Fishing Lines: Thinking like a fish is the Classic way to bag boatloads of bass

The Mississippi Delta, 5am. It's already hot and steamy. Normal people will still enjoy a few hours' sleep before they even think of stirring. But down at the waterside, a crowd chatters excitedly. Any minute now, a procession of MPVs towing sleek boats with a monstrous engine on the stern will appear. These people, more than 2,000 of them, cheer as each one arrives.

A loudspeaker on the quayside acclaims each driver. It even announces the passengers, press men from all over the US. And me. The crowd, a good-natured bunch, give us a cheer too.

"Here's Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's amassed more than $2.5 million in bass career earnings, scored three Angler of the Year titles and two Bassmaster Classic wins. He's travelling with Keith Elliott, from the Independent on Sunday in old England." Kevin waves. Like a film star, I give them a wave too. Callow, or what?

This year's Classic takes place on the 56,000-acre Lake Hartwell in Greenville, South Carolina, next month. I'm going because I still can't quite believe what I saw in New Orleans in 2001. Did 50,000 really turn up to watch those guys weigh fish?

But no other angling event comes anywhere near. It's not just the $500,000 top prize, the fact that most of the 50 competitors make their living from fishing, or that people will get up in the middle of the night to watch a man lower his boat into a lake. Everything about the Classic is larger than life.

Ah, those boats. So huge is bass fishing that manufacturers compete to offer their model as the "official" boat of the Classic. It's a small price to pay.'Bassmaster' magazine alone has a readership of more than 600,000. Most own a boat.

Bass boats are water rockets. They travel faster than you can legally drive on American roads, thanks to a 300hp motor on the back. Sounds fun, but at more than 80mph, hitting a log (or maybe an alligator) can have disastrous consequences. Several competitors wear crash helmets when driving. As a passenger, you just cling on.

The aim is to catch five largemouth bass each day. They are kept in a live well, and as a larger one is caught, the smallest one is returned. Fishing is only allowed with artificial lures. Competitors carry hundreds, believing the difference between a chartreuse and a green version can make all the difference.

It's easy to mock, but those who reach this final are extra-ordinary fishermen. It's said you need to think like a fish to be a successful angler. Every one of the 50 finalists here speaks Bass fluently. They can flick a lure into a space no bigger than a tennis ball at 20 yards without looking. I counted one angler cast 15 times in a minute. This isn't fishing for pleasure; it's darn hard work.

I even watched another catch nine bass without getting his lure wet. He flicked an artificial lizard on a lily pad, twitched it, and the bass (largemouth bass are pretty aggressive) came crashing out of the water to take the bait.

The Super Bowl may draw more viewers, but the Classic still does pretty well – the ESPN channel will devote 13 hours to the three-day event, plus nearly five hours beforehand. Almost 300 journalists will be covering it. Watch out for me. I'll be the one without the baseball cap.