Ray Scott has a voice that can melt butter on a block of ice or singe the hair off an Arkansas razorback. Ask him the time, and he'll sell you a watch. Tell him the sun will rise over the Atlantic and he'll give you odds against it. Start him talking about something holy, like catching largemouth bass, and he will lean his 6 1/2 feet toward you, tilt back the brim of his big cowboy hat and make you believe those semi-ugly bottom feeders have been blessed by the Great Angler above all others.
"It is a pot-bellied, thick-lipped critter that will make a man lose his religion," said Scott, raising his eyebrows and lowering his voice. "When you think you got him figured out, he's planning to do something different to make a fool out of you. Compared to bass, every other fish is as predictable as a dead lady. When you catch him, you can be so proud, you're liable to put him on the wall and move your wife's picture to the bathroom."
Scott is the founder, chief salesman and master of ceremonies for the professional B.A.S.S. Tournament trail, which he blazed 15 years ago. Since that time, the former insurance salesman has built it from a shoestring operation into a $650,000 circuit of fishing contests that combines the color of a traveling circus with the horsepower of hydroplane racing.
Last week, the tour barnstormed into this small town near Williamsburg, packing motel rooms and scaring fish for miles. After three days of scouting, 262 fishermen in 131 boats attacked the Chickahominy River for three more days with a passion that was cold blooded.
On the pro fishing tour, the casts are for cash. There are about 120 regulars who follow a circuit that begins in winter and ends this August with the Masters Classic, an event that pays $40,000 to the winner and is worth much more in endorsements.
Most of the pros work as private fishing guides between tournaments. About 20 are successful enough to make their living just fishing. A few have parlayed their angling success into syndicated television shows. All of them need sponsorship from fishing equipment companies to sustain their gypsy life style.
"You can get on this tour without sponsors, but you can't stay on it long without some," said Larry Nixon, a 32-year-old Texan who has been named bass angler of the year twice in the six years he has followed the circuit.
The living legend of the sport, however, is 43-year-old Roland Martin, who grew up in Laurel, Md., and learned to fish at local spots like the Triadelphia Reservoir. In 13 years, Martin has won more than $200,000 in prize money and been bass angler of the year seven times. Martin has a syndicated television show seen in 65 cities.
Everywhere the tour goes, the local hotshots are waiting. They usually make up half of the tournament fields, men willing to gamble $250 to $300 in entry fees to compete against guys who do for a living what they dream of.
"I paid $250 to enter," said John Castle of Laurel, a 39-year-old sporting goods salesman. "You'd spend that much to go to Disney World for the first time. This is just something I wanted to try."
Local fishermen who have spent years working tournament rivers or lakes would seem to have a great advantage over visiting pros who have just three days to scout the water. But in the last 15 years, say tournament officials, locals have won fewer than 10 tournament events.
Most of the time, the pros are competing against each other for paychecks, from boats that cost $10,000 and more, cruise at 60 mph and are stocked with enough sophisticated electronic gear to locate a jellyfish in 30 feet of water.
Rick Clunn, a former computer programmer, is rumored to use sandpaper on his fingertips to make them more sensitive to fish kisses at the end of his boron rod. One pro, Cliff Craft of Georgia, spent $84 last week on a private plane to fly him over the river on a scouting trip before the tournament. Almost every angler has some special lure or secret fish scent that he swears by.
"That is one fine fish," said Scott to a contestant holding up a five-pound largemouth for the crowd's approval. "Where did you catch it?"
"The water," came the straight-faced reply.
While the spectators snapped pictures of men holding fish, Paul Elias, a touring pro from Mississippi, stood on a wooden porch overlooking the river and talked about life on the fishing circuit. Since winning last year's Masters Classic in Alabama, the 33-year-old Elias has been on a perpetual promotional tour.
"You just get your face in front of the public as much as you can," said Elias, who discovered that his public has a different idea of his life than he does.
"They think it's just cut-and-dried games," said Elias. "When you turn it into a profession, it ceases to be fun."
"He said that?" asked Bill Barton, a full-time construction worker from Richmond with a bad bass-fishing bug. "Tell him I'll trade places any time."