Editor's note: 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of B.A.S.S. As part of our celebration we’re publishing stories, videos and photos about the history of the sport, including the one below.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of B.A.S.S., and I’m sure we’re going to see lots of tributes to the people, places and innovations that have colored our sport. In fact, I’m already noodling on a few ideas I want to write about people who have influenced my time on the water and behind the keyboard. But before I do that, I want to make sure that one very important category of actors doesn’t get overlooked – the fish. Without them, it would be a pretty boring pastime, a bunch of guys in glittery boats and shiny shirts waving sticks over the water.
Indeed, without the fish at center stage, there’d be no sport, yet as individuals they get very little attention, hoisted into a boat, deposited into a dark livewell, weighed and the returned to the drink. It’s high time they got a little bit of credit for their trouble.
With that in mind, the following is a list of five fish (in no particular order) that I feel made a difference in my personal perception of B.A.S.S. Keep in mind, I didn’t start following the sport until the mid-80s, and fish seen on television have an unfair advantage over those with no airtime, so I’ll admit to certain biases. Your mileage may vary.
Nixon’s Megabucks jumper
If you came of age in the 1980s or early 1990s, then the theme from TNN’s The Bassmasters no doubt gets your heart pumping. It’s best with the accompanying footage, and while David Fritts falling out of the boat landing a fish is fun, no single image from that intro resonates more than watching the still-youthful Larry Nixon get a load of a tournament-changing bass in thick pads as it completely clears the water during the 1988 Megabucks tournament. “Oh my gosh, look at the size of that bass,” he says. “Oh baby, stay pegged.” With those few words, any red blooded angler, whether your personal best is 2 pounds or 10 pounds, whether you’ve competed for $100,000 or just fish a neighborhood pond, can relate. Nixon remains calm throughout the fight, but then our hero breaks down when the cameraman asks him to talk about it. “Talk? I can’t even breathe,” Nixon said. We’ve all been there.
Bitter’s slippery keeper
I hate to bring up what has unfairly become the defining moment of Jim Bitter’s fishing career, but I feel that it’s so emblematic of the fine line between success and “failure” in this sport that I can’t resist. For those of you who don’t remember, on the final day of the 1989 Bassmaster Classic on Virginia’s James River, Bitter had the winning fish in his possession, ready to go into the livewell, and measured it once more for his photographer to ensure that it met the 12-inch minimum size limit. As he did so, it flopped free, over the side of the boat, and back into the river. He only weighed in four fish that day and fell short of winner Hank Parker by 2 ounces. Despite qualifying for six more Classics, winning five B.A.S.S. events and a total of nearly $850,000, he’s remembered for that one fish. I suppose that if Aaron Martens never wins a Classic he’ll have a similar albatross around his neck, and Hank Cherry may rue the monster he lost at Grand Lake in 2013, but no one with such a storied career is so negatively associated with a single bass as Bitter. We’ve all lost fish, and they all hurt, even when no world championship is at stake.
Ike’s never give up moment
Before most fishing fans fully appreciated what “Going Ike” meant, a bespectacled Mike Iaconelli earned a Classic win in 2003, his fourth attempt at the championship. He’d just turned 31, and had some unfinished business on the Louisiana Delta, where he’d finished sixth in his first crack at the Classic four years earlier. It was a close-fought battle and he beat Gary Klein by just 1 pound 12 ounces, thanks largely to a last-minute kicker that he caught on a spinning rod. He had limited time to get back to the ramp, yet he celebrated extensively, repeating “Never give up!” over and over and over again. For the uninitiated, it was hard to tell if this was contrived or genuine, and it probably garnered him just as many detractors as fans, but it gave birth to the modern made-for-television era of bass fishing. Without the willingness of that fish to bite, we probably still would’ve eventually learned about Ike, but not that dramatically.
Pro anglers spend their time looking for populations of fish that will bite, so the battle rarely becomes personal. Sure, occasionally there’s a bedding fish that confounds an angler for hours, but other than that, they either bite or they don’t and the angler moves on. At the 2008 Elite event on South Carolina’s Lake Murray, though, Fred Roumanis, not yet 30, went at it with a single bass that he nicknamed “Sugar.” While others chased the blueback herring bite down the lake, he went up the Saluda River and fished a frog in vegetation. One big fish bit on Days 1 and 2, but never hooked up. When Roumbanis got a bite in that same spot on Day 3, the fish wrapped him up in the weeds. He thought it might be a grinnel, but he took a leap of faith and reached down to it and was rewarded with a 6-pound, 13-ounce beast, which enabled him to beat Steve Kennedy by just over a pound and a half. He’d conquered his Great White Whale. It helped him stay in the game and cemented his reputation as a big bass, frog chucking machine.
There are trophy chasers and there are tournament anglers and never the twain shall meet, right? The lunker hunters chase single fish and tournament guys chase populations of fish, but occasionally there’s some overlap, especially on known trophy waters. That sort of kismet struck Arizona pro Mark Tyler at the April 1999 Western Invitational on the California Delta when he flipped his jig into heavy cover and suddenly found himself attached to a 14-pound, 9-ounce giant. A fish that size is truly the fish of a lifetime. I’m guessing that only a small fraction of 1 percent of serious bass anglers ever hit the 12 pound mark, let alone make it into the teens – but to do it in a tournament? That’s absolute insanity. Notably, he didn’t win the tournament but finished fourth (anyone who followed B.A.S.S. in that era likely remembers Robert Lee’s string of Delta wins), but as far as consolation prizes go it’s a pretty darn good one. Every pro has a story of the record-class fish that wouldn’t bite or got away, but Tyler – who won a Central Open in his adopted state of Oklahoma in 2014 – has the strained muscles to prove it.
That’s my list. Who’s in your top five?