A couple of years ago the plastic worm was the king of baits for largemouth bass. However, some others have been crowding it, such as the spinnerbaits. Stan Sloan of Nashville, who finished second to Martin on the tournament circuit this year, manufactures and fishes the Zorro Aggravator spinnerbait, and sales have jumped from 100,000 a year to 750,000 as a result of Bobby Murray's using it to win the 1971 Classic at Lake Mead. Similarly, Don Butler of Tulsa, another manufacturer and top pro who won the 1972 Classic on his own Small Okiebug spinnerbait, has had sales of the SOB zoom. The preferred color for both spinnerbaits is generally chartreuse. Another hot lure is a fat-bellied plug known as the Big-O, which casts like a pork chop and was first carved out of balsa wood by Fred Young, a whittler in Oak Ridge, Tenn. When Larry Hill, an insurance salesman from Winston-Salem, N.C., won the Florida Invitational this year with a final-day string of 10 bass that averaged six pounds apiece on a balsa-wood Big-O, the lure became in such demand that fishermen would rent them from a fortunate owner for $5 a day each, with a $20 deposit, and carry them in egg cartons to keep them from getting scratched. The Big-O and such copies as the Big-N, the Big Jim and Fat Albert are now being manufactured in plastic, but to the purist nothing can match the original balsa-wood Big-O, and Young has a long waiting list of customers.
The serious action started on Wednesday, and at the 4 p.m. weigh-in the leader was Tom Mann, a bait manufacturer from Eufaula, Ala., with 20 pounds nine ounces of largemouth bass, five pounds one ounce ahead of his nearest competitor, Bobby Meador of Baton Rouge. Prodded by Ray Scott, Mann told the crowd of eager spectators at the marina that he had taken the fish on four baits: his own leaded-tail spinner. Little George (named for Governor Wallace); his own plastic Jelly Worm (blackberry and strawberry flavors); a Rebel Humpback plug; and Bill Norman's Little Scooper, a small diving plug. "He has to be tellin' the truth!" Scott exclaimed. "He admits he caught fish on other men's baits!"
Privately, Mann said his pattern had been to fish an area of flooded timber standing in only five or six feet of water. "I'm not after big bass," he said of his fishing strategy. "I just want my limits. If you limit every day, you will win the majority of tournaments." Roland Martin, who caught five fish weighing only seven pounds one ounce the first day and never was a factor after that, had showed up to fish the same area, but since he is allergic to bee stings he had to depart quickly when wasps started coming out of their nests in the dead trees.
One of the interested spectators at the marina was Lee Wulff, the noted salmon and big-game fisherman who was producing a film on the Classic. "If I were young, I would have fitted right into this group," Wulff said. "There is a score, but there was no score when I set out to become the All-American angler. This bass competition has proven how little luck there is in fishing."
On the second day Rayo Breckenridge, a 44-year-old cotton and soybean farmer from Paragould, Ark., took the lead by coming in with 24 pounds 11 ounces of bass to give him a total of 40 pounds one ounce. Breckenridge, who has the seamed face and squint eyes of a Confederate sharpshooter picking off attacking Yankees, spontaneously told the crowd that South Carolinians were the most wonderful people he had ever met anywhere. He also added that he would be forever grateful to Roland Martin for bringing him in when the engine of his boat wouldn't start. Scott said, "I don't think Southern hospitality could be better expressed."
Breckenridge said that he had done all his fishing in a stream. Fishing Creek, that meandered and narrowed back from Clark Hill Lake for five or six miles. On his first day the bass had been there, but he was losing the two- and three-pounders because they were just sort of pecking at his baits. On the second day he had cast to the stumps, "willers," and a few small stands of timber on the outside bend of the creek, and he just happened to pick up the fish using a six-inch strawberry Jelly Worm with a three-sixteenth-ounce slip weight.
In second place with 29 pounds eight ounces was Bill Dance of Memphis. A onetime furniture salesman who had gone on to do a weekly TV show as a result of his early successes on the BASS circuit, Dance has lately played Arnold Palmer to Roland Martin's Jack Nicklaus and, like Palmer, Dance was capable of mounting a last-day charge at Breckenridge. Despite the deficit, Dance did not think he was out of the tournament at all, confiding that he had found bass 29 to 35 feet down over a drowned island between two creek beds.
After a heavy morning fog, the sunny skies held again on Friday, the final day, and the bass pros took off for their honey holes. Dance headed for his island to fish a blue plastic worm. He picked up some good fish—all between 35 and 42 feet deep. Meanwhile, back up the creek, Breckenridge was getting fish on the strawberry Jelly Worm, but not quite as many as he would have liked. He ended the day with seven bass and was fearful of what Dance had done. And when he came back to the marina at four o'clock, he got a scare when he saw Dance's bulging catch bag.
Breckenridge weighed in first and his catch ran his total to 52 pounds eight ounces, a tournament record. There was a stir in the crowd when Dance's bag was brought up to the scales. The catch weighed 19 pounds six ounces for a second-place—and no money—total of 48 pounds 14 ounces. "Super...great effort!" announced Scott, who turned to Dance and said, "Look at your scale and cry." Dance smiled.
Scott had a word for everyone else who came by. Of Martin, who finished in 14th place with 22 pounds nine ounces, he said, "He's got the Classic jinx." For his part, Martin said that he knew where Rayo and Dance had been catching bass, "but I couldn't find a place like it."