Of course, my flight’s delayed. In the middle of what seems like an endless winter through much of the North, I long to just get away from it all. Packing for the trip to Birmingham proved more difficult than I had imagined. I was fairly certain I would be riding as a press observer at this year’s Bassmaster Classic, but I wasn’t too confident about the weather conditions. I figured it couldn’t be any worse than Michigan, and threw in a pair of wool socks.
Finally boarding the aircraft, I sit in the stuffy cabin for what seems like eternity, then I’m forced to de-plane due to mechanical issues. What a start!
The remainder of the flight is fairly painless, and my irritability is quickly eliminated when we clear the clouds and Birmingham becomes visible. I reflect how nice it is to view a suburban area with trees and natural beauty, instead of the cold concrete jungle I see more frequently. Despite recent trips to Arkansas and Florida, I had missed the true Deep South.
Day 1 of the Classic finds me, indeed, riding as a press observer. Due to the lengthy trip from downtown Birmingham to Guntersville, myself and other marshals are required to board the B.A.S.S. bus at 4:15 a.m. I had previously submitted my picks for preferred pro partners, and learned that a top choice came in: Ish Monroe. I doubt highly that he’s worried about the early start.
The morning dawns cool and misty. B.A.S.S. fans are everywhere at the dock. Ish does his best to entertain a few well-wishers, but he’s more focused on final preparations of his gear. As we idle out, emcee Dave Mercer comes across the loudspeaker, announcing Ish as the “BBS”, or Big Bass Specialist. Ish cranks the music on his on-board stereo, coming through are Sirius BPM beats. I tighten down the drawstrings of my rainsuit, grab both handles on the Ranger and hold on. I’m relieved to find Ish is a realistic boat driver, and not just out to destroy his equipment.
At his first stop, Ish pulls into an area that features underwater grass, littered with a few hard spots and mussel beds. He starts with a swimbait in about 8 feet of water and, after an opening dry spell, connects with his first keeper; just a 2-pounder. Five minutes later, Ish gets a flurry and boats a 5 and another 2. The fish are all incredibly white and featureless; just fat, shad-gorged pigs.
Ish quickly helps his cause with another 5 on a rattlebait. Fish are boiling on bait around us. Ish is jacked; really pumped, as he’s talking himself into the idea that everything could happen right here, right now – a massive stringer on his first stop.
He gets another strong strike on the swimbait, but breaks off on the hookset. Delirium sets in when Ish discovers he has left his jighead box in the truck. He can’t believe he made such a trivial error on such an important day. Finally, he finds a rigged bait from practice, one that I had been eyeing the whole time he was tearing the boat apart but couldn’t make reference to, and gets back to fishing.
Plenty of examples of Guntersville’s seemingly endless supply of 4- and 5-pounders are here, we’re alone, and the fish are feeding. Ish admits he’s starting to shake. But things slowly taper off after a few “slaps” at his lures.
A true professional, Ish works his way to the bank and starts junking around. A spectator boat follows. Monroe comes to the first boat dock adjacent to his main-river area, leading into a shallow, flat pocket. He grabs his trademark spinnerbait, parallels the dock, and his rod collapses.
“Big ‘un … Big ‘un,” Ish says, as he struggles to turn the handle. I grab the camera and begin moving, in order to clear away from the console, in case Monroe wants to come to the driver’s seat to land the fish. The bass comes up quickly by the boat as Ish pours on the coals with a heavy rod. It’s vintage BBS, for sure. But the fish, well over 5 pounds, comes unhooked.
Ish slams down his rod, swears the same words I would have, and falls to the floor of the boat. The entire world goes silent, as if someone yelled “cut” on the set of a music video shoot.
Ish breaks down further as the scenario sets in. I know exactly what he’s feeling, as it’s happened to anyone involved in bass fishing competitions. I’ve always felt that possibly no sport offers such drastic peaks and valleys, so quickly. Just seconds ago, what could have been a highlight reel with Ish screaming “Yeah, yeah, come and getcha some of that, come and getcha some of that!” has turned into silence and a sick taste in my mouth.
Monroe makes a comment reflecting that he’s losing his chance to win the Classic. I’m amazed, wondering how he could feel such doom so early on. It’s barely 9 a.m.
I want to give him a pep talk, but know I can’t. I’m very careful to make absolutely certain that I don’t do anything that could influence the competition, or even the thought process of the competitors involved. As we head back out toward deeper water, I’m relieved that our local follower gives Ish a few words of encouragement, as I wished I could.
Once out of the spotlight of the fans in the boat, Ish confides in me: “That was my chance to sell a hundred million River2Sea spinnerbaits.”
Always the promoter, it seems as if the market influence of such a catch is just as important to Ish as the catch itself. I had forgotten all his moves were being recorded with an on-board GoPro, fitted to the boat earlier that morning. Ish comments that he had never forgotten that fact, and I realize how painfully close he was to being front and center with a giant fish caught on a product he designed – and receives sales royalties for.
Ish camps out again on the main-river spot he started on. For the first time, I see a flotilla of spectators chasing a tournament favorite. It seems absurd, as one bass boat traveling 70 mph is chased by 15 more at the same speed. It’s like watching the news the evening of Black Friday, where a shopper breaks through the locked doors at Best Buy and the store is flooded with fanatics who would trample each other for a deal.
The wind picks up. Ish catches a few more – decent fish just about anywhere except Guntersville – and culls once for a half-pound upgrade. About 9:45, Ish remarks that he needs to regroup and moves across the lake. He pulls up on a dock that he “always catches one on," found years ago and utilized for a key, momentum-changing fish in the past.
On his second cast with a jig to a brushpile around the dock’s perimeter, Ish gets a good jig bite, sets the hook, and promptly separates his 25-pound line. It’s the second break-off of the day, and Ish is beside himself. He whips the loose tag end of his line as we all do following an unexpected break-off, throws his hat and sunglasses off his head, and sits down on the front deck.
“I can’t tell you the last time I broke off twice in one tournament, yet alone on the same day” he says. For a moment he’s speechless, then reasons the break was likely caused by a concrete block weighting down the brush.
After a few more fruitless stops at various areas, Monroe cranks the engine and heads uplake. Weaving between islands and across shallow areas, we’re traveling much faster than earlier. It’s evident Ish feels like he's behind the 8-ball.
We arrive at his intended destination, a causeway lined with riprap, and find locals flailing away. Ish simply utters “that sucks," and turns the boat around at 60.
Our next stop is another series of docks. A local spectator gets in close and wants to chat. The local mentions that some guy, at some store, told him to tell Ish hello. I can see Ish is clueless as to what this guy is talking about, and I’m amazed how some fans just don’t seem to understand what the pros are going through during competition. This is not just a bunch of guys getting together for a fishing trip.
For better and for worse, professional bass fishermen have the distinction of being one of the few groups of pro athletes who often can’t physically separate from their fan base.
As the fishing day continues, the sun comes out and the wind dies, and Ish makes quite a few moves. I notice that he seems to be trying multiple patterns – a little inside, a little outside, some grass, some rock. He mentions that most places he’s fishing now are areas that have some key pre-spawn elements, but try as he may, the bites just aren’t coming. The soft dance music continues in the background. He finally culls once, a slight upgrade, with a jig fish from a brush pile.
Around lunchtime, I take a break from photo work to dig into my provided brown-bag. Not disappointing, it’s a Southern-style barbecue sandwich on Wonder-style white bread, with chips and a peanut butter cookie. The term “complex carb” has not yet made it to Alabama, so the food in this part of the world always has me breaking my diet, but it tastes so good. Ish eats or drinks nothing.
He’s staying with the same approach. Swimbait. Rattlebait. Jig. I find myself wondering why he doesn’t fish tighter to the cover and flip a few docks, the relentless sun now high overhead in the post-frontal conditions. I long for him to scrap his current plans, dig into the rod locker and pull out the big sticks with half-pound weights. But my desires never materialize, and Ish continues on, making just a quick cast or two to the front of each dock.
The approach allows me to make a clear distinction between the best on tour and the average angler. While many of us would feel the need to buckle down and pick apart the cover, it’s as if Ish is purposely flexing, moving quickly to get in the right zone. He seems to be “feeling” his way around, trying to get comfortable. He’s still searching for the big score.
I’ve always felt this is the thing that separates the best: the ability to just “go fishing” regardless of the stakes. Every day is a practice day with no preconceived agenda. Bass fishing really isn’t that difficult, I’m reminded. We just make it seem that way.
With an hour and change left, Ish heads back to his morning spot, the only location where he boated any sizable fish. As we pull in, I notice Greg Vinson fishing the dock where Ish lost the big bass earlier. I’m sure Ish notices, too, but says nothing after a casual glance, and, instead, pulls onto his submerged hot spot. After 45 minutes of fish-less silence, Ish comments “Okay, time to hit my juice docks," and we leave without any additional catches.
By now, the entire lake seems to be buzzing. Competitors race toward their last-minute hotspots and dozens of boats follow. Nearly all are 20-foot-plus bass rigs; loud, crass, obnoxious. Amongst the madness, Ish comments that he truly hopes the following day goes better, if nothing else enabling him to make the cut. He makes it clear that he’d much rather be fishing on Sunday than working the Expo. Throughout the day, his passion for tournament fishing above all is else is quite evident.
The scene on the lake is now the polar opposite of what many consider to be the stereotypical, peaceful day of fishing. It's like being in rush-hour traffic. Ish runs from pocket to pocket, dock to dock. He generates no additional bites, and I imagine the fish wishing they could cover their ears. I ponder the thought that, possibly in the future, big-league bass might need to consider private courses.
We check in on time, and I feel a little awkward as Ish has me drive his boat up on the trailer. But I can’t say I blame him, as I imagine more than one marshal or co-angler has had trouble backing his wrapped monster truck.
Ish offers for me to ride along with him back to Birmingham, and, although I don’t want to seem like a stalker, I jump at the chance. I’d love to know more about his lifestyle and his approach. We talk about everything bass guys talk about: the rising cost of boats, B.A.S.S. vs FLW, sponsorships, girls.
As we drive, his buddies, also in the competition, call to give their blow-by blow of the day. I quickly learn that it doesn’t matter whether the competition is a club tournament or the Bassmaster Classic, we’re all just gossips, dreaming of winning.
Ish weighs 18 pounds and change for the day and is in the Top 25; better than the alternative. As I reflect on my day, I draw a few conclusions: there’s no secret lures, better local help or inhuman casting ability on tour. The top pros don’t have an advantage from having more depthfinders. They aren’t doing anything different, mechanically, than most good bass fishermen.
Their secret, therefore, lies in the abilities that can’t be measured. It’s recognizing what’s needed to continuously improve their day and unlock the puzzle. It’s the willingness to scrap preconceived plans and swing for the fences. It’s not getting flustered, but, instead, creating their own confidence. And it’s the relentless hard work and sacrificing of nearly everything else.
Not surprisingly, my return flight home is again a victim of the relentless winter up north, and is delayed, so I settle into the airport’s barbecue joint for one last taste of the South. The ribs are the best I’ve had in recent years, and the collard greens the best ever. Ricky Skaggs bellows out true gospel-style bluegrass in the background.
I reflect on Guntersville and what I’ve learned before reluctantly checking an ice-fishing report on the Internet. Quickly scanning, I pay no attention, wondering where the Classic is next year.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)