Fish for the Money

Fishing is relaxing for many. Professional bass fishing is much different—30 rods, 70 mph boats and speed casting from dawn to dusk. 

It is 7:00 a.m., and I’m sitting in a sleek, white and maroon BassCat on Smith Mountain Lake in southwestern Virginia. The lake is huge—about 20,000 acres in size, with some 500 miles of coastline—and quite beautiful in the misty morning light, with the Blue Ridge Mountains rising up in the west. The weather is chilly, the water is calm, but the roar of 250 horsepower engines will soon shatter the languid mood. I’m here to spend nine hours on the water with the guy who’s behind the wheel, professional bass fisherman and Virginia native John Crews, as he competes against 98 other talented anglers on the first day of a four-day Bassmaster Elite fishing tournament.

The boat is tight, and I’m supposed to do little more than watch as Crews labors to land five hefty bass and get them back to the weigh-in station—alive—by 4:30 that afternoon. Tournament officials have told me to expect a long day: Pro fishermen work hard and take no breaks while competing. For energy, they cram food and drink while in frantic transit from one fishing spot to another, and they relieve themselves in the most pragmatic manner: over the side. There will be no getting off of the boat.

Fishing is a hugely popular hobby precisely because it’s not very demanding on mind or body. It’s the quintessential leisure activity. You putter around in a little skiff or jonboat and while away the hours, a beer cooler by your side. Or maybe you stand in a trout stream, fly rod in hand, nary a care in the world.

Professional bass fishing is completely different. These guys are fishing for money—it is their livelihood—and the competition is intense. Due largely to the promotional efforts of the sports network ESPN, which in 2001 bought the Bass organization (which has 530,000 members) and now essentially runs these tournaments, the sport of bass fishing has grown significantly over the last decade. In recent years, it has produced more fans, more tournaments and more prize money than ever, though the recession has thrown some cold water on the business. And, as Crews points out, “There are more opportunities to make a living as a professional angler than ever before.”

That’s not to suggest that bass fishing is a mainstream sport. It isn’t, of course, but Bass Elite Series director Trip Weldon says he “absolutely” wants to make it one. That won’t be easy, because fishing is not fan-friendly. You can watch the tournament “launch” in the morning (the anglers heading out), and watch the weigh-in that concludes a day of competition (when the pros proudly display their fish as part of the ritualistic “grip-and-grin”), but there is no way for sizeable numbers of people to follow the action live—100 fisherman, scattered around a big lake, hooking large- and small-mouth bass.

Still, the sport does have plenty of TV potential, if only because there are so many bass fishermen in this country—some 20 million, according to Weldon. Already, like NASCAR, professional bass fishing attracts corporate marketing money. The pros wear gear emblazoned with sponsor logos, and their boats are the aquatic equivalent of stock cars—splashy billboards for boat, engine, bait and bourbon companies. ESPN Outdoors and Bass, which was founded in 1968, have spent the last few years transforming once-sleepy Bass tournaments into dramatic sporting “events” and creating stars out of the mostly middle-aged, small-town guys who dominate the pro ranks. While they don’t look athletic, a pro angler can go out and snag several fish before most of us could get the boat running. In addition, this year Bass and ESPN have introduced a playoff of sorts to conclude the season and help determine the winner of the prestigious Angler of the Year award, worth $200,000.

The anglers on Smith Mountain Lake for this Blue Ridge Brawl, as the event has been dubbed, are vying for $619,000 in prize money. The winner gets $100,000—but the payout falls sharply after that, with the second-place finisher getting only $25,000. Any Elite Series fisherman who’s in the top 50 after the first two days of competition gets to fish on day three of the tourney and earns about $9,500, which isn’t bad, though the entry fee for each Elite tournament is $5,000. Those who fail to make the top 50 cut after two days are eliminated from the event and get no money at all. Only the top 12 in the weight rankings after day three get to fish on the tournament’s final day.

“This is an extremely hard sport,” says Rick Morris, 47, the only other Virginian on the Elite Series tour. “It requires a lot of concentration, and there’s a lot of stress.” Morris, who has fished professionally for 17 years, entered this tournament (the fourth of eight on the schedule) ranked 45th in the standings. He earned no money in the first two events, held in Texas and Arkansas respectively, before finishing 12th in the third contest in Decatur, Alabama. “Everybody’s goal is to get into the top 12,” he says, but it’s tough to achieve. “These guys are the best in the world. They will catch fish, and you have to compete.” Morris says that, including practice and lake-scouting days, he fishes at least 200 days a year—about average for a pro. “We fish dark to dark, and practice for three days before a tournament starts. At the end of an evening, I’m spent, totally delirious.”

Pro fishing is also expensive. To be a competitor, you must have a $50,000 boat, a $50,000 truck to haul the boat to tourneys all over the country, and $50,000 worth of tackle. In addition, the pros incur annual expenses of at least $50,000. “Now you see why it’s stressful,” says Morris. He and others say that 10 to 15 percent of the 100 pros on the Elite circuit quit every year. “There are guys who fish six straight tourneys, don’t cash a check and may quit—it depends on how much money you have and your level of sponsorship.”

You can’t last long as a pro without sponsorship money. Some rookies get nothing while top anglers like Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli and Skeet Reese earn hundreds of thousands in corporate money before they even get into the boat. In between those extremes, sponsorship levels vary considerably. Morris says his sponsors (Mercury, Titan, RPM Custom Rods) cover his entry fees and expenses. Crews seems to have solid corporate support, although he lost his biggest sponsor this year.

Wearing a black hood, sunglasses, North Face overalls, a red and black jacket, and a cap adorned with the logo of a bait company, Crews seems relaxed as we idle in the mist near the “starting dock,” waiting for the start of day one. Crews admits he’s had a “bad” year thus far and is looking for a change of fortune at Smith Mountain Lake. His cool disposition may be a function of his youth; at age 31, he’s one of the younger guys on the tour. Crews was born in Jetersville, where he had a pond in his back yard, and moved to Salem five years ago, not long after he began his pro career. His performance has been more than respectable. Though he has never won a Bass pro series event, for four years he has finished in the top 36 in the Elite Series rankings, which qualifies a competitor to participate in the Super Bowl of fishing, the Bassmaster Classic. What’s more, Smith Mountain Lake is his home lake. “I’m very familiar with this lake,” says Crews, “and I put high expectations on myself.”

This is the second time that the Elite Series has been to Smith Mountain Lake, which straddles Franklin and Bedford counties and laps over into Pittsylvania, too. As Weldon points out, you need a big body of water and a good infrastructure to host a pro tournament, and the fishing has to be good. Says Weldon, “When you put 100 of the best anglers in the world on a lake, they’ll dissect it pretty good.”

Morris likes Smith Mountain Lake, calling it “clean, clear, beautiful and deep. And it’s got thousands of docks—it’s a dock lake.”

Crews says that on a 10-point scale, based on all the lakes on which the pros fish, his fellow competitors would give SML a “six or seven.”

Like his fellow competitors, Crews keeps about 30 rods—or “sticks”—in his boat, which he calls his “office.” Twelve are out on deck, fully rigged with plastic worms. He typically uses about eight on a competition day. “You can only use one at time, but with them I can fish in water that’s crystal-clear and 30 feet deep or in [shallow], muddy water. Any variable you can think of, I’ve got equipment for it.”

Except for the small seating area, a bass boat is all flat deck so that anglers can move around easily while pursuing the fish. The boat has numerous under-deck storage bins for rods, lures, lines and assorted fishing paraphernalia. Crews pulls out some fish attractant and sprays it on one of his lures. Later in the day, he will rub a black marker on one of his lines to darken it, making it harder for the bass to see.

Crews likes pro fishing mostly because it’s “challenging,” he says. “There are more variables in our sport than in all other sports combined. Lake water levels are always going up and down; the current changes every day; the weather is different every day—and the fish are constantly moving. You’d think catching these little animals would be simple, but it isn’t.”

Morris concurs. “Some days the fish are there but don’t want to bite. Other days, they do and it seems like a 5-year-old can do it. It’s a mix of art and science. You have to be skilled with your rods and equipment, and you’ve got to have stamina and execute.”

7:30 a.m. We get in a line of boats and approach the starting dock. Once there, a Bass official tosses a little plastic check-in pill to us—it is used to keep track of the field and must be turned in when we return to shore at the end of the day. There is no getting back late: Fisherman are docked one pound for every minute they are tardy, a major penalty in a sport where ounces are crucial and the winner owns the highest cumulative weight for 20 caught fish after four days. An inspector then checks to make sure the two “live wells” behind the seats are empty. Caught fish are kept in the wells until the weigh-in—and then in the evening deposited back into the lake.

I ask Crews if he has a goal for day one of the competition. “Fifteen pounds would be a good day,” he says. “I’m shooting for 20.”

With that, he hits the throttle of his 250 horsepower engine, and we roar off into the main channel of Smith Mountain Lake, heading for our first fishing pocket. Immediately, I’m hanging on for my life as Crews pushes the craft to about 70 mph, its nose up in the air like a speedboat’s. As we thud over the wake of other boats and I feel my cheeks pushed back violently, it occurs to me that, were the boat to flip, serious injury could occur. Bass fisherman move fast to limit their travel time as they hop from one fishing spot to the next. Sometimes they will cover considerable distances; Morris has said that he’s made 60-mile runs to hunt for fish.

After a hair-raising, five- to seven-minute run, Crews swings the BassCat into one of the scores of little coves that dot this lake. In one continuous motion, he cuts the engine, stands and pulls off his life jacket, then moves to the front of the boat where he picks up a rod with a green floating worm lure and lowers a trolling motor into the water. As waves from the boat lap up on the shore, Crews starts speed-casting—tossing the bait about 12 to 15 feet, up near the sunny side of the shore. Using foot pedals to operate the trolling motor, he moves the boat along the shore and around docks and other structures.

This is the bass spawning period, and, like his competitors, Crews has spent the three previous practice days looking for bass that are in shallow water near the bank, in or near nests where females lay eggs. Bass boats contain GPS systems and electronic topographical maps, and during practice days the anglers have marked spots on the topo map where they spotted fish. When the tourney begins, they go back and try to catch them. As everyone has noted, because many bass are close to shore, this will be a “sight-fishing” tournament, with the anglers mostly trying to drop lures right on top of the fish, which are in a territorial mood and will strike at the bait. Sometimes.

When it comes to handling their fishing rods and tackle, the pros are as deft as magicians. Crews lands the lure precisely where he wants it, retrieves the bait quickly and then casts again, often whipping the line out with a sidearm or even underhand motion—whiiiish, whiiiish. He’s done this many times before. By my rough estimate, he casts about once every couple of minutes and will make hundreds of casts before the end of the day. When necessary, Crews expertly skips his bait under a dock or tree limb, where bass like to hang out. Catching fish is in part a function of how many lures you can get into the water and in front of fish—and as both Crews and Morris told me, if you take even a short break to eat or rest, you might miss 10 or 15 casts that your competitors have made.

7:43 Crews suddenly jerks on his line, there is a splash, and within seconds Crews has pulled his first fish into the boat—a bass that in his estimation weighs about 2.5 pounds. There are a lot of bass of roughly that size in the lake; the trick will be finding ones that are a pound or two heavier. “Thought it was bigger, but I’ll take it,” he says as he removes the hook from the fish’s mouth, attaches a culling tag to it and then drops the fish into the live well. With that, he says, “We’ll be moving in a minute.” That’s the angler’s warning to put my stuff away and gird for another harrowing ride.

8:05 After a short, high-speed trip, we career into another pocket and Crews starts trying to land a stubborn female bass that he can see in her nest. He tries a rod with a green floating worm, then a rod with a red-orange worm. At one point, an exasperated Crews says, “The dumb ass! She had it in her mouth and I saw her spit it out!” Moments later, he adds, “This is a cat-and-mouse game.”

8:30 After trying another bait or two, the reluctant bass, apparently fed up herself, strikes the bait. “I got your ass!” the angler yells triumphantly as he hauls in the fish. Crews is stoked. Though it’s not a big bass, about the size of his first catch, job one in a tourney is to catch your five-fish limit, then try to catch bigger bass and cull out the lighter ones. We move about 100 feet away, where Crews sees another bass—but he says it’s “not acting right” and probably won’t bite. “If you bed fish enough,” says Crews, “you learn to read them.”

As we rocket to our next spot, Crews wolfs down a couple of cheese sticks, some chocolate milk and an energy bar. Eating is crucial, he says, because “on average, guys will burn about 3,600 calories on a tournament fishing day,” partly from the physical activity, but mostly from stress. “That’s a lot of granola bars. You can really get run down unless you’re fueling yourself properly.” That’s especially true because these guys will often fish every day for six weeks or so before taking a few days off.

10:38 Crews moves the boat away from one bank when he realizes that there isn’t enough light to see the fish. He points out that the water temperature is 57.2 degrees and says that the bass tend to be more active as the water warms up. No matter: He lands fish number three—again in the two-pound range—after several minutes of pursuit.

11:18 Another battle with a bass proves futile. “It bit the bait a few times,” says Crews ruefully as he prepares to change locations again, “but never clamped down.” Crews says that bass have “certain characteristics” that distinguish them from, say, carp, which are also plentiful in Smith Mountain Lake and roughly the same size. He can easily tell a buck from a female bass, and notes that during spawning season a male will sometimes bite the female to get her to lay eggs. “I could sit out here for hours watching them,” he says.

11:40 Crews notes that the water temperature has risen, which he thinks is a harbinger of better fishing. He grabs a new rod and says, “When this worm gets on, you can catch one or two in every pocket—bang, bang, bang.” That doesn’t happen for him, but this tough-minded guy does soon catch fish number four, roughly the same size of the previous quarry.

     12 noon The highlight of the day. We ease into a quiet nook where Crews saw a decent fish nesting the day before. “It still here,” he says, peering over the bow with rod in hand. A moment later, after one cast—zing!!—he’s pulling the fish out of the water. Crews is excited. “I knew if I threw this little deal over there, he’d eat it—and he did, like Jaws!” He estimates that it’s a three-pounder. “We’ve caught our limit,” he says as we hand-slap in celebration. “Now we’ve got four hours to catch some big ones—blimpies.”

12:30 to 4:30 After a promising start, the rest of the day proves frustrating. At 1:10, Crews catches a little fish and promptly drops it back in the water—plunk. Not long after, he sees what he estimates to be a three-and-a-half-pounder, but after several casts he gives up on it. “She’s not going to bite. She’s in labor, and when they’re laying, they sometimes don’t pay any attention to bait.” That scenario would play out a few more times in the afternoon. He spots a fish “pushing four pounds,” but complains, “It’s in la-la land.” In other words, it is not in the mood to bite. Once or twice, amateur fishermen on the water pause to observe Crews and chat with him about the conditions. “The fish are finicky today,” says the angler. “They’re scared—hard to come by.”

As the day wears on, Crews crisscrosses the lake like George Jetson and fishes in more than a few tranquil spots with cover that would seem perfect for bass. He whips the bait here, there, everywhere—whiiish, whiish, whiiish! He tries different rods and lures. Nothing. The wind kicks up a few times, and Crews curses it. At one point, a dog meanders down to the shore and starts barking at us. “That’s no good,” he says.

Earlier in the morning, Crews has told me that “staying focused” is the hardest part of this sport. “It’s very easy for your mind to wander off sometimes.”

At this point, roughly seven hours into the day, I know what he’s talking about. It’s hot, my back is starting to ache, and I’m falling into a stupor. I begin to doze in my seat. The cool lake water looks very enticing: If only I could jump in for a swim.

Around 4:20, with time running out, Crews says it will take us seven minutes to get back to the tournament grounds. He throws a few more lines, and then we start rocketing back to the weigh-in station. My sunglasses, which are hanging from my neck, blow off in the crushing wind—a souvenir for the fish. Nearing the dock, Crews suddenly tucks the boat into another pocket. He’s realized that we’re a minute or two ahead of schedule, and so makes one last, hurried attempt to land a keeper. Nothing. Still, it was an impressive reminder of a point Crews had emphasized: Pro fishing rewards those with stamina. “How bad do you want it?” he says. “The guys out here want it bad, so you have to put every minute you can into it.”

Moments later, at 4:30, we squeeze in at the dock amid scores of other brightly colored bass boats. The day’s fishing is done, but there’s a whirl of activity on shore. The weigh-in has begun, and there is a long line of anglers standing behind a stage, each holding a mesh sack containing his five fish. The men—there are no women in the Elite Series—dip the sack in tubs of water to keep the fish alive while waiting for their two minutes of onstage fame. One by one, the men are called up to stand in front of a couple hundred fans and chat briefly with a Bass emcee about their day. Crews lingers in his boat for a few minutes. Asked how he would rank the day’s haul, he says, “I’d give it a 5.”

That proves an accurate remark. When Crews gets onstage, his five fish weigh a total of 11 pounds 15 ounces. It’s not a bad number—most of the pros struggled to land big fish—but it puts him outside the top 50 and way behind the day one leader, whose haul totaled 20 pounds, 9 ounces. Morris, who told me earlier that his confidence level was “questionable,” comes in at 10 pounds, 13 ounces.

The next day, Crews’ total is exactly the same—but enough to squeeze him into 47th place. He’ll at least make some money. His third-day performance is poor, and he finishes the Blue Ridge Brawl in 48th position. Morris places 62nd. Crews later describes his Smith Mountain Lake performance a “disappointment.” He adds, “I know the lake well, and sight fishing is one of my strong points, so there is no reason I shouldn’t have been in the top 10.” He isn’t sure why he didn’t do better. “The way I was catching them in practice, I thought I could do it in the tournament, and it didn’t happen. It’s hard to put your finger on any one thing.”

Interestingly, Crews says that luck, or the lack of it, is not a big factor in professional fishing. “It probably [accounts] for five to 10 percent of your performance. The rest is preparation, skill, experience, making the right kind of changes every day.”

And, indeed, the guy who wins the Blue Ridge Brawl, Michigan native Kevin VanDam, is the Zen master of bass fishing—the sport’s genuine star. He’s won the Bassmaster Classic twice and been Angler of the Year four times. It takes a lot more than luck to achieve that sort of success.

While the Virginia-based anglers haven’t fared so well, the Smith Mountain Lake Bass event is a success. Debra Weir, a tourism and special events manager for Franklin County, estimates that 15,000 spectators have turned out to see the weigh-ins over the four days.

On the last day of the tournament, Crews stops by his house, visits with his wife and family, unpacks his Smith Mountain Lake gear, repacks, hops in his truck and hits the road. He’s off for a roughly two-week stint in Alabama—first to fish in a Bassmaster Open Series event (“kind of like the minor leagues,” he says) and then another six or so days of fishing in the next Elite tournament. This is a tough sport—and if you want to make a living at it, you fish.

Many thanks to the Mariners Landing resort in Huddleston for its hospitality. It’s a nice spot for those wishing to visit Smith Mountain Lake—whether or not you fish.

This article originally appeared in our Aug. 2009 issue.

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