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It's a Bass World After All
Missouri's big tourist lure is a store that dangles Firetigers, Bleedin' Shiners, Squirmin' Jerks and all the other stuff of anglers' fantasies.

By Bill Heavey
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 16, 1998; Page E01

There is no place the nation's 20 million bass anglers would rather be than out fishing. Except in winter, of course, when we sink into our Barcaloungers like hibernating mud turtles to watch TV bass-fishing shows until the ice melts. Or when it's a blazing 96 degrees out there with air quality in the lethal-only-if-inhaled range, when I personally prefer to retire to a cool room to read my latest issue of Bassmaster. Come to think of it, there's an awful lot of the time when the great outdoors would be better if it were indoors. Which may be why there's Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Springfield, Mo.

The single biggest tourist attraction in the Show-Me State is not the Ozark Mountains, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or one of the theaters in Branson where Wayne Newton and Tony Orlando croon their ancient hits to packed houses. It's this mega-store, a retail theme park of Disneyan proportions dedicated to the pursuit of America's favorite game fish, Micropetrus salmoides, the largemouth bass. Four million people a year push through these doors. When my wife, Jane, drops me off while she goes to visit friends in this, her home town, she asks when she should pick me up.

"As late as you can," I answer.

"Okay," she says. "Seven. Right here. And don't buy anything you can't fit on the plane."

It was the bass that gave Johnny Morris, Outdoor World's creator, his leg up in the world. And he has never forgotten it. Morris started out in a corner of his father's liquor store on this very spot in Springfield, selling lures and bait to men who had stopped in for beer and ice on their way to bass-fish one of the nearby lakes. In 1974 he sent out his first Bass Pro Shops catalogue. This year he'll be sending out 40 million, listing 30,000 items and fighting arch rival Cabela's for the No. 2 catalogue ranking. (L.L. Bean is No. 1 in the country). Morris has already opened other Bass Pro Shops mega-stores in Georgia and Illinois, and a speciality saltwater fly-fishing store in Florida. Four more Outdoor Worlds--in Nashville, Fort Lauderdale, Houston and Grapevine, Tex.--are scheduled to open by 2000. Not far from here is another successful Morris project, Big Cedar Lodge, a resort with a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and a 10,000-acre nature park stocked with elk and bison. But he's still primarily in the bass business.

Outdoor World is an ever-expanding work in progress--200,000 square feet at the moment, with plans to increase to 300,000 this year. Naturally, it houses the world's largest fishing department: a forest of high-modulus graphite fishing rods flanking aisles displaying more than 7,000 lures, 3-D electronic fish finders and one-piece aluminum reels with LCD line counters.

But while fishing is Outdoor World's foundation, there have been some whopping big add-ons. The store has, to name a few, sections devoted to archery, black-powder firearms, fly-fishing, knives and sporting optics. You can buy golf clubs, ladies' wildlife jewelry or a deer rifle you may sight in at the indoor range right behind the gun counter. You can buy a canoe or a $30,000 bass boat that will do 0 to 60 mph so fast you think you're in a rocket sled. You can buy chaps that will stand up to a rattlesnake's fangs or a $400 Nautica leather jacket or Orvis luggage.

At Hemingway's Restaurant, you can see the skiff that legendary guide Bonefish Willie used to take the great writer fishing in Florida, watch the pink and blue fish parade back and forth in the 30,000-gallon saltwater tank behind the bar and sip a Monsoon, a fruity concoction containing six shots of booze served in a glass the size of a goldfish bowl. There's a wildlife museum, a free knife-sharpening service and the Tall Tales Barber Shop, where they'll not only cut your hair but use a tuft of it to make you up a special Hair Trigger fishing lure.

Outdoor World casts a wide net. Good ol' boys in pickups mix with older bus tourists wearing nylon jackets that proclaim them to be Tulsa Keenagers. Minivans outnumber trucks in the parking lot 3 to 1. Like other intensely American phenomena, Outdoor World has an appeal that extends beyond national boundaries. Bass clubs from as far away as Japan and Zimbabwe have made the hajj here. Heck, George Bush has been so many times the help doesn't even get excited anymore.

The real, the artificial and the artificially real coexist happily here. A hundred-pound alligator snapping turtle born sometime in the 1800s lies motionless in a tank near Marine Accessories. It holds its breath forever, seldom moves and consequently doesn't quite look real. But something inside you knows that it is, knows it could take your hand off at the wrist and not even feel bad about it. The four-story waterfall with headwaters near the in-store Mc- Donald's tumbles past trophy elk and mountain goats and the live snake exhibit near Triple Play Sports Collectibles ($1,300 for a signed Michael Jordan jersey), then spills into a reflecting pool where dark catfish motor endlessly beneath the paddling feet of teal and wood ducks. A little further on, the reflecting pool turns into a 64,000-gallon aquarium housing all manner of freshwater fish. The star here is Gertie, a 19-pound largemouth bass believed to be the biggest in captivity. Every day except Christmas, a scuba diver descends into the tank for the fish-feeding show, while visitors watch from the Uncle Buck Auditorium through Plexiglas. After the show, the faithful nuzzle up to the glass to pay homage to Gertie. She's a few pounds shy of the holy grail of bass fishing, the 22-pound 4-ounce monster that was caught by George Washington Perry in Georgia back in 1932. Guys have come close to the magic number in recent years, mostly in a few lakes around--of all places--Los Angeles. There is general agreement that the record-breaker is even now finning its way around out there, swallowing ducklings, water snakes and smaller fish whole. She (girl bass get bigger than boy bass) may even be showing up now as a blip on some angler's sonar.

The fish that breaks the record that has stood for more than half a century will be worth a million bucks to its owner in product endorsements alone. It will be a bittersweet victory in some ways. Bass anglers take a perverse pride in knowing that all our high-tech boats, tackle and electronics don't impress the fish. We like it that the world record was taken by a guy who built his own skiff with 75 cents' worth of scrap lumber, using a $1.33 rod and a wooden Creek Chub Wiggle Fish with glass eyes. Still, you have to admit that Gertie is one boss hawg, a Rubenesque beauty of a bass. Any fisherman worth his salt would gladly pawn his wife's engagement ring for a shot at a fish like that.

Outdoor World is founded on the golden rule of retail: The longer you entice people to stay in the store, the more likely they'll open their wallets. But after three hours, I find the opposite is happening. I'm paralyzed by the abundance. Numbly strolling through the crankbait aisles, I come upon an old standby bass lure, the Rat-L-Trap. When I started fishing, it came in two sizes and three colors, I think. Now it comes in six sizes and 47 colors, from Bleedin' Shiner to Firetiger. If you bought one in each size and color, your boat would sink, all the lures would catch on your clothing and then they'd drag you down to Lunker Land.

I slide over to soft plastics, another huge market segment. There are Super Squirts, Squirmin' Squirts, Sparkle Squirts, Lightning Squirts and (my personal favorite) Squirmin' Jerks. There are tackle boxes small enough to slip into a shirt pocket and others big enough to use as a life raft. There is braided fishing line and mono fishing line, stuff that glows fluorescent yellow in the water and stuff that turns invisible. I can't keep up with all of it. Maybe I'm the Squirmin' Jerk.

Over in Hunting, it's the same, but more so. Every garment comes in fleece, cotton and cotton-polyester blend and in 12 shades of camouflage. Do the deer and turkeys and ducks appreciate the subtle differences between Apparition and Mossy Oak, Realtree X-tra Brown and Blaze Camo? I'm drawn by the sound of falling water into the Gore-Tex section, where a mannequin stands in a shower stall beneath a perpetual jet of water wearing that company's waterproof laminate in his parka, boots and pants. You want to throw him a towel and give him some hot soup. I listen to two guys debating the purchase of a video called "The Magic of Squirrel Hunting." A guy blows into a bull elk grunt tube that is big enough to unclog a toilet. It sounds sort of like it's trying to warn all the other toilets in the area. At the gun counter, I pick up a rifle stock with a 12-power scope on it, damn near as big as the Hubble, and aim it down the aisle. I see a gob of flesh and realize it's the earlobe of a woman standing 80 feet away. She sees me, too. Sees me pointing a rifle stock her way. I put the gun down, smile sheepishly, give her a little wave. She is not amused.

At 7, I'm out front to meet Jane. In six hours at Outdoor World, all that I have purchased is a dark green Redhead chamois hunting shirt. It's a discontinued color, marked down from $24.95 to $9.99. The outer lobes of my brain are on the blink, leaving only the reptilian core functioning. But I'm still a sucker for a deal. When I get in the car, she looks at my face, sees it's drained of color.

"Too long in Disney World ?" she asks tenderly.

I nod. I feel as if I'm 5 years old.

Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Springfield, Mo., is open every day except Christmas. Hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday,9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. For an information packet call 1-800-BASS-PRO or reach the store directly at 417-887-7334. Web: Bill Heavey last wrote about Iran for Travel.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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