell. That violation carries a 2-pound penalty. I learned about his infraction from his marshal after weigh-in, who had noticed the violation when it occurred.

During our marshaling orientation we had been instructed under such circumstances not to make any scene in the boat. Our task was to report it to the tournament director once we return to the dock. To the marshal’s great relief, he didn’t have to have that conversation. Elias called it in himself. Interestingly, on Day 1 of this event, I happened to ask Tietje if the six fish mistake had ever happened to him. He said, “Yep. Called it in myself.” Wow.

Famished after my third and last day of marshaling (I only took a candy bar and crackers with me) I stopped by the restaurant beside my motel. While enjoying my dozen oysters and a tall brew, a man sat a few stools to my left who obviously was a fisherman. He looked familiar, had “fishing stuff” on, so we started to chat. It was Davey Hite, who had missed the cut and not fished Saturday, but who had just completed his First Look interview recording.

We talked for 30 minutes about B.A.S.S, the Elite tournaments, the personalities, the fishing pressure on Lake Guntersville, and life as a veteran of the tour. As we watched the Masters, which takes place close to his hometown in Georgia, he discussed the similarities between pro golf and the B.A.S.S tour.

A true southern gentleman, Hite believes that fishing should be understated, like golf, where success any given day should be acknowledged by nothing more than a tip of the hat. So, for the finale of my marshalling experience, I had a great conversation with a great pro fisherman, completely outside of the pressures of competition, and all it cost me was the privilege of buying him a beer.

It would be an understatement to say that I enjoyed my time as a marshal. I was lucky to meet and fish with three great guys. They were nice enough to not let me know how much I probably bugged them. I learned plenty of fishing tips, techniques and tricks. Most of all, I learned that they are uniquely fitted with great skills, intellect, tenacity and, yes, unfailing character. One marshal I met the day prior to the tournament described this experience as the cheapest and best guide trip you’ll ever have. He was right, and yes, I’m going to take that trip again.