As we get on the bus that will take us to meet the world's best sport fishermen, Roger Metz looks at me and says, "Where's your motorcycle helmet?"
"And where's the rest of your stuff?"
Metz, the host of a local outdoor radio show, is carrying two duffel bags of clothing. I'm wearing a winter jacket, jeans and a tuque. It's cold, but it's not Canada cold.
Once we get to the boat launch, everyone's in a snowmobiling suit. Everyone's carrying a helmet. And the creeping sense that I'm well out of my depth begins to hit me.
We're two days from the start of the Bassmaster Classic, which bills itself as 'the Super Bowl of fishing.' This is the only major tournament you can't buy your way in to. Only the best qualify.
It's a movable feast – three days, five bass a man per day, total weight wins. The winner takes $300,000 (U.S.) and the unofficial title of best angler alive.
I've never fished, but I've seen the shows. I've got Otis Redding playing in my head. In my mind, this is a pastoral endeavour.
Because of that profound ignorance, this will be the worst professional day of my life. And I've sold encyclopedias door-to-door.
We've all booked to ride along with one of 56 competitors for their final practice session before the tournament begins on Friday. Most of these people paid $500 for the privilege, and so had the sense to bring helmets. We get on the boats at about 6:30 a.m. We will not get off them for nine hours. That's non-negotiable.
I've booked in with Michael (Ike) Iaconelli – bass fishing's black hat. New Jersey-born and bred – a Yankee missionary in the Southern wilderness. Winner of the 2003 Classic. Angler of the Year in 2006. GQ once chose him among the world's 10 Most Hated Athletes. That GQ took the time to notice a guy who fishes for a living tells you how big a personality he is in this cloistered world.
We meet on the dock in darkness. Someone introduces us, since I can't see him under his tip-to-tail suit of extreme-cold-weather gear.
"You going be okay?" Iaconelli wonders, seeing as I've dressed as if I'm going out to chop down a Christmas tree.
It's too late to chicken out, so … yeah?
This will be the last time he worries about me. It won't be mine.
Sport has increasingly cosmopolitan feel
BASS – the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society – was born in the late 1960s. The first Classic was held in Nevada in 1971.
It's evolved from a secret society – at the outset, competitors were only told what lake they were fishing once they'd got on a plane – into a multibillion-dollar business. BASS claims more than 500,000 dues-paying members, who buy more than a billion dollars worth of boats alone in a given year. BASS and the Classic is the reason every suburban super-mall now houses a Bass Pro Shop.
Officials in this year's host city, Greenville, S.C., expect as many 50,000 people to attend daily weigh-ins, which play like rock concerts.
The sport is dominated by southerners, but it has an increasingly cosmopolitan feel.
"Every tournament I fish, I feel like I'm trying to figure out how to win the Classic. It's all that matters," says Texas-based Takahiro Omori, the most successful of several Japanese competing here. "At the end of your career, if you haven't won the Classic – even if you did 20 years – it doesn't mean much."
Omori won in 2004, and remains the only non-American to do so.
I ask Bobby Lane what makes a great bass fisherman. He's a 20-year veteran. His brother Chris won the Classic three years ago. He mishears the question, and thinks I've asked what makes a great "dock" fisherman. He goes on for three minutes about floating docks, pole docks, ladder docks, heat variations, the vagaries of bait and casting tactics.
I wait until he finishes and then rephrase: "Try explaining this sport to someone who doesn't know anything about fishing."
"It's very hard for us to talk to someone like that."
"What's the secret?" says Skeet Reese, winner of the 2009 Classic. "Time in the water."
How much time have you spent in the water?
"Oh, crap. There's a lot of days I was supposed to be in school that I was fishing instead. I honestly don't even know how to answer that."
BASS's biggest star is Kevin VanDam, a winner of four Classics. For the first time in a quarter-century, he missed qualifying this year. People around here talk about this failure in lowered voices, as though VanDam were sport fishing's Voldemort.
VanDam's the draw, but Reese, 45, may be BASS's ur-angler. He's as big and fit as a linebacker, a master of many styles, from the generation of power fishermen. Slow anglers find a position and stay put. The power strategy is to hit as many locales as possible in a competition day. Always rushing and always plotting, it requires formidable mental and physical stamina.
"Tournament fishing and recreational fishing are two different worlds. People go out for fun. They get a bite. It's a great day relaxing," Reese says. "This is not for them. They'd hate this."
Like Lane, many of the competitors I talk to here approach the non-fishing types (i.e. me) with no small amount of caution. Some of the hangers-on are more aggressively insular. While waiting to speak to someone, another guy wearing a media badge and carrying an expensive camera rig sidles up. He eyes me up and down – everyone knows everyone else. Outsiders are easy to spot.
"Who you with?"
"What are you assholes doing here?"
He laughs as he says it, but he's not joking.
Reese has a more meditative turn of mind.
He's tickled by the idea that someone might not take his job seriously.
"I suppose some people don't think this is a sport. Like, 'You fish?' Yeah, I fish. I fish my ass off.
I'd like to see someone do what we do for a week straight. Up and down in the boat, up at 3 in the morning, fishing eight, 10 hours a day. There's nothing easy about this."
I know this to be true. I tell Reese I've spent a day on the water with Iaconelli.
"Oh, you're the lucky one!" Reese crows, the Mississippi in his voice coming out. "I heard you had quite the experience."
You heard what now?
"Oh, yeah. They told me about you. Oh yeah, I heard about you …" Reese says, and can't continue. He's laughing too hard.
That's what typifies this fish – the ability to find cover
Let's go back to the previous morning. Practice day. Cold as hell.
Iaconelli is 42, an angular man with a lupine smile and a thick, trim beard. He has a Mephistophelean look to him. He also has a reputation. The (fading) old guard complains about his televised fist-pumping and pouting, but I don't see a hint of friction or poor manners.
While we sit there waiting for our start time, Iaconelli banters easily with the guy in the boat alongside us – Lane.
As he leaves, Lane tosses Iaconelli a pair of heavy gloves that don't fit him: "You take 'em." You don't give gifts to a hateable guy.
Later, I'll ask Lane about the rap on Iaconelli: "He has another side to him. Heck, we all do. You just gotta watch out you don't trip it."
At 7:30 sharp, we're off. It's 0 C. We've been standing in a parking lot for most of two hours.
My feet are numb and, despite gloves, my hands are headed that way.The field of play – Lake Hartwell – is enormous. It's 200 square kilometres, run through with inlets and islands. No Classic competitor is allowed near the lake after Jan 1. You're not even allowed to talk to locals past that date. Iaconelli's fished this water twice before in competition. He came down and scouted for five days in December. Every step he takes here is planned.
He's done long days of work at home with underwater mapping software, looking for the likeliest places bass will hide. That's what typifies this fish – the ability to find cover.
"Imagine you walk into a big, empty room and all there is in there is a chair. A bass would go over and stand by the chair," Iaconelli says.
Bass aren't big, but they're hard to trick, hard to catch and hard to reel in – the ultimate freshwater sport fish.
Iaconelli, a great lover of seafood, doesn't eat bass: "It's a little awkward eating your competition. It's like cannibalism."
He's already had three practice days, and found his primary hunting ground. Today he's moving to another region of the lake. In the morning, he's buoyant.
"Twenty of the guys in this field are already shot mentally, because of the cold," Iaconelli says. He grew up fishing in the northeast. Cold doesn't bother him.
It's bothering the hell out of me, and we've just started.
Like Reese, Iaconelli is a power fisher. He plans 50 stops today. Over his eight-hour window, that's less than 10 minutes a stop, not counting travel time. So he sets off at what feels like a Star Wars-style jump into hyperspace.
How to describe going 120 kilometres an hour in a bass boat in freezing temperatures when you don't have a motorcycle helmet? Imagine driving down the highway without a windshield. A bass boat is just barely a "boat." It's a raft with a 250-horsepower engine attached. It sits about a foot out of the water. You're not wearing a seat belt (because there isn't one), you're bouncing two feet in the air and there's six inches of fibre-glass separating you from death.
"Unbearable" is a good word for it. I've got my tuque pulled down over my chin. I'm holding the hood of my jacket closed with clenched fists. Snot is rolling up my cheeks in rivers. I can't see anything, which is probably better, because even by the lunatic standard of this sport, Iaconelli is an infamously cavalier driver.
Before we left, someone took pity and gave me Vaseline to slather across my face. I will still end the day hideously wind burnt.
The lake is dotted with lavish summer homes. Iaconelli begins by finding an inlet and casting amongst the docks. The sun's just up. The lake's misting. About 60 feet from us, a fish breaks water.
What comes next is breathtaking. Iaconelli has his back turned to the leaping bass, but he's heard it. He wheels around, casts blind and lands his lure in the loonie-sized spot where a shallow ripple remains. A second later, he pulls the fish. It's magical to watch. It will be the last really good moment of the day.
Though much of our time is spent in relative torpor, another skill set of top anglers is a high tolerance for risk taking.
During tournaments, Iaconelli's watched a tornado form a few hundred metres from his boat on Tennessee's Old Hickory Lake. He's cut through three-metre-high waves on the Great Lakes. He's fished through lightning strikes.
"A $100,000 cheque'll make you do a lot of shit you shouldn't do," he says.
Iaconelli knows where he's going to start on Friday – 25 km from the embarkation point, at a feeding shelf he's discovered and still hopes he has to himself.
"Dude, on a confidence scale of one to 10, I'm a 12. I've felt like this three times ahead of Classics. I won one of them and came second in the other."
This is Good Ike. Despite the fact he's working, he makes a real effort to school a greenhorn passenger. We talk about his life, education, philosophy, family. It's an easy conversation.
I'm trying to be solicitous, but I'm in mounting distress. The cold has got into me. I cannot feel my feet up to my ankles. All I can think is, "How am I getting off this boat?" I have a vision of trying to jump onto a rolling dock at day's end, landing in the water and drowning.
There's a portable propane heater tucked under the steering column. As casually as possible, I introduce it into conversation.
"I don't want to use it," Iaconelli says. "I want to get used to the conditions. I don't want to spoil my body."
Sweet Jesus, what I would give to spoil my body. I wait two more hours – until what I figure is just before the point that necessitates amputation – and ask if I can fire it up.
This is halfway through the day. After that first catch, Iaconelli hasn't found anything. He's fishing purposefully, but his patience is thinning. There's more than a little Ahab to him, erect at the prow of the boat, throwing out cast after grim cast.
I spend the next while fiddling with the heater, which has a pilot light that needs to be tended through a mounting wind. The day started sunny. It's overcast now – darkening in every sense.
We're both working at something we care deeply about – him, fishing; me, staying alive – and doing so in silence. There are perhaps two hours remaining.
Iaconelli had two choices on the day. We're both beginning to feel things have gone wrong.
The first choice was to go back to where he will start the competition and expand beyond the dozen spots he's already identified. He ruled that out, worrying he'd draw a competitor to his ground, or come up empty and whittle away his confidence.
That led him to the second choice – come to a new area at mid-lake and either discover new options or eliminate the territory.
"Elimination is good. Whether we find anything here or not, this was the right choice," Iaconelli says. He doesn't sound convinced.
An hour later, he pulls the boat up in deep water, casts only four or five times, and gives up.
"You're getting quicker," I say.
"I'm getting frustrated," Iaconelli spits back.
It's the last exchange we'll have.
By the end, Iaconelli has gone from focused to frantic. Anglers are heavily penalized if they return late from the session. With 20 minutes left, we set off on a last kamikaze run across the open lake. The wind kicks up suddenly. Choppy water has become tightly spaced, four-foot waves.
I've been really, truly scared maybe a half-dozen times in my life. The next few minutes – which feel like a few hundred – qualify.
Iaconelli is driving the boat diagonally through the prevailing wind. The engine is maxed out – once you start on this path you can't stop, or risk rolling. The boat's hitting the crest of the waves, launching five or six feet out of the water, then landing like a brick. Iaconelli has the steering-wheel console to brace himself against. Sitting alongside him, I've got nothing. Every time we skip, I float a foot in the air. The only thing keeping me in the boat is inertia. As we touch down again and again, I flop side to side. I'm one unlucky slip from going backward out of the craft. The heater at my feet is flying around. I've got a death grip on the railing. I'm moaning. Iaconelli probably can't hear me, and certainly doesn't care. After all, I got on his boat.
Twice, we're half-swamped. I'm soaked. I've brought along a waterproof backpack. The zipper's open a few inches. Everything inside the bag is drenched. Halfway through, I give up. When it ends, I don't feel relieved. I'm just surprised I've survived.
I look over at Iaconelli, wide-eyed and panting. He pulls down his face mask.
"That was bad," he says.
He jumps up, grabs a rod, releases the troll motor and begins casting. Totally oblivious. Three-hundred thousand bucks will make you do stuff you shouldn't do.
Ten minutes later, we're back at the dock. Iaconelli pops off the boat and stalks away. I have to call him back to thank him. The laid-back guy I'd met in the morning is gone. Iaconelli's looking at me like I'm some sort of jinx. Who can blame him?
I trudge up to an idling media bus. I nearly weep when the warm air hits me. I sit down, dripping. All the good ol' boys on board are trying to figure out if they're allowed to laugh.
"How was it with Ike?" one of the guys I'd met in the morning asks.
"Yeah, Ike, he's crazy out there. He tell you about the time he crashed the boat? Ran it right up onto an island."
No. He did not tell me that.
'The most uncontrollable sport in the world'
On Friday morning, bitter cold delays the beginning of the tournament.
Concern about ice on the dock pushes the launch until 9 a.m. At -11 C, it's the chilliest day in Classic history. At least it's not snowing. That weather is due Saturday.
General confusion reigns. Boats are frozen to their trailers, and get dumped into the water at speed, bumping one another. Two days ago, the ride-along marshals looked giddy as kids. Today, they move as if they're being frog-marched on a chain gang.
"They told me to bring along a survival bag," Metz says. We've already come close to tragedy. During Sunday's practice, Classic competitor David Walker spotted a local rec fisher who'd gone into the water, and saved the man's life.
I pass Reese. He's sitting up happily in his boat as if he's on a parade float, waiting to be dropped off.
"Who you going out with today?" Reese wonders archly, and winks.
Iaconelli comes down alone. He's driving his own truck, already rushing. Someone wanders out onto the launch ramp – risky business – to do a filmed interview. Fishing's the point, but you can't fish without sponsors. Iaconelli turns his smile on, and then turns it off just as quickly.
The anthem kicks up. The first flotilla is led onto the lake by a guy in a GEICO lizard costume waving the American flag. A thousand fans in hunting camo hoot them out. It's a kitsch buffet before business begins.
"This is the most uncontrollable sport in the world," Reese told me. "You're dealing with a living creature."
Iaconelli's motor kicks in and he's off. Whether to glory or disappointment is up to the bass.
ABOUT THE BASS
Bassmaster Classic permitted varieties:
Largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted, redeye or shoal bass will be counted.
An average largemouth bass is roughly 20 inches in length and can weigh as much as five pounds. Smallmouth bass grow to 15 inches and tip the scales at about two pounds. The largest bass on record, caught in Japan in 2009, weighed in at 22.5 pounds and measured 29 inches. They live roughly 16 years.
Large or small:
Largemouth bass are mostly green with a black stripe across the body and their mouth stretches far beyond the eye. Smallmouth bass are yellow to olive brown with many vertical dark stripes. Their mouth goes to the middle of the eye.
Largemouth bass like calm lakes and ponds; smallmouth prefer flowing rivers and streams.
Why fish for bass:
The predatory freshwater game fish is one of the most aggressive and can fight itself off a hook.
Pisces non grata:
Smallmouth bass are considered invasive species in New Brunswick and British Columbia.
Bass don't have eyelids and their iris is fixed.
Scientists believe the smallmouth bass is smarter.
Source: outdoorlife.com, canadafishing.ca, bassmaster.com, Pittsburgh Post Gazette