Contenders in the Bassmaster Classic, frequently referred to as the Super Bowl of fishing, have many things to fear during the annual three-day tournament: a fish slipping the hook, a bass dying before the weigh-in (dead specimens draw a four-ounce penalty), the dreaded “goose,” as in a goose egg — catching no fish at all. But competitors in the tournament 21 years ago faced novel terrors: kids lining up on the shore to zing rocks at their heads, deafening noises from a waterfront metal-scrapping operation, container ships bearing down on them, and a persistent fear of boat-jacking. With, however, consolations: “You can say what you want about different places,” Kevin VanDam, one of the sport’s superstars enthused afterward, “but the best pizza there is is in Chicago.”
Pro fishing is a sport followed mostly in the South, but in 2000, its biggest event came here. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Tribune outdoors columnist John Husar, and city officials had worked diligently for years to recruit the Bassmaster Classic as a showcase for the ecological comeback of Lake Michigan in the decades following the 1972 Clean Water Act. For its part, the Alabama-based Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or BASS, the for-profit organizing body of the then–$60 billion industry (it’s worth $129 billion now), saw a once-in-a generation opportunity to grow their sport above the Mason-Dixon Line, much as NASCAR had during the 1990s.
Local media provided blanket coverage in the weeks leading up to opening day, July 20. The dominant tone was defensive: Dagnabbit, Lake Michigan has bass! A professional angler from suburban Alsip, George Liddle Sr., made the rounds of news outlets, boasting to one, “This is going to be a top-notch fishery, probably third or fourth in the northern part of the country.” BASS’s CEO, Helen Sevier, trumpeted, “I don’t think most people think you can go fishing in big cities. But the availability may be right under their noses.”
Tournament fishermen keep score by weight: Their five biggest catches — sometimes out of dozens — are totted up at the end of each day; the angler notching the most pounds after three days wins. Chicago’s boosters promised her waters would yield four- or five-pounders in profusion (to put that in perspective, the world record is over 22 pounds), but by June, when contenders were invited to town for a week of practice, expectations were beginning to deflate. One angler, after an 11-hour day that yielded only four bass, none bigger than a pound and a half, declaimed, “These fish are so small they don’t even know they’re fish yet.”
Game day arrived, and competitors took to the “playing field,” as fishing tournament announcers like to put it, which covered the entire Illinois portion of Lake Michigan and considerable stretches of the rivers, creeks, and canals connecting to it. Emcee Fish Fishburne — he’d legally changed his name from Claude — boomed into the ESPN microphone: “When the Bassmaster decided to come to Chicago, what was the overall feeling? Well, let me tell you: Chicago is a fantastic city to host this year’s classic! However, Lake Michigan: Does it have fish in it? That was the number one question that the competitors were asking!”
Eight hours later, at the first day’s weigh-in, came the answer: sort of.
A Bassmaster weigh-in is one of the strangest rituals in sport. Think beauty pageant contestants sashaying across the stage one by one, only it’s pickup trucks towing $100,000 bass boats tricked out with twin-screen sonar fish finders, the boats’ occupants emerging to present a bag of fish to the weigh master after pulling out one or two prized “big ’uns” to brandish before a delirious throng of onlookers.
“Throng” may be too strong a word for the paltry 1,000 spectators who showed up at Soldier Field that first day to see leader Carl Maxfield of Summerville, South Carolina, pull only 10 pounds’ worth of palpitating piscine flesh out of his bag. He’d had to motor clear up to the Wisconsin border to find the spot that yielded even that disappointing catch.
The next day, Maxfield tried to return to the same waters, but things turned hairy. After 80 minutes, he’d made it only as far as Wilmette, a run that typically takes 20 minutes. Swells that day were topping six feet out on the open water, the preferred habitat of smallmouth bass. “Feels like we’re on the SS Minnow,” complained one angler, likely accustomed to the more placid waters of, say, the Arkansas River or the Louisiana bayou.
The Windy City would live up to its name — a circumstance not lost on commentators — for the remaining two days of the tournament. Which brings us to the fiasco of the auto-inflating life vests. They were a new innovation that year, and a hot item at the accompanying outdoors show at McCormick Place: Slender and unobtrusive, they were designed to inflate instantly after five seconds of submersion. At least that was the idea. Instead, like the Wicked Witch of the West in reverse, the things kept inflating — chawnk! — around fishermen’s necks every time a wave enveloped them in spray. Tournament favorite Shaw Grigsby described the jarring experience poetically: “The hands of God just reach out and snatch you by the chest!”
So on days 2 and 3, most anglers settled for the calmer riverine tributaries in search of the wilier largemouth. Which was why commuters bustling over the Michigan Avenue Bridge would have spied good ol’ boys in elaborate jerseys splattered with logo patches, if those commuters had bothered to look down, which most did not.
Largemouth bass prefer “structure,” a word that usually refers to submerged tree trunks and wooden docks, not the deep-sixed automobile carcasses and industrial debris that competitors had to navigate farther south, along the factory-lined waterways of the Calumet River system. “It’s not the bucolic kind of fishing they learned in small towns,” the Trib’s Husar delicately put it. Meaning: That was where the kids were chucking the rocks, and where the abandoned buildings were, and the cargo ships, and the scrap-metal cranes.
Also, in the estimation of one angler: “It was the smelliest place to fish.”
The city’s marinas supply plenty of structure, and the competitors could have plied them — if not for the elaborate restrictions. “I’ve got a book with off-limits areas,” one of them, um, carped. “I can’t throw at a dock? Docks are where bass live!” The pros took particular offense at the imprecation that their treble hooks might scratch a yacht. Did the people in charge in this strange city not understand that a true bassmaster could flick a mosquito off a jogger on the Lakefront Trail without the jogger being any the wiser?
It had been, after all, a dominant theme in the coverage introducing the sport to Chicagoans: These anglers were athletes. As, in fact, they are: You can’t watch a Bassmaster broadcast without marveling at the balletic grace of these guys dancing around the perimeter of the boat (while avoiding the onboard cameraman), following the path of the fish after a bite. The reason they do that, rather than just standing in place and cranking, is that they use as light a line as possible so the fish can’t see it, meaning the line can easily break unless they put as little pressure on it as possible, patiently tiring the beast as they gently guide it boatside, at which point they frequently pluck it out with their hand. “People have preconceived notions that it’s all about Bubbas and chewing tobacco and drinking beer,” one young star insisted. “It’s not about that.”
Light line proved challenging in Chicago, because zebra mussels — invasive mollusk accidentally introduced to the Great Lakes — acted like saw blades on anything less than 25-pound test. As it happened, the only guy to manage the challenge was not a slender, athletic, competitively cutthroat Adonis of the sort featured in all the articles in the local prints, but a stout, happy-go-lucky 54-year-old competing in his 15th Bassmaster whose first name was not Bubba, it’s true, but Woo. Hour after hour, Woo Daves had been patiently casting exquisitely delicate six-pound line into a single tiny underwater channel no more than a foot wide adjacent to a concrete breakwater in the shadow of downtown, balancing against the swells like a rodeo bull rider to do it, eking out victory at the final day’s weigh-in over a charismatic favorite with his own fishing TV show. In front of — not bad — 15,000 fans.
A happy ending — which in the two decades since has grown happier still: Even if it didn’t quite happen when the cameras were rolling and the pressure was on, anglers these days regularly pull five-pound smallmouth out of Lake Michigan. And they don’t even have to brave rock-throwing kids to do it.