BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Five minutes into our interview, I had Bill Lowen crying.
Note to aspiring journalists: this is probably not a good practice, nor should it be a career goal, not at any time, and particularly not when the interviewee is already under the pressure of his biggest event of the year. Nevertheless, this is the position I’d put him in by asking how his wife would react should he be the winner of this year’s Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic Presented by Huk. His wife Jennifer is known for her ear-piercing screams any time he hits the stage, but Lowen said if he won the Classic she probably wouldn’t scream at all.
“I think she wouldn’t be able to,” he said. “She’d be too busy crying.”
And then he lost it.
I should have learned my lesson earlier. I’d sat with Chris Zaldain a short while earlier and repeatedly badgered him about last year’s near misses, possibly to the point of making the unfailingly positive pro uncomfortable. At the Classic on the Tennessee River he’d amassed a huge bag on Day Two to make him a threat, and he oozed confidence that he could back it up, but succumbed to changing conditions and stumbled on Day Three. In 2019’s regular season Elite competition, he’d notched three runner-up finishes and a 3rd place. Always a bridesmaid, it seemed, including the last time he dumped his boat in the water here at Guntersville. During that tournament he’d had the winning fish on his line several times, but eventually ran out of time as the cameras rolled.
“I have a score to settle with this lake,” he said. “When I drove over the bridge here (on the day I arrived), I got chills.”
Connecticut pro Paul Mueller likewise would seem justified if he held a grudge against the site of this week’s big tournament. The last time the Classic was held here, in 2014, he amassed a record limit on Day Two, but a three-bass Day One catch left him unable to keep up with Randy Howell’s final day surge, and he left town without the trophy.
The bottom line, Mueller, said, is that “if you fish the Elite Series, you’re going to get down more than you’re up.” For each big milestone, like his Elite victories at Lanier last year and the St. Johns this year, there are countless events where anglers leave either scratching their heads or simply perturbed. “If I had given up when things went wrong last year, I wouldn’t be here,” he added. “The best sign that I’m maturing is that I can have bad practices and good finishes.”
All three of those young pros – Zaldain and Mueller are both 35, and Lowen is 45 -- were thrust into the role of elder statesmen last year when the sport underwent cataclysmic changes. All three have inched or lurched toward a career-defining win, but have yet to reach that position. While Lowen and Zaldain have had longer careers, Mueller has the two regular season Elite victories (Zaldain won the AOY Championship in 2015). None has yet claimed a Classic title or an AOY trophy although they’ve come close enough to taste it.
As they were put into the position as senior statesmen by default, a new crop of superstars in the making emerged in last year’s Elite field. Some would like to believe that “paying your dues” should mean something, but ultimately what matters most is what you put on the scale. There are no participation points or rewards for longevity and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The only sort of meritocracy governing the sport is that the fish don’t care who catches them, and while many fans would like to see the longtime B.A.S.S. loyalists be rewarded for their staying power, there’s nothing that says one of the newer crop can’t have an early day in the sun.
“We have a fresh breed of competitors out there,” Zaldain explained. “They’re young, they’re hungry, they know how to use their electronics and they’re not afraid. They’re going to fish like they’re bulletproof.”
What some of those youngsters might not have is the trail of tears and scars that harden over the course of a career as a pro angler. This wasn’t the first time I recalled Lowen crying. At an Elite event at New York’s Lake Oneida in 2009, he self-reported the fact that he had six fish in the livewell and lost his weight for the day, a mistake that cost him a Classic berth.
“I stood on the nose of my boat and cried for 20 minutes,” he said. “It was so bad that my Marshal came up and gave me a hug. We put so much heart and soul into it, and we end up experiencing the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. There are definitely more lows. What gets me through it all is that every day when I come off the water my family is standing there on the docks. They don’t care if I catch 2 pounds or 20 pounds, they’re just happy that I’m back.”
Zaldain, too, despite the cheery exterior, knows that the low times can be paralyzing.
“I have to lean on my wife a lot,” he said. “When the job is in front of me, I have to keep my composure, but sometimes when the truck door slams and I’m heading back to Fort Worth, I come unglued. I don’t break things. It saddens me more than anything. The goal is to unleash that the best way I know how.”
Like Lowen, he depends on the thrill of the highs to outweigh the more frequent disappointments.
“The highs are higher than the lows are low,” he said. “Even if you don’t take home the trophy, when you do your job well that far outweighs the crappy drives home.”
Rather than dwell on the near-misses, Mueller, Zaldain and Lowen all like to think of them as building blocks for future successes. Indeed, when Mueller said that his practice strategy this week is to “learn what you can learn and find somewhere else to apply it,” he might as well have been talking about his whole career as much as he was reflecting upon this one tournament. All three are overdue, and all three also know that despite their track records and massive amounts of experience, that day in the sun may never come.
But if it comes – when it comes, they’d no doubt say – there will be tears. The right kind of tears.