Orlando Wilson was fishing for $101,000 when the sound of a barbershop quartet called the Four Retreads blew in across the lily pads. "Are those guys singing?" he asked, incredulous, abruptly halting his retrieve.
Wilson, 38, a tidy bantam of a man with dark eyes, is the host of a television fishing show on Ted Turner's cable network. People ask him for autographs and sidle up to him to have their pictures taken. Fathers point him out to their sons. Wilson had thought he had seen it all when it came to fishing, but this was a new one. Nobody had ever sung four-part harmony to him while he was casting his spinner baits for lunker bass, certainly no silver-haired barbershop quartet aboard a canopied pontoon boat.
But then, even putting aside the money that was at stake in the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society's ( B.A.S.S.) $667,765 MegaBucks tournament, nobody had ever fished the way Orlando Wilson was now fishing. Wilson and nine other anglers were following one another in their boats around a lake laid out like a golf course. They fished one marked area for an hour and then rotated clockwise to the next hole. They fished this way so that spectators in their own boats could watch, like Arnie's Army on the golf course. There were also fans on the shore, watching with binoculars, snapping pictures, shouting encouragement. And there was that quartet, singing Sweet Adeline. Yes, theater fishing has arrived.
For the record, freshwater bass fishing became a spectator sport on the morning of April 11, 1986. It happened on Little Lake Harris, south of Leesburg, Fla., on the fifth day of the B.A.S.S. MegaBucks extravaganza. The tournament's original 200 entrants had been reduced to 10, and Ray Scott, the 52-year-old B.A.S.S. founder and father of tournament bass fishing, tilted back his cowboy hat and said, "You are witnessing a very important chapter in the history of bass fishing."
Scott's brainchild not only brought the barbershop quartet to Wilson's fishing hole, but it also produced a group of onlookers the size of a small office picnic at the foot of Howey Bridge across Little Lake Harris. By the next day the crowd had grown to 200. Scott, a natural-born promoter, was saying, "I'm telling you, boys, this is only the beginning."
Until spectator fishing came along, the contestants always sped off into the distance at dawn and returned in the late afternoon from beyond the horizon and around the bend. All anyone got to see was a fish being weighed.
Scott spent years trying to match fishermen and an audience. He dispatched camera boats to remote watery areas to produce a taped and truncated version of his tournaments for cable TV. But it is only live events that the networks pay big bucks to televise and Scott wanted to make bass fishing work on live TV. "Like it or not," he said, "you just can't beat TV for what we're doing." Which is exposing the public to B.A.S.S., a 440,000-member organization that, among other things, promotes catch-and-release tournaments.
Scott never questioned the notion that people would actually want to watch men fishing, that they would sit through dozens, perhaps hundreds of unsuccessful casts in anticipation of a single strike. If somebody asked him whether applause from spectators wouldn't scare the fish, he scoffed. He doodled on bar napkins and restaurant tablecloths and scratched his head and pondered. One day he hit on the golf-course format.
On a small lake laid out with fishing holes, Scott said, a spectator could "stand there with a $2 pair of binoculars and observe somebody fishing." Scott admitted that rotating the fishermen around the holes would be time-consuming and "not quite like watching the Masters." But he also insisted, "It'll be a lot better than it's been in the past."
Little Lake Harris, a two-mile by three-mile cul-de-sac of shallow water off the larger Lake Harris, was chosen as the test site. Ringed by reeds, cypress trees and equal parts of alligator-inhabited swampland and tidy lawns, it had been off-limits in the earlier rounds of the tournament to keep it fresh for the 10 finalists.