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The DC-8 took off from the New Orleans airport shortly after 11 o'clock Monday morning, and only one of the passengers knew where the plane was going. That passenger was Ray Scott, president of BASS, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, who was taking the 26 top pro fishermen in the U.S. and their wives and 40 outdoors writers to a mystery lake somewhere in the world. Upon arrival at the lake, the 26 fishermen were to get one practice day before three days of competition to see who could catch the most pounds of bass for the winner-take-all cash prize of $15,000 in the Miller High Life BASS Masters Classic.
Earlier Scott, with his love for drama, had said that he would announce the name of the mystery lake when the jet reached an altitude of 10,000 feet. But he remained silent as the plane ascended higher and higher until it reached its crusing altitude of 33,000 feet. Excitedly, fishermen and sportswriters peered out the windows at the landscape below in an effort to figure out at least which way the plane was bound. As Mobile Bay appeared below, northern Florida became the subject of speculation, and there was one wild guess at Puerto Rico. Fishermen never know with Scott. When the mystery lake event first started two years ago, Scott flew the contestants from Atlanta to Lake Mead outside Las Vegas, and last year, just as the NO SMOKING light flicked off upon the departure from Memphis, Scott announced the mystery lake was J. Percy Priest Reservoir near Nashville, and with that the NO SMOKING sign lit up and the plane came down to land.
Last week, however, Scott was not at all in character, and he continued to stay mum as the chartered Delta jet, booked in the name of the Golden Age Garden Club, turned away from the Gulf Coast and headed in a northeast direction. Haze and clouds obscured the ground for the next hour of flight, but then as the stewardesses prepared to serve lunch, the plane began to descend. No cities appeared below, just mile after mile of piney woods and a brief glimpse of an interstate highway. "Any of you folks know where we are?" Scott asked over a bullhorn. No one did, and when the jet was only 2,000 feet above the ground, he invited everyone to take a look at the mystery water below. It was Clark Hill Lake, with its 1,200 miles of shoreline, which lies on the South Carolina-Georgia line. As the jet circled the 70,000-acre lake prior to landing at Augusta, 50 miles southeast, Scott pointed out the newly opened lodge at Hickory Knob State Resort Park on the Carolina side of the lake. At the same time down below, the staff at the lodge was learning the true identity of their guests; they had been expecting a convention from Mutual of Omaha.
In the U.S. the freshwater black bass—largemouth, smallmouth or spotted—is the most popular game fish of all. There are literally millions of bass fishermen, particularly in Dixie where big largemouths are lovingly known as "hawgs." Scott, who began hawking memberships in BASS in 1967 out of a cubbyhole office in Montgomery, Ala., now has more than 135,000 members who pay $10-a-year dues. Fishermen get a subscription to Bassmaster, the bimonthly magazine, discounts on tackle and life insurance and, most important of all, the right to enter the pro tournament circuit, which in some areas ranks with stock-car racing in esteem. Last year 500 fishermen competed on the BASS circuit in closely policed tournaments, such as the Rebel Invitational and the Seminole Lunker. Although a number of contestants did not stand a chance of winning, they gladly paid the stiff entry fees with the idea of learning all they could by fishing in the same boat with a standout pro. It is also quite an honor for a BASS member to go back home and say he has fished with, say, Billy Westmorland of Celina, Tenn., probably the best smallmouth man in the whole country.
Tournament scoring is based on the weight of the bass caught, and the limit is 10 fish a day. No bass smaller than 12 inches may be taken, and all fish are kept in a live well for later release. A contestant gets a one-ounce bonus for each live bass, and in a close tournament a dead fish can mean losing.
The idea of the mystery lake Classic was the brainchild of Scott and Bob Cobb, the editor of Bassmaster. Scott, who often likens the BASS tournament circuit to the PGA golf tour, wanted an equivalent of the Masters, and he and Cobb decided that if they took the top point scorers for the year and suddenly "parachuted them onto a strange lake with only one day's practice instead of three, you'll find out who is the best bass fisherman in the world."
The fishermen set off for their Clark Hill practice round at eight o'clock Tuesday morning after Scott said a prayer and fired a flare gun at the starting line. All embarked in 16-foot Ranger bass boats powered by 85-horse Johnson outboards and identically equipped with depth finders, trolling motors, surface temperature meters, oxygen monitors, electric anchors, aerator systems for the live well, twin 95-amp super-marine batteries and 1,200-gallon-per-hour bilge pumps. The boats had been trucked to Clark Hill Lake by night from Flippin, Ark., with the drivers getting en route marching orders by phone at prearranged stops to ensure secrecy.
Instead of being paired with one another as in a usual tournament, each pro was accompanied by a member of the press who sometimes fished but mostly watched. "Throwing a line in the water a pro has worked is like fishing behind a vacuum cleaner," said Keith Gardner of Fishing World. The pretournament favorite by a big margin was Roland Martin, a 33-year-old promotion and product-development specialist for Lowrance Electronics in Tulsa and the alltime BASS money winner with career earnings of $36,235.20. A former teacher and ex-guide on the Santee-Cooper reservoirs in South Carolina, Martin will stay up to three in the morning examining the topographical map of a lake to pinpoint shallow or deepwater "structure" that should attract or hold bass. Structure can mean anything from a lone rock on a sandbar to a hump in deep water or the bend in a submerged creek bed in a dammed-up lake. Structure is so important for bass that a number of local enthusiasts in the South have taken to creating their own by chain-sawing trees along the banks of a lake. "Those trees will concentrate fish within a week," says Bob Cobb. "What they say is best is a live oak cut with green leaves still on it. It'll hold its foliage longer than other trees. Or you can drag out a tree behind a boat, anchor it in deep water and create a 'honey hole.' "
Martin had yet to win a Classic. As Cobb explained, "It takes Roland just a little longer to get organized with only one day of practice instead of the usual three. He's like a computer; he has to have all the data fed into his head to take advantage of his exceptional abilities. I'm flat convinced he's the finest bass fisherman around, but he's not a gambler and relies on a scientific system of elimination to get the pattern on bass."
Pattern is another important term in bass fishing. It is the key to winning any tournament, and all the fishermen on the practice round sought out the best pattern: the probable whereabouts of concentrations of bass at a given time. Pattern takes in structure; what depth the bass are; cover (brush, flooded timber, riprap on a drowned road crossing); bait fish (Clark Hill had schools of moving threadfin shad); oxygen level (a brand new factor in bass fishing); water clarity (the lake was stained an off-green from algae with visibility six feet at best); temperature; the type of lure or "bait"; lure color and lure presentation.