Fishing: A million-dollar bass - that's the reel thing

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE HOOKING a fish worth $1 million. Stretch your imagination a little further and suppose, just as you are about to haul in your passport to fame and fortune, that it falls off. I mean, what would you say? "Gosh, that was unlucky," or "Bother", or "Well, that's fishing" - or maybe something just a little stronger?

This sort of thing could only happen in America, or more specifically, given the amount of money involved, at the Bass Masters Classic. Welcome to big business, fishing style. In fact, if bass fishing were a business (and to some extent it is), it would rank 27th on the Fortune 500 list of top sales producers, surpassing companies such as Coca-Cola and Dow Chemical. Of 56 million people who buy fishing licences in the US, more than 31 million are after the freshwater bass in its various guises - smallmouth, largemouth, Kentucky and spotted.

Human nature being what it is, if you put two people in a boat, it won't be long before one says: "I bet a dollar I can catch more, bigger or smarter bass than you." Soon the gamble wasn't just a dollar. This year, the Bassmaster tournament trail, a series of competitions leading to the Classic, is worth an estimated $6m. But this is small beer compared with the value of bass fishing itself. It's hard to value such things, but the prevailing figure is about $46bn. This includes things like outboard engines, of which 80 per cent are sold to fishermen.

The Classic (which is the reason I'm in New Orleans) is the dream ticket for 700 registered professionals, hundreds of others scratching to get on to the pro circuit and a mass of hopeful amateurs. Only 45 anglers make it each year, and it's not just the week-long holiday for husband and wife (or girlfriend), nor even the $100,000 first prize that's the attraction.

The bible for bass fishermen, Bassmaster magazine (circulation, 600,000), reports: "History has proved that a Classic victory adds up to nearly $1m in sponsorships and speaking engagements alone. Victory can make an angler an all-star and provide his family with financial stability."

Previous winners estimate they can make that amount in a year if they exploit victory to the full. But longer term, it is worth considerably more than that. Just because you won the event in 1994 doesn't mean you don't get invited to the parties next year. And the one after. Those speaking engagements keep on coming, the sponsors still want you to show off their name (and some here have so many, you can't tell what colour the shirt is).

A million dollars. Say it slow. For going fishing. Of course, it's not that simple. You can't just turn up, cast out a bait and hope. Many competitors, in preparation for this event, hired planes with their own portable Global Positioning Systems to highlight potential hotspots. The Louisiana Delta covers hundreds of miles of water and even in the boats used for the competition, which can travel at more than 70 mph, it's impossible to cover more than a tiny part of the Mississippi basin.

And however well you fish, luck can sometimes grab you by the testicles and squeeze hard. In 1995, Mark Hardin would have won except for an outrageous stroke of luck for Mark Davis, who recalls: "I had a four-pounder and a two-pounder on the same lure at the same time, and I had no way of landing them both as we are not allowed to use nets. I've been in that situation before where I tried to get hold of both of them, and ended up losing both fish."

He decided to swing all 6lb of fish into the boat. In such circumstances, you might be very lucky and get one, but it's invariably the smaller one - except in Davis's case. "When I tried to swing them in, both came flying off. The little one hit the gunwale and fell back into the lake. The big one fell into the bottom of the boat." He won the event by less than 2lb. Hardin has never been heard of since.

Davy Hite has a similar story. "I tried to swing in a little fish, a bit more than 1lb, in 1996. It fell off and I didn't think any more of it. But I finished second, by just 14oz. That fish probably cost me $1m." Ouch.

Still, things will surely work out for Hite, who has qualified again. After all, he comes from Prosperity, South Carolina.