Skip to main content

On Saturday, I pulled into a parking lot at the Bon Secours Arena, where they're holding the tent revivals that double as fish weigh-ins.

The woman working the booth saw the Ontario plates.

"Y'all came to us all the way from Canada?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"God bless you for doing that."

Then she dipped her head, while I sat there fidgeting dumbly.

I've been to America plenty of times. But spending a week at sport fishing's most prestigious tournament, the Bassmaster Classic, felt like the first time I'd ever really seen America.

They named their champion on Sunday evening, 31-year-old Casey Ashley.

It's one of the truisms of the Classic that locals are snakebit on their own water. Ashley turned that wisdom. He lives just a ways down the road in Donalds, S.C., a town of 350 souls. He used that advantage to fish up 50 pounds of bass over three days.

They'll probably name a high school after him. Given the crowd's reaction, they may rename the town after him.

Ashley was the fifth-last man to weigh in, but he knew he'd won. They went so far as to photograph all five of the day's fish before they were taken away to be released. Ashley was already choking up. The crowd was frothing.

"Not only did I win the Bassmaster Classic," he said later, weeping. "I won it on my home lake, in my hometown, in my home state."

From the insider-y perspective of pro fishing, this week played like an acknowledgment of North Carolina's little brother. After unseasonable cold made the first few days unbearable, they needed to be told they'd done a great job.

But if you were one of the few on hand who isn't from this country, it was a celebration of an America that exists in the world's imagination, but is rarely visited.

New York is great. New York isn't America. It's New York.

Ditto Boston and Chicago and L.A. and so on. Greenville, S.C., is the America that exists outside geography. It's more an idea than a place.

As such, it was the perfect venue for the nostalgic grandeur of this event.

You don't watch fishing at the lake. You do it after the fact, at the weigh-in, where guys are waving around live fish like championship belts. That's where all the fun is.

What astounded was the crowd's ability to swing from emotional comedy to tragedy at whiplash speeds. People live less ironically down here. Whether that's synonymous with living more authentically, I'll leave to you.

Nearly 15,000 people showed up each day over the weekend. At one, a miserably nervous mope in a ballcap proposed to his girlfriend. He told a rambling story about throwing her from a jetski the first time they'd met.

It sounded more like grounds for a restraining order than a story you share at your 25th wedding anniversary, but … whatever.

The emcee shrieked: "Nothing says LOVE like the GEICO Bassmaster Classic!"

More emphasis on "GEICO" than "love."

The woman beside me was clapping as if she were trying to break off a hand. The family on the other side was tossing a toddler in the air. You just go with it.

Then they swung round the other way. A mournful soundtrack, a video montage, a long lead-in showing President Barack Obama speaking (you were juuuust a little worried for a second, needlessly).

This was a tribute to Kyle Carpenter, a 25-year-old former Marine from Mississippi. Carpenter threw himself in front of a grenade in Afghanistan and survived. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. Only a few dozen recipients are still alive.

They brought Carpenter, a slight, painfully scarred man, out on the back of a bass boat. The ovation was elemental. It was impossible not to be carried away by it. In a fractured and fractious world, we're all removed from this sort of big-tent tribalism. On the rare occasions you're exposed to it, it's narcotic.

They gave Carpenter a microphone. His first words: "I'm feeling pretty American being here in South Carolina."

Honest to God, I almost cried.

We may disagree, but these are the most nakedly ingenuous people in the world. Occasionally, it's nice to leash your tendency to scoff, and just enjoy the show. America makes that possible. Professional fishing makes it more so.

As a group, these were some of the most effortlessly charismatic athletes I've ever been around. Every one of them is a born raconteur.

On that first frigid day of competition, Alabama's Gerald Swindle: "I had handwarmers in places that would embarrass Miley Cyrus."

When Brian Snowden showed up to the weigh-in with just one measly 14-ounce fish: "It takes incredible skill to catch 'em that small. The big ones are easier. They have big mouths."

In a nice, strange touch, the Classic is hosted by a Canadian – Dave Mercer, from Port Perry, Ont. He provides the energy and a neutral bridge over the Mason-Dixon line.

"We're patriotic when we're playing hockey at the Olympics," Mercer said. "These people – they're just different. And it's honest."

That's the key. America's great at manufacturing enthusiasm. They don't need to bother down here. They've got it on tap.

A lot of that possibility is down to the egalitarianism of the sport. In fishing, the distance between competitors and their audience is virtually non-existent.

They didn't charge for anything here. Want to go to the launch? It's free. Want to go to the Expo? Free. The weigh-in? Free.

Part of this has to do with sponsorship. It's not in Yamaha's or GoPro's interest to inject a small, off-putting fee between you and a massive impulse purchase. The lineup to get into the Expo parking lot was an hour long on the weekend.

But despite the scale, the contact between worshippers and worshipped is intimate.

Racecar drivers live the same life – shaking hands while angling themselves so the corporate logo on their hats gets in the shot.

But the fan understands he or she will never drive an Indy car at competitive speeds. You'd die. No matter how hard you try, you can't golf straight-up with Rory McIlroy or trade slices with Serena Williams.

But everyone can fish. There is the slim but real chance that every fan here could get out on a lake, look the best in the world in the eye and beat them. It happens all the time in competitive pro-ams.

That conceptual frisson – which the top anglers freely acknowledge – has created big-time sport's flattest society.

Out on the lake during practice with Michael Iaconelli (who finished sixth), I watched a boat float to within 20 yards of us. I thought it was another competitor. Instead, it was three fans. They stood there, staring. One started lobbing detailed questions about lures. Iaconelli answered evasively (nobody likes sharing those secrets ahead of time).

"It's the cool and uncool part of our sport," he shrugged. "But mostly cool."

Take the example of Kevin VanDam. The 47-year-old from Michigan is the unanimously acknowledged best sport fisherman in the world. If you take the extropic view of human endeavour – that, as a species, we are always getting better at everything – he may be the greatest fisherman who has ever lived.

He didn't qualify for this Classic – the first time that's happened since he was 23. But he still showed up.

He spent all day, every day at the convention centre, taking pictures with fans. They lined up hundreds deep. These weren't kids. They were roly-poly, middle-aged, good ol' boys aflutter with teenage excitement, shaking his hand hard enough to sprain a wrist.

VanDam smiled all the way through it. Sure, he was selling Toyota trucks and NITRO boats. But he was also doing something most athletes fear – talking to the people who've made them rich. Not patting them on the head, but really talking to them.

This entire event was an education, and it had nothing to do with the finer points of angling.