Going from Birmingham to Beijing

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Courtesy Randall Tharp
Dinner with a bass club in Taiyuan.

The year is almost behind us and 2018 is quickly approaching. I didn’t add any hardware to the collection in 2017 and fell well short of the goals I had set when the year began, but looking back I realize it was one of the most rewarding and memorable years of my entire life and career.

I just arrived back home from a trip that included Birmingham and Nashville. I was traveling by myself and decided to drive through a few neighborhoods where not too many years ago I was making a living as a construction worker. I stopped in front of several beautiful homes and admired the work that I had done, and it brought back a lot of memories, both good and bad. For those of you who know my story you know that I once lived in Birmingham. I fell in love with tournament fishing there and also formed the foundation for my career now.

A month ago Sara and I flew halfway around the world to China. We visited the cities of Beijing, Weihai and Taiyuan over the course of a week. We spent two days in a rod factory, a few more days aboard planes and trains and two days in the mountains catching Chinese largemouth bass. If you would have told me 10 years ago that a construction worker in Birmingham, Ala., would be halfway around the globe because of his obsession with becoming a better angler I would have died laughing.

The trip was very eye-opening for both of us, and I don’t think we could have done anything that would have prepared us for the cultural differences we would experience while we were there. It definitely had its challenges, and I am very thankful to everyone around us who made the trip as enjoyable and safe as possible. To say that we stood out there would be an understatement.   

China has a population of more than 1.4 billion people compared to the U.S. population of about 325 million. I saw a lot of the country while I was there and let me tell you, there is not much water, and even less which houses a population of bass. I can't tell you how many people in China fish or how many of those are bass fishermen, but they are there. The fishermen who surrounded me in each city and at every stop were my favorite part of the trip.

The bass fishing scene in China is in its infancy. It's almost like an underground movement or like they are outlaws or something – small groups in different cities who are fortunate enough to have water and a few bass. They are fishing from the bank, fishing out of kayaks and a few have figured out how to get boats over there. I am not sure how many tournaments happen in China each year, but there are tournaments and the tournament scene is growing. They communicate with each other through a form of social media similar to our Facebook. They share pictures and information with each other and their thirst for knowledge and understanding is unlike anything I have seen here in the United States.

For me to be able to describe to you how special the bass fishermen are in China you need to know some of the obstacles they have had to overcome. There are no tackle stores, boat dealers or fishing magazines. Very few people in the entire country live in a house. Instead they live in high rise apartments in big cities and everything is very, very expensive. From what I saw, trailering a boat is just about impossible. The traffic is unbelievable. Picture a high speed taxi ride in New York but with no traffic laws, then throw thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians into the mix. I have never witnessed anything close to that, but still these fishermen have found a way. Nothing about bass fishing in China is easy.

I fished a lake in the mountains north of the city of Taiyuan for two days. There I met a group of guys who I will never forget. They watched every move I made on the water for two days. Keep in mind that I don’t speak Chinese, and they didn’t speak English. Once on the water there was no more translator. They studied me and what I was doing down to the smallest detail. I don’t know how to describe it, but once I picked up that rod it was almost like we didn’t need that translator anymore. We laughed together, froze our tails off together, got frustrated together and then celebrated together.

I had dinner with the group both days that I fished. We had a couple of guys there that could translate and none of us wanted it to end. They would ask a question and I would answer and then it would be my turn. At the end of it all I have a ton respect for each and every one of them and will never forget the two days we spent together. The thing that inspires me the most is the passion they had for the sport that I love. They are obsessed with it just like I am and probably you are if you are reading this.      

The China trip changed the way I look at things. I don’t think that I have ever taken what we have here for granted, but it does make me appreciate it a whole lot more. Sara and I celebrated our 24th anniversary two weeks after getting back and we are enjoying our new home that we built this year. We are already planning a return trip next year and can’t wait to visit the friends we made. I wish each and every one of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!