The prospect of fishing in South Carolina has always unnerved me. The reason is not a million miles removed from the story told to me by a professional bass fisherman. He had turned up to take part in a big competition there to find his boat partner wearing a gun.
Seems that in polite bass society, you don't ask: "Er, how come you're packing, partner?" But the chap seemed relatively normal, he knew the lake well, and so the pro took his advice on the hot spots.
These turned out to be right among bankside trees. Though plenty of bass frequented the area, so did cottonmouth snakes. As their boat bumped through the tree branches, the snakesfell out. That's when the pro discovered why his companion was armed. He nonchalantly blasted the snakes writhing at his feet, and continued fishing.
"Scariest day's fishing I've ever had," the pro recalled. "Reckon we got as many snakes as bass."
All of which explains why I had mixed feelings on hearing that I've been accepted as one of the 100 official press men for next month's Bassmaster Classic final, to be held on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina. If it's anything like the last one I attended, the story will write itself.
I was invited to the 1999 event in New Orleans and I've been busting to go back, just to see if it really is as crazy every year. The event is the world's premier fishing competition. The winner picks up $500,000 in cash, but sponsorship, TV tie-ups and endorsement deals are the real prize. Quite literally, winning the Classic turns fishermen into millionaires.
Chances are that if you fish in the United States (and one in seven does) you're after largemouth bass, a feisty, aggressive predator that lives in almost every pond and lake. Out of this has grown a sophisticated competition circuit, centred on the Bassmaster tournaments.
Cities compete to host the final. In New Orleans, daily weighing of fish took place in the Superdrome. It was front-page news for a week in the local daily. On the final day, 50,000 (yep, more than for almost every Premiership match) turned up to watch.
The MC, a television personality, appeared in a cloud of dry ice pouring from the mouth of a 30ft papier-mâché fish. Crazy? The three state governors in the crowd didn't think so.
Five amateurs and 45 pros contest the final. The amateurs, though excellent fishers, have about as much chance as I would in a tennis match against Andy Murray. This is strictly pro territory. For the amateurs, it's a dream – but no more than that. The pros are too good.
If you've reached the Classic (an arduous and expensive journey through leagues and regional qualifiers), you can't fish the final venue for a month beforehand. Many pros got round this in New Orleans by hiring private planes to explore the Mississippi Delta, punching in promising spots into a hand-held GPS. For them, this isn't a game or fun or a week out: it's business.
The circus was to get a whole lot weirder when the actual fishing started. I'll tell you all about that next week. But it's quite likely that poisonous snakes slithering around in the boat won't be the oddest part of South Carolina by a long way.