When the week-long, $667,000 MegaBucks Bass Tournament ended here Saturday, when all the fish were weighed, all the jokes told and a champion was crowned, everyone seemed happy but the winner.
Roger Farmer, a slender roofing contractor from Dalton, Ga., had won $101,000 in cash and merchandise, purportedly the biggest prize ever for a bass tournament.
But Farmer shook like a willow leaf in the Florida breeze. Right there on the weigh station, with Bass Anglers Sportsman Society founder Ray Scott grinning nearby, with cameras clicking away, with a crowd of 3,000 applauding and with one of his kids in his arms and his wife at his side, Farmer was coming apart at the seams.
The crowd was chuckling over a joke by Scott. After Cathy Farmer professed her love for her husband, Scott muttered, "When you've got $101,000, they love you whether they love you or not."
But Farmer didn't laugh.
"There's one thing I wanted to say," said the 35-year-old who had just won his first big-money tournament.
"My father died during the Okeechobee Tournament [in February]. All his life, he carried a bent nail and a buckeye for luck, and I carried them today."
Farmer reached in his pocket, retrieved the aged charms and held them in his hand. "I just wish he was here," he said, and broke down sobbing. His wife and children clutched him close. It was a moment touching enough that briefly the hubbub stopped, and many brushed an annoyance from an eye.
"Well, it looks like we've done shot the covey," said Scott after a pause. "That about wraps it up."
The first MegaBucks tournament was history.
Last week, 200 anglers paid Scott $2,200 apiece for the right to fish a grueling eight straight days in his latest innovation, a contest format he hopes will make competitive bass fishing even richer than it is by turning it into a TV-spectator sport.
MegaBucks winnows the field of 200 in a traditional-style tournament to 10 finalists, then sends the 10 to a small virgin lake divided into 10 holes, like a golf course.
For two days, the anglers move from hole to hole under the scrutiny of TV cameras and spectators on shore. It is competely unlike traditional bass contests, where anglers fish immense waters and are not seen from starting time to quitting time.
And it worked.
When it was over, the competitors had handed Scott 1,839 bass weighing up to 9 1/2 pounds, and he had handed them cash and prizes worth two-thirds of a million dollars, by his own somewhat inflated calculations. (Farmer's $101,000 winnings were in the form of a sponsor-donated boat, a car and a 10-year annuity worth $63,000.)
Scott said it was the biggest payout ever to a bass tournament winner. "Only in America can we do the things we do," he said, beaming delightedly at the sun-washed crowd watching the weigh-in on the banks of Lake Harris.
And in fact, Farmer's closing tribute had marked a fitting end to a week-long slice of Americana so loaded with machinery, money, competitiveness and maudlin gimmickry that it truly couldn't have happened anywhere else in the world.
The machinery was in the form of 20 identically rigged Ranger bass boats (10 for competitors, 10 for observers) that pulled onto the peaceful lake at 6:15 a.m. each day. The boats blasted off on signal at 65 mph for a six-mile, 150-horsepower run into the dark of first light, burning fuel at prodigious rates and leaving white water and terrifying, rooster-tail roars behind.
The gimmickry was in the maze of depth-finders, acidity and temperature gauges, electric trolling motors, boron fishing rods and other gadgets required by the thoroughly modern bass fisher.
The money was everywhere, and the competition in the face of all this proved friendlier by far than a cynical observer might expect. There was even a glimpse of that rarest old American virtue, honesty.
Things were confused. No one ever fished a contest like this before. Usually, tournament anglers blast off at dawn and disappear into some huge lake, returning eight hours later with whatever they've caught from their secret spots.
This time, they went where they were told. Given the novelty, it was no surprise when Farmer looked up to discover tournament director Harold Sharp's boat bearing down on him early in the first day to advise him he'd missed a mark and was fishing the wrong hole in Lake Harris, and had been doing so for 20 minutes.
But who could have expected Farmer to respond by volunteering the information that while there, he'd caught two nice bass.
"Then you'll have to throw them back," Sharp said.
This Farmer did, tossing five pounds of bass and his hopes for victory overboard. "I 'bout had a heart attack," Farmer admitted that evening.
He was still shaking an hour later when he tossed a spinnerbait into some lily pads and felt the shocking tug of what turned out to be the largest bass caught in the tournament, a 9 1/2-pounder that won him the biggest prize any bass fishermen ever claimed.
"I guess the Lord also serves him who stands and waits," said Farmer.
And a buckeye and a bent nail never hurt.
MegaBucks becomes the latest in a string of promotional gimmicks devised by Scott, who almost singlehandedly changed bass fishing from a weekend diversion for tobacco-chewing plowboys to the aquatic equivalent of the Daytona 500, replete with garishly colored, treacherously overpowered metal-flake bass boats.
"He made this industry," said Orlando Wilson, host of a nationally televised fishing show and one of the 10 finalists. "And he's made a lot of people rich."
Anglers come back again and again to fish Scott's tournaments, Wilson said, because they are clean operations, imaginatively staged, governed by inflexible rules, and the impressive prizes are paid on time, as advertised.
Scott's B.A.S.S. competitions have neatly steered clear of cheating scandals that crop up in fishing contests elsewhere. "I don't think after 20 years in the business you can find anyone who will say Ray Scott screwed him," said Wilson, "and that's a lot more than you can say for some bass tournaments."
One person who got rich along the way is Scott, a former insurance salesman from Alabama who occasionally peers out from under his trademark white cowboy hat to explain that a con man is a fellow who gets your money once, but a promoter gets it over and over again, and you don't even mind.
Scott said his tournaments don't make much money, but the interest in bass fishing they engender does. "We have 450,000 members in B.A.S.S.," said Scott. "At $15 a year per person, you figure it out, bubba."
It figures to just under $7 million a year, plus guaranteed circulation of almost half a million readers for his ad-laden magazine, Bassmaster. He has 200 employes at B.A.S.S. headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., three other magazines, a syndicated weekly TV show and sponsorship deals with all sorts of manufacturers.
But it isn't enough for Scott.
"In the past, our tournaments have never been able to offer more than a takeoff [in boats] in the morning and a 'Here they come!' in the afternoon," said Scott. "We'll blow 'em away with the camera work on this."
MegaBucks was a success, said Scott. It will be televised on the Nashville cable network May 3 and May 31 and repeated next February at the same lake, with even bigger prize money and better spectator access.
But Scott isn't stopping. He has plans for even smaller lakes -- 10-acre ponds, for example, full of giant bass, with amphitheaters for spectators, a TV camera behind every tree, instant replays, Telscreens.
As the fellow said, "Only in America . . . " CAPTION: Picture, MegaBucks winner Roger Farmer of Dalton, Ga., displays $101,000 catch, a 9 1/2-pound bass, as tournament founder Ray Scott looks on. The Washington Post