Ten years ago bass angling was a sport for good-natured laiterers and the unemployed, a harmless way to kill a day and maybe bring home some fresh fish for supper.
Then came Ray Scott, a smooth-talking good old boy from Alabama with his finger on the pulse of the about-to-be-born-again South.
Scott was doing all right selling life insurance in Montgomery for Mutual of New York. But while he was boosting MONY he was smelling money in the largemouth bass holes of the deep South.
He set up his first bass tournament in SPringdale, Ark., in June, 1967, and demanded the then-unthinkable entry fee of $100 per contestant. He was as surprised as anyone when 106 fishermen shelled out the cash for the right to vie for the $5,000 top prize.
And Scott was on his way.
From those humble beginnings Scott has built himself an empire called BASS, the Bass Anglers Sportsman's Society. He oversees a membership of $285,000, three magazines and four annual publication, a separate nonprofit organization called the Bass Research Foundation, a motel and restaurant in Alabama, two retail stores and a chain of eight franchise operations.
But the backbone of B.A.S.S. remains the fish-for-cash tournaments, nine of them each year. And there isn't a sign of humble beginnings in them.
Last week Scott was in Gasburg, Va., to oversee the $63,600 Virginia Invitation on Lake Gaston. There living bass legends like Tom and Don Mann, Junior Samples, Bill Dance, Forrest Wood and Rays Breckenridge paid $300 apiece to compete in a field of 250 of a $9,000 first prize plus a Ranger bass boat.
It was a right to behold.
At dawn each day the anglers convened in their gleaming overpowered speedsters, lining up how to stern in a conga line and waiting for the high sign to "ooze off."
In the early days of B.A.S.S. there was a Dayton-style blastoff. In his muted, conservative big-business incarnation Scott has dreamed up the ozze-off, where the fishermen hold their big motors in check until they're well away from the start, then gun off for a honey hole.
The whole affair has the air of a military exercise, especially at the end of the day, when the fishermen come ozzing back en masse, then the big motors are gunned one last time and the boats scrunch up on the sandy beach. It's Normandy all over again.
And it's Scott's baby, right dowhe to the prayer session before the first day out, the no-women rule and the elaborate no-cheat rules.
"I saw enough $2 tournaments won by a cold fish," Scott said. They were as crooked as a snake. So I made a set of rules to virtually exculde cheating. I paried each fisherman with a different guy from a different state each day. They can't leave sight of each other."
"I just took a gamble that a good honest guy with good honest talent would step forward with his money."
Step forward they did and good honest talent they 've got. I can vouch for that after a day shared with a couple of noncompeting B.A.S.S. types. We fished the same holes as the pros with the same equipment: an $8,000 bass boat, trolling motors, depth finders at the helm and bow, graphite rods, thousands of dollars worth of lures, oxygentated live wells to keep the fatch alive.
The result of our all-day venture was two bass, neither big enough to keep. In the same time and on the same lake Paul Chamblee of Raleigh, weighing 25 pounds, 10 ounces and Jerry Rhoton of Norman, Okla., boated weighing 24-14. The eventual winner at the event was Al Lindner of Brainard, Minn., with a three-day total of 53-1.
During our travels we trolled along breifly with Tom Mann of Eufala, Ala., a perennial top winner on the bass tour. Mann was having bad luck, picking up just one "keeper" each of the first two days.
But watching him fish was an education. He was working a red clay bank with a steep dropoff, using one of his own Mann's Bait Co. Razorback lures.
He talked with us while he guided the trolling motor with one foot and cast and retrieved nonstop. He's one of the few on the tour using spinning gear-most use bait casters.
Mann's casts were effortless, long and sure. He ran the troller full bore and worked 500 yards of the bank in what seemed like two minutes. With the long casts he worked the lure shallow, then deep, always casting far forward and retrieving as the boat crept along.
It was a bank we might have wasted 25 minutes on. He had tried it and proved it empty in the time it would have taekn us to rig our lines.
And then he was off, roaring across the quiet lake with 150 horse growing behind.
We live in a world of power and speed and money, and fishing is no longer the exception. CAPTION: Picture 1, B.A.S.S. Founder Ray Scott grins from under his 10-gallon hat as Jerry Rhoton of Norman, Okla., weighs in 24 pounds 14 ounces of bass at $62,500 Virginia Invitational on Lake Gaston. By Buddy Norman for The Washington Post; Picture 2, Junior Samples of Cummsins, Ga., ponders the frustrations of a bad day's fishing on Lake Gaston. By Buddy Norman for The Washington Post