Fishing lines: Humble carp start to feel the Midas touch

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The Independent Online
DOZENS OF British carp fishermen could soon be making a fortune from their hobby if the dreams of an American businessman come to fruition. The concept that carp-catching could turn anglers into millionaires seems as far-fetched as aliens making corn circles, but Ray Scott is no ordinary entrepreneur - and he's already done the impossible once.

Until Scott, from Montgomery, Alabama, pitched his tent, bass-fishing in the United States was carried out for food rather than fun. In just two decades, the former insurance salesman turned it into a multi-billion dollar industry. Last week, the Bass Master Classic, an event Scott founded, took place in the Louisiana Superdome before a crowd of nearly 40,000 people. It is estimated that the week-long final had an economic impact of more than $45 million on the area. Small wonder that many see Scott as the godfather of fishing.

He has been likened to P T Barnum, Will Rogers and a Mississippi riverboat gambler. But there's no denying that he's one hell of a salesman. With a mixture of charm, bluff and determination, Scott built an empire. More people go bass fishing in the US than play golf and tennis combined. Some surveys list it, with 31 million participants, as America's No 1 sport.

It all started from what Scott calls "a vision" - the idea that 100 of the best fishermen would pay $100 each to fish against each other to see who was the best. The competition idea was nothing new. There were plenty of $2 "derbies" but they were as honest as an MP's smile. "They were always won by the guy who had the most pounds of fish stored in his freezer," Scott said.

He called himself president and executive director of All-American Bass Tournaments, and set about convincing others. He lived on the phone for a month, cajoling and flattering anglers into entering. It was touch and go. With less than a month left, he had just 35 entries. He needed 65 to break even. A week from the cut-off date, it was up to 90 and though Scott lost $600 on the venture, it made him even more determined. He set up the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (Bass) on a wing and a prayer, selling his camper van, his outboard and his half-share in a boat. But it worked. Membership soared, at one stage jumping from 25,000 to 65,000 in a year.

For many years, Scott ran it all. Along the way, he set up what has been described as the Superbowl of fishing, the Bass Masters Classic, where the winner can now earn more than $1m in a year. At first, 45 competitors boarded a plane without knowing where the final would take place, but logistics made this increasingly difficult.

Scott himself became more and more outrageous. He retained a gourmet chef just to cook for the event. In 1979 he sent a helicopter to pick up a belly dancer, her dresser and a Middle East band to perform for just one night. On another occasion he entered the arena on an elephant.

But it wasn't all pizzazz. Scott pioneered livewells in bass boats and insisted that the fish should be released afterwards. Competitors are now penalised if any of their catch is dead. He demanded life-jackets, ignition kill switches and banned the lethal cavalry-charge start that typified early events. He forced the US Coast Guard to stop dumping thousands of toxic used batteries in lakes. Scott even masterminded George Bush's appointment as vice-president and fished regularly with him. Helped by Bush, he raised more than $1m for his local church from fishing contests. He was even invited to the White House.

In 1986 he sold Bass, but kept working with it until the end of 1998. "I wanted to be free to do other things," he said. One of these is to exploit the US carp scene. They abound in almost every US river and lake, and unlike bass, the fishing can take place from the bank.

Scott is convinced he could do for carp what he did for bass. "Carp have gotten a bad rap in this country, but as a sportfish, it is a real fighter," he said. Most Americans think his idea is ridiculous. Who, after all, would want to fish deliberately for carp? Well, a mere 31 million of the 56 million US anglers fish for bass. Maybe Scott is about to do it all over again.