Fishing Lines: Meet Skeet, a colourful champ who's totally addicted to bass

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The Independent Online

Wanna know what it feels like inside a tornado? Then spend a few hours as a passenger on a competition bass-fishing boat. The driver wants to get everywhere fast. Travel time is wasted fishing time. So they open up that 250hp engine and go – at 70mph or more.

That's fine if you're steering the boat. You have a comfy seat, a little screen to deflect wind and rain and a steering wheel to hang on to.

Not so a passenger. You have zero protection. At those speeds, your face imitates Munch's 'The Scream'. Raindrops feel like airgun pellets. Every bump sends you flying out of your seat, wondering if you're about to meet the bass in their territory. After hours of this, bruised and battered, you feel like you've slid down the Matterhorn on your backside.

Fortunately, the angler who I travelled with, the Bassmaster Elite champion Skeet Reese, took pity on me. One of the many sponsors decorating his boat is Save Phace, who make face masks. These leave you looking like Darth Vader, but the alternative, to have your features redistributed about various parts of your body, is far worse.

Skeet was one of the favourites among the 50 competitors in the three-day Bassmaster Classic final, which has just finished on South Carolina's Lake Hartwell. He didn't win the $500,000 (£250,000) top prize but he still walked off with $14,500, which will at least pay his petrol bill back to Auburn, California.

Competitors have good reason to make the long trip with that sort of money at stake. But why, you wonder, do people travel from all over just to watch this event? I met folk from New Orleans, Minnesota, Galveston and even Seattle. A trade show attracted the largest crowds that the local meeting centre has ever seen (more than 70,000).

At 5am, 2,000 people were waiting just to watch the boats launch. Nearer 20,000 turned up to see the fish weighed. Bass is big money. No wonder the Bassmaster is now owned bythe sports TV network ESPN.

More than 160 men and a few dozen women make their living purely by fishing bass events. The big money does not come from winnings, though Skeet has picked up more than $1.2m. Sponsorship is the magic word. "How much are all these worth to you?" I asked Skeet, glancing at his boat and his logo-infested shirt. "Eight," he said, adding, "Eight hundred thousand."

He's cute as a nursery of otters when it comes to getting fans on his side. So people would notice him, he painted his boat yellow, wore yellow shirts and even yellow shoes. Though tired after fishing for eight hours, he signs hundreds of autographs. He shrugs and says: "They're the people who put food on my table."

These pros are pretty good fishers too, way better than anything I've seen outside the US. They can flick a lure (the only way you're allowed to fish) between mooring ropes, under docks and into the tiniest hole in a weed bed.

That's party-trick stuff, but how do they decide where to fish in a lake with 920 miles of bankside that they are seeing for the first time? "You just sorta know," says Skeet. And that's why his sponsors pay him $800,000 a year.

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