America’s fish: The largemouth bass
By Brent Frazee
The Kansas City Star
Hail to an American hero, the largemouth bass.
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The green fish is about as red, white and blue as the flag, apple pie and baseball.
From rural ponds in Kansas where kids cast for giant bucketmouths to the famous lakes where pros in glitzy boats compete for payouts as big as $500,000, America is crazy about the largemouth bass.
And it’s a nationwide thing. Gone are the days when the sport resonated in only a southern drawl.
Oh, the bass is still an icon in states such as Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Texas. But it also is the rage in unlikely spots such as California, Delaware and Minnesota.
Yes, the largemouth bass is America’s fish. Despite what fishermen chasing crappies, catfish or even panfish will tell you, the bass wins all popularity contests.
Look at the figures:
–There are 10.6 million fishermen in America who cast for the largemouth bass, making it the most popular freshwater species. Panfish rank second with 7.3 fishermen, and trout third with 7.2 million.
–Those bass fishermen are dedicated to their sport. They put in 171 million days on the water, again leading all freshwater categories.
–The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or BASS as it is better known, has an avid and loyal following. The national organization, which caters to the interests of bass fishermen and puts on national tournaments, has more than 500,000 members across the country.
–The Bassmaster Classic, the star-spangled championship event of the Bassmaster pro series, has become bass fishing’s marquee event. It’s much more than just another tournament. It features a huge tackle show, live entertainment and all things bass. This year’s event, which was held Feb. 20-22 in Greenville, S.C., attracted 103,000 spectators who visited at least one venue (the sports show, weigh-in, launch, etc.). That was the third-highest total in the history of the Classic.
–FLW Outdoors, another national organization that caters to bass fishermen, also has a large following. It too has a large membership, though FLW officials wouldn’t release exact numbers.
“People ask me, ‘Why the bass? Why not the crappie, the catfish, the trout?' “ said Ray Scott, who founded BASS and is credited with popularizing the sport. “To me, it’s simple.
“The bass has magic. He’s a fighter, he’s a survivor, he’s a challenge to catch and he’s found in nearly every state.
“The bass is America’s fish.”
The humble beginning
Scott, who lives near Montgomery, Ala., has no trouble remembering the exact moment he became hooked on bass fishing.
“I was 7 at the time and I was fishing for bluegills and made a mistake and caught a bass,” said Scott, 71. “It was a little fish, maybe 7 inches long, but it carried on, jumping and fighting and pulling.
“From that day, I was hooked.”
Scott went on to become an insurance salesman who carried his fishing rod with him wherever he went. While on a fishing trip, rain kept him inside his motel room one day and he began brainstorming as he watched sports on TV.
“If sports like golf and tennis could have tournaments, why couldn’t bass fishing?” he said.
So he went to work to make it happen. He opened a small office across from his insurance headquarters and started a file on bass fishermen across the country who might be interested in fishing a tournament.
“I was good at prospecting,” he said. “I kept a note card on anyone I heard about who liked to fish.”
Scott put on his first bass tournament in 1967 at Beaver Lake and drew 106 fishermen from 13 states. Even he was surprised at the enthusiasm over bass fishing.
That success led him to found BASS in 1968, and the groundwork was laid for making the bass America’s fish.
“I knew there was a fervent interest in bass fishing, but there wasn’t a lot of information available or shared,” said Scott, who sold BASS in 1986 but remained involved with the organization until the late 1990s. “BASS changed that.
“We provided a central organization that gave the average fishermen all kinds of tips on how to catch bass. And we gave the average guys the heroes they could look up to.”
Guido Hibdon, one of the legends of pro bass fishing, marvels at how quickly the face of bass fishing has progressed.
“I remember when I was a boy and everyone would run out the door to look when we heard a bass boat coming down the lake,” said Hibdon, 68, who lives on Lake of the Ozarks. “My dad would just row customers around in an old wooden boat, but they would catch plenty of bass.
“He would be amazed if he could see how far this sport has come.”
Hibdon, who won the Bassmaster Classic in 1988 and Angler of the Year titles in 1990 and 1991, has seen major changes himself. He remembers the days when he first got involved in bass tournaments and he wasn’t sure how popular the sport really was outside of his world at Lake of the Ozarks.
But he found out in a hurry when he and his son, Dion, shot to the top of the pro ranks.
“We were invited over to Japan a number of times, and it was amazing how we were treated,” Hibdon said. “They were just getting into bass fishing, and they wanted to learn everything they could.
“They knew about America’s bass fishing, and they treated us like celebrities. It was just amazing to me that a guy from Lake of the Ozarks would go over to Japan and have people recognize him on the street.
“More than anything, that showed me how far bass fishing had come.”
Today, Guido, Dion and Dion’s son, Payden, compete on the FLW tour. And Guido continues his fascination of how rapidly the sport is evolving.
“All of this technology today is amazing,” Guido said. “The things companies like Garmin are coming up with to find fish are just incredible.
“But it all comes down to one thing: You still have to figure out how to get that fish to open his mouth.”
Bass fishing’s All-American look
Brent Chapman of Lake Quivira is a walking advertisement for bass fishing.
He grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, obsessed with bass fishing. He spent hours reading Bassmaster magazine, watching television fishing shows and dreaming about one day making a living as a pro fisherman.
“Other than pushing a broom at my dad’s place or delivering pizzas, I’ve never really had another job,” said Chapman, 42. “I decided at an early age that I was gong to become a pro fisherman.
“I’m sure there were people at the time who thought that was unrealistic, but I’ve been able to make it work.”
He’s been able to do more than make it work. He has excelled.
Chapman has qualified for 14 Bassmaster Classics and is considered one of the top pros on the circuit. But more than that, he has the All-American look and demeanor that bring respect to the tour.
He is clean-cut, a family man, religious, soft-spoken and ready to help others with their fishing. And he can catch fish with the best of them.
“It’s really exciting to see the way this sport has grown through the social media,” Chapman said. “I have 95,000 friends on my Facebook page and that is very humbling.
“Without the fans, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Even on the East Coast
Mike Iaconelli wasn’t brought up in a hotbed of bass fishing.
He lived in a suburb of Philadelphia, where he was one of the few youngsters who would even admit they liked to fish.
“It wasn’t considered cool,” said Iaconelli, 42, one of the top pros on the Bassmaster circuit. “I was kind of in the closet for a while.”
But that didn’t keep Iaconelli off the water. He came from a fishing family and couldn’t wait for vacation time, which meant nonstop fishing.
He developed an interest in bass fishing and worked his way up through the tournament ranks, starting with bass clubs, then advancing up the ladder every time he found success.
He has been a pro on the Bassmaster circuit since the early 1990s, and he has found plenty of success. He won the Bassmaster Classic in 2003, and he took championships in seven other BASS tournaments. In the process, he has helped popularize bass fishing in the most unlikely of places, the Philly area.
His best moment came last summer when he won a Bassmaster Elite tournament on the Delaware River, not far from where he was brought up. A photo in the magazine Bass Times captured how far things have come. It showed him hoisting his trophy, surrounding by a sea of raucous fans.
“In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Delaware River was so polluted that people thought it was dead,” said Iaconelli, who still lives in Pittsgrove, N.J. “But they’ve cleaned it up and it has some amazing bass fishing now.
“You’re not going to catch big bass, but you can catch fish. In that tournament, I caught most of my fish within 11 miles of the City Center” in Philadelphia.
That rebirth has helped spark a fervent interest in bass fishing on the East Coast. As in other parts of the country, the largemouth is luring a following as never before.
“I’m amazed at how many people will contact me just to get fishing tips,” Iaconelli said. “Wherever there are bass, there are people fishing for them.”
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