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Reeling in Dough
Jack McCallum
August 24, 1998
Thanks to rival tours and big-bucks sponsorships, bass-fishing pros are becoming millionaires in a sport that could turn into the next NASCAR
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August 24, 1998

Reeling In Dough

Thanks to rival tours and big-bucks sponsorships, bass-fishing pros are becoming millionaires in a sport that could turn into the next NASCAR

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Back in 1980, Denny Brauer—mason by vocation, bass
fisherman by avocation—announced to his wife, Shirley, that he wanted to move from their house in Seward, Neb., to a place "where there's more water," so he could wet his line on a full-time basis. Deciding that you wanted to make a livable wage as a bass angler in '80 wasn't quite as risky as deciding that you wanted to make a livable wage as, say, a marble-shooter, but it was close. "Let's go," she said. So Denny, Shirley and their eight-year-old son, Chad, took off for Camdenton, Mo., hard by the Lake of the Ozarks, and Denny began implementing his plan of catching bass to feed his family as well as his passion.

Eighteen years later Brauer has a Saturday-morning fishing show, The Bass Class with Denny Brauer., on ESPN, has made two instructional videos and has written two instructional books. He has endorsement deals with so many companies (12, according to his count) that when he goes out to fish, he looks like ol' Richard Petty, so festooned is his person with brand-name logos. Two weeks ago Brauer competed in the 28th B.A.S.S. Masters Classic against 45 adversaries (including Chad, now 26) who had qualified through B.A.S.S. elite and regional tours. Passengers in as many as 50 boats on muddy High Rock Lake near Greensboro, N.C., trailed Brauer's 20-foot Ranger bass boat, studying his famed "flippin' and pitchin' " technique, designed to get bass in shallow water under heavy cover to strike his lure. On Aug. 8, after Brauer had blown away the competition with a three-day catch total of 46 pounds, three ounces, a crowd of 17,000 in Greensboro Coliseum shouted, "You da man!" as he claimed the $150,000 first prize. By the end of 1998 Brauer will have fished in 15 tournaments, each of which will have given cash and merchandise worth at least $100,000 to the winner, and made between $600,000 and $800,000 in prize money and endorsements for the year.

Oh, yeah, one other thing: In October the 49-year-old mason from Nebraska will have his mug on a Wheaties box. "I wasn't a bad student or a dumb kid or anything like that, but I dropped out of college after one year," says Brauer. "My brother Larry's a lawyer. When we're together, he'll look at me every once in a while, shake his head and say, 'All those years of school, all those years of school....' "

It's not news that Brauer and a couple of hundred others are making money fishing for bass—that's been going on for more than two decades. What is news is that so many are making so much. Despite a negligible live gate (those rubbernecking boat people tailing Brauer didn't pay a cent) and zero live-television revenue, the sport is attracting enough corporate sponsorship to make millionaires out of Brauer and a handful of others and to provide a comfortable living to perhaps another 300 or 400 pros. Bass angling is getting bigger, in part because there are two rival tournament-sponsoring entities: BAS.S. (the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society), which holds eight elite tournaments each year, and Operation Bass, which conducts seven and which became a major tournament player three years ago under the bells-and-whistles stewardship of Irwin Jacobs, a onetime Wall Street raider who was known as Irv the Liquidator for his talent in buying up and filleting companies.

There are thousands of other fish in the sea (and fresh water), and a few of them besides bass are painted with dollar signs. Saltwater fishing offers a billfish (blue marlin, swordfish and sailfish combined) tournament with a $1.8 million purse. Even the-river-runs-through-it fly-fishermen have regional tournaments with a gimmick or two, like a requirement to use only one fly throughout the event. But there's no viable saltwater tournament circuit, and fly-cast purses range from small to nonexistent.

Bass, for a variety of reasons, is the big-bucks boss. It is the most pervasive sport fish in the U.S., indigenous to the rivers, lakes, streams and creeks of every state except Alaska. It is a worthy opponent even for the pro anglers, who extol the bass's combative, eat-its-own nature ("Bass don't have many family values," wryly observes Bruce Shupp, B.A.S.S.'s conservation director) and its, uh, brainpower. Ray Scott, founder of B.A.S.S., points to a 1961 study in which renowned fish photographer Elgin Ciampi professed to prove (through an experiment in which fish were exposed to artificial lures) that largemouth and smallmouth bass rank one-two in intelligence among freshwater game fish. "Far as I know, bass didn't get any dumber since then," says Scott. Even the fly guys acknowledge the skills required to land a bass the way the pros do. "In terms of casting ability, analyzing fish behavior, dealing with variables of different kinds of water, and a lot of other things," says Tim Linehan, a well-known fly-fisherman and freshwater guide, "bass fishermen are superior to anyone."

Brauer is superior to most other bass fishermen. During the six-day practice session four weeks before the Classic, he painstakingly covered almost every square foot of High Rock Lake, eliminating from his itinerary spots devoid offish as assiduously as he located fertile areas under docks and fallen brush. Brauer always fishes standing up in the bow of his Ranger, maneuvering it with the trolling motor, which he controls using a small foot pedal. In typical tournament fishing, an angler is allowed to catch as many fish as he can, but he only keeps the five he thinks are heaviest, which are weighed at the end of each day. (All fish are released.) The winner is determined by total weight over three days of fishing from first light until early afternoon. It's about consistency. One of the things that separates Brauer from the talented amateur—and even many of his fellow pros—is his subtle casting, which enables him to put his lure right where he wants it almost every time. A Brauer fishing expedition is a study in time management. He set the tone for the Classic on the first day when he sped to a spot eight miles up the lake from the starting point at Abbott's Creek, to a shallow shore littered with fallen trees, logs and brush. On the final two days, the spot would yield a rich harvest of bass.

Though tournament fishing is on the rise, not everyone is enamored of it. While Linehan praises the catch-and-release programs promulgated by BA.S.S. and followed also by Operation Bass's FLW (Forrest L. Wood) Tour, he questions the philosophy of the big-bucks events. "There becomes a how-many-and-how-big aspect to the sport, which is not what fishing is supposed to be," Linehan says.

That's a philosophical point about which Corporate America cares not a whit. What deep-pocketed heavyweights such as Wal-Mart, the FLW Tour's titular sponsor, see are consumers batty about bass. Thirty million Americans fish for bass every year, and, like golfers, they search relentlessly for an edge in technique or technology—the lure, say, that will trick those smallmouth Einsteins lurking below the surface. According to Wayne Goble, B.A.S.S.'s director of research, the average amateur angler spends about $200 a month on equipment, which adds up to a $40 billion industry. Further, though it's probably patronizing to state it, bass fishermen aren't backcountry buffoons who think Eisenhower is still president. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics show that about half of America's bass fishermen have college degrees. In the cultlike devotion it inspires, bass fishing is probably most like NASCAR—in fact, so many bass fishermen are NASCAR fans that one lure company has come out with "Dale Earnhardt crank-bait" in the shape of his black number 3 car. But, as Brauer says, "a lot more ordinary folk can pick up a rod and reel than get behind the wheel of a race car."

Brauer and his tournament-fishing brethren owe much of their good fortune to Scott, a bustling bear of a man who makes every pronouncement—and he's good for about one pronouncement a minute—sound like, well, a fish story. He still lives near his hometown of Montgomery, Ala., right on President's Lake, the 55-acre bass hole he built himself 13 years ago. "Twenty feet from my bedroom door," says the 64-year-old Scott, "is some of the best bass fishing in the world." That happens to be true. Some of the B.A.S.S. folk would love an invitation ("See if you can get me one," says Shupp), but Scott's guests are more likely to be men like George Bush and Chuck Yeager, close friends both.

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