Salesman Mack Jackson is luring them here at one of the biggest fishing gear conventions of the year with his Hawg Frawgs, imitation rubber frogs. ("Cast it into a pond and before you know it, you'll hear the sound of a 40-pound hog falling out of a 50-foot tree.")
Worm breeder George Sroda offers the thousands of buyers at the 24th annual American Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Association trade show his irresistible earthworms, all cousins of Squirmin Herman, the 161/2-inch worm that once crawled before Johnny Carson.
Dick Healey offers the crowd sampling the latest technology for catching fish his $1,000 Lowrance "fish locator," a sonar that flashes red when fish are below (the bigger the fish, the brighter the flash) and prints out a graph marking the bottom and outlining the fish.
It's summer, and everyone loves a good fish story. His: "Last year, I was in my bass boat, doing 50 mph on Lake Hudson in Oklahoma. I looked down at the graph and saw a large cloud on the bottom. I figured it had to be fish. So I went back over at trolling speed and caught 10 white bass in 20 minutes."
Some anglers who resort to such "high tech" weaponry (the Lowrance company sold $15 million worth of fish sonars last year) report a thrill akin to World War II Navy skippers hunting enemy submarines. "No point in fishing 'til you locate the fish," Healey says. "Otherwise, you might as well go cast into a swimming pool."
Angling American-style has gone high tech and high expense. While the average lure sells for only 79 cents, Americans forked over $600 million last year for reels, tackle and related gear. The "average" fisherman spent $280 on equipment last year.
And they don't concede even a twinge of guilt as they brag about those big ones on the wall back home, mouths pried open to recreate that final chomp before fish sniffed the bait and went for their last supper.
"All the gadgets in the world can help you find the fish, but not make them bite," Healey says.
Even Jimmy Carter is here. He came trolling through the trade show Friday with wife Rosalynn and a school of Secret Service agents in tow, pausing long enough to pose for pictures and accept assorted goodies from industry good old boys.
The former president got a live bait container ($28.85), battery-operated, to keep alive shrimp and minnows. He got a zippy new rod case to keep him from breaking his new rods when he heads to Montana to fish this week. He got a Kwik-Sharp knife sharpener ($14.95) to make sure his knives are sharp enough to filet quick and clean.
"I've always wanted one of these," Carter beamed.
"No telling what you'd get if you stayed another 10 minutes," Lloyd Riss said. He once taught Rosalynn how to fish at the Fenwick Fishing School in Spruce Creek, Pa. An aide to the Carter helped cart away the loot.
And Jimmy Carter disappeared out a back door, armed to the gills.
Allen Hardy says a fisherman can spend $150 on a graphite rod and outfit his bass boat like a subchaser, but that doesn't mean he will catch any more fish than the guy with a cane pole snoozing on the bank. "It just depends whether you want the fish to come to you or you go to the fish," the Nashville sporting goods store owner says.
Hardy goes for his fish in style. He rises in the pre-dawn darkness, hooks his trailer-mounted fiber glass bass boat ($13,500) outfitted with two fish sonars ($600) to his Chevy Blazer ($14,000) and heads for a 4 a.m. breakfast rendezvous with the boys at the Cracker Barrell Truck Stop outside Nashville.
His cooler is afloat with light beer. His new boron rod ($115) and light Ambassadeur casting reel ($85) strung with 10-pound test are firmly afixed to the gunwales, alongside another graphite spinning rod ($65) and reel ($35).
His mission: to bring home enough big ones to feed the guests he's invited to his house for dinner. That always keeps the pressure on, he says. But it doesn't guarantee fish. Often, he returns empty-handed.
"So," he says, "I pull steaks from the freezer and enjoy the hell out of them."
Paul Chambliss, 46, an insurance agent from Raleigh, N.C., usually throws them back. The sport is in the hooking, he says; no sense in catching what you don't plan to eat or stuff. Trim and tan ("the guy who sits in a bar all day isn't going to stay in shape"), he's sort of the Arnold Palmer of professional fishing, having hooked his way into the unofficial bass hall of fame by winning six Bass Masters Classics. His biggest catch: a 12-pound bass pulled from Florida's St. John's River.
He caught his first fish on a cane pole at age 6, a 7-pounder. He'd stuck his pole in the bank to fetch a hot dog when the bass struck. It pulled him into the lake. He held on. His mother waded in to rescue him. "I've been hooked ever since," he says.
Anglers who had everything perused the "Seater Heater" foam cushion ($5.50) to keep bottoms warm on cold days when they're not exactly jumping into the boat. They pondered the plastic "Fish-Grabber," perfect for the squeamish angler who abhors taking his slimy catch off the hook by hand.
"A lot of guys buy these and say, 'It's for the wife,' " salesman Ron Solheim says. "But it's really for themselves. They just don't want to admit they don't like grabbing fish. They don't want anyone to think they're not macho."
And for those who liked to sleep or fool around while they fish, there was the Fish Strike Detector ($18.95), a plastic rod holder that hooks onto the boat and emits a shrill alarm when fish strike. "It's for the lazy person," said a salesman. "Fishermen are basically lazy. Going fishing is usually an excuse to get out of the house and drink a beer."