Skip to main content
Original Issue

Reeling In Dough Thanks to rival tours and big-bucks sponsorships, bass-fishing pros are becoming millionaires in a sport that could turn into the next NASCAR

Back in 1980, Denny Brauer--mason by vocation, bass fisherman by
avocation--announced to his wife, Shirley, that he wanted to
move from their house in Seward, Neb., to a place "where there's
more water," so he could wet his line on a full-time basis.
Deciding that you wanted to make a livable wage as a bass angler
in '80 wasn't quite as risky as deciding that you wanted to make
a livable wage as, say, a marble-shooter, but it was close.
"Let's go," she said. So Denny, Shirley and their eight-year-old
son, Chad, took off for Camdenton, Mo., hard by the Lake of the
Ozarks, and Denny began implementing his plan of catching bass
to feed his family as well as his passion.

Eighteen years later Brauer has a Saturday-morning fishing show,
The Bass Class with Denny Brauer, on ESPN, has made two
instructional videos and has written two instructional books. He
has endorsement deals with so many companies (12, according to
his count) that when he goes out to fish, he looks like ol'
Richard Petty, so festooned is his person with brand-name logos.
Two weeks ago Brauer competed in the 28th B.A.S.S. Masters
Classic against 45 adversaries (including Chad, now 26) who had
qualified through B.A.S.S. elite and regional tours. Passengers
in as many as 50 boats on muddy High Rock Lake near Greensboro,
N.C., trailed Brauer's 20-foot Ranger bass boat, studying his
famed "flippin' and pitchin'" technique, designed to get bass in
shallow water under heavy cover to strike his lure. On Aug. 8,
after Brauer had blown away the competition with a three-day
catch total of 46 pounds, three ounces, a crowd of 17,000 in
Greensboro Coliseum shouted, "You da man!" as he claimed the
$150,000 first prize. By the end of 1998 Brauer will have fished
in 15 tournaments, each of which will have given cash and
merchandise worth at least $100,000 to the winner, and made
between $600,000 and $800,000 in prize money and endorsements
for the year.

Oh, yeah, one other thing: In October the 49-year-old mason from
Nebraska will have his mug on a Wheaties box. "I wasn't a bad
student or a dumb kid or anything like that, but I dropped out
of college after one year," says Brauer. "My brother Larry's a
lawyer. When we're together, he'll look at me every once in a
while, shake his head and say, 'All those years of school, all
those years of school.... '"

It's not news that Brauer and a couple of hundred others are
making money fishing for bass--that's been going on for more
than two decades. What is news is that so many are making so
much. Despite a negligible live gate (those rubbernecking boat
people tailing Brauer didn't pay a cent) and zero
live-television revenue, the sport is attracting enough
corporate sponsorship to make millionaires out of Brauer and a
handful of others and to provide a comfortable living to perhaps
another 300 or 400 pros. Bass angling is getting bigger, in part
because there are two rival tournament-sponsoring entities:
B.A.S.S. (the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society), which holds eight
elite tournaments each year, and Operation Bass, which conducts
seven and which became a major tournament player three years ago
under the bells-and-whistles stewardship of Irwin Jacobs, a
onetime Wall Street raider who was known as Irv the Liquidator
for his talent in buying up and filleting companies.

There are thousands of other fish in the sea (and fresh water),
and a few of them besides bass are painted with dollar signs.
Saltwater fishing offers a billfish (blue marlin, swordfish and
sailfish combined) tournament with a $1.8 million purse. Even
the-river-runs-through-it fly-fishermen have regional
tournaments with a gimmick or two, like a requirement to use
only one fly throughout the event. But there's no viable
saltwater tournament circuit, and fly-cast purses range from
small to nonexistent.

Bass, for a variety of reasons, is the big-bucks boss. It is the
most pervasive sport fish in the U.S., indigenous to the rivers,
lakes, streams and creeks of every state except Alaska. It is a
worthy opponent even for the pro anglers, who extol the bass's
combative, eat-its-own nature ("Bass don't have many family
values," wryly observes Bruce Shupp, B.A.S.S.'s conservation
director) and its, uh, brainpower. Ray Scott, founder of
B.A.S.S., points to a 1961 study in which renowned fish
photographer Elgin Ciampi professed to prove (through an
experiment in which fish were exposed to artificial lures) that
largemouth and smallmouth bass rank one-two in intelligence
among freshwater game fish. "Far as I know, bass didn't get any
dumber since then," says Scott. Even the fly guys acknowledge
the skills required to land a bass the way the pros do. "In
terms of casting ability, analyzing fish behavior, dealing with
variables of different kinds of water, and a lot of other
things," says Tim Linehan, a well-known fly-fisherman and
freshwater guide, "bass fishermen are superior to anyone."

Brauer is superior to most other bass fishermen. During the
six-day practice session four weeks before the Classic, he
painstakingly covered almost every square foot of High Rock
Lake, eliminating from his itinerary spots devoid of fish as
assiduously as he located fertile areas under docks and fallen
brush. Brauer always fishes standing up in the bow of his
Ranger, maneuvering it with the trolling motor, which he
controls using a small foot pedal. In typical tournament
fishing, an angler is allowed to catch as many fish as he can,
but he only keeps the five he thinks are heaviest, which are
weighed at the end of each day. (All fish are released.) The
winner is determined by total weight over three days of fishing
from first light until early afternoon. It's about consistency.
One of the things that separates Brauer from the talented
amateur--and even many of his fellow pros--is his subtle
casting, which enables him to put his lure right where he wants
it almost every time. A Brauer fishing expedition is a study in
time management. He set the tone for the Classic on the first
day when he sped to a spot eight miles up the lake from the
starting point at Abbott's Creek, to a shallow shore littered
with fallen trees, logs and brush. On the final two days, the
spot would yield a rich harvest of bass.

Though tournament fishing is on the rise, not everyone is
enamored of it. While Linehan praises the catch-and-release
programs promulgated by B.A.S.S. and followed also by Operation
Bass's FLW (Forrest L. Wood) Tour, he questions the philosophy
of the big-bucks events. "There becomes a how-many-and-how-big
aspect to the sport, which is not what fishing is supposed to
be," Linehan says.

That's a philosophical point about which Corporate America cares
not a whit. What deep-pocketed heavyweights such as Wal-Mart,
the FLW Tour's titular sponsor, see are consumers batty about
bass. Thirty million Americans fish for bass every year, and,
like golfers, they search relentlessly for an edge in technique
or technology--the lure, say, that will trick those smallmouth
Einsteins lurking below the surface. According to Wayne Goble,
B.A.S.S.'s director of research, the average amateur angler
spends about $200 a month on equipment, which adds up to a $40
billion industry. Further, though it's probably patronizing to
state it, bass fishermen aren't backcountry buffoons who think
Eisenhower is still president. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
statistics show that about half of America's bass fishermen have
college degrees. In the cultlike devotion it inspires, bass
fishing is probably most like NASCAR--in fact, so many bass
fishermen are NASCAR fans that one lure company has come out
with "Dale Earnhardt crankbait" in the shape of his black number
3 car. But, as Brauer says, "a lot more ordinary folk can pick
up a rod and reel than get behind the wheel of a race car."

Brauer and his tournament-fishing brethren owe much of their
good fortune to Scott, a bustling bear of a man who makes every
pronouncement--and he's good for about one pronouncement a
minute--sound like, well, a fish story. He still lives near his
hometown of Montgomery, Ala., right on President's Lake, the
55-acre bass hole he built himself 13 years ago. "Twenty feet
from my bedroom door," says the 64-year-old Scott, "is some of
the best bass fishing in the world." That happens to be true.
Some of the B.A.S.S. folk would love an invitation ("See if you
can get me one," says Shupp), but Scott's guests are more likely
to be men like George Bush and Chuck Yeager, close friends both.

When Scott was in third grade, his mother was happy when he had
increasing praise for her sandwich-making as the year went on.
One brown-bag peanut-butter-and-jelly became three, which became
five, which became 10. When his mother went in for a conference,
the teacher told her that young Ray was a popular but
indifferent student who talked too much. "On the other hand, his
sandwich business is going well," said the teacher.

Later, as a junior-high student, Scott did such a good job of
persuading local merchants to sponsor his YMCA football team
that his teammates acceded to his demand to play quarterback.
That forced a youngster with slightly better signal-calling
potential, a fellow by the name of Bart Starr, to settle for
guard. "Maybe not my best personnel decision," says Scott.

One stormy March day in 1967, Scott was relaxing in his Ramada
Inn room in Jackson, Miss., where he had gone for some bass
fishing, when he had a vision. "In a microsecond I saw it all,"
says Scott. "I saw the lake I had just gotten blown off. I saw a
hundred bass fishermen competing, tournament-style. It just came
to me. I knew it would work."

Within weeks Scott had lined up financing and sent out
invitations requesting the presence of competitive anglers
willing to cough up a $100 entry fee for the First All-American
Bass Tournament. One hundred and six anglers, the "hard-nosed,
hairy-legged bass fishermen" who Scott says he knew were out
there, showed up at Beaver Lake in Arkansas for what is believed
to have been the first pro bass-fishing tournament. Scott paid
$2,000 to the winner, Stan Sloan from Nashville, and proclaimed
it a rousing success. A few months later he formed B.A.S.S. and
began creating a cottage industry out of bass fishing and a
phenomenon out of Ray Scott. "When I came down the road, people
got out of my way," says Scott, "and the ones who didn't handed
me money."

The pioneers of tournament bass fishing, men like Bill Dance,
Roland Martin and Jimmy Houston (the latter being the pudgy,
cackling blond from Cookson, Okla., who, during his weekly
half-hour show on ESPN, Jimmy Houston Outdoors, says ad nauseam,
"That's a na-a-ahce feesh") owe much of their celebrity to Scott
and the organization he founded. When in 1995 Field & Stream
listed its choices for the 20 most influential people in outdoor
sports during the previous 100 years, the names included Teddy
Roosevelt, Rachel Carson and Ray Scott.

Scott sold B.A.S.S. in 1986 for $15 million but stayed on as its
president until early this month, when a dispute over his
contract with B.A.S.S.'s current CEO, Helen Sevier, resulted in
Scott's termination. For the first time since he organized the
Classic in '71, Scott wasn't onstage, larger than life in his
white cowboy hat, emceeing at the weigh-in. A few cries of
"Where's Ray?" could be heard in the coliseum as a quartet of
emcees tried--and failed--to generate the enthusiasm of one
great Scott. "Guess it takes four people to replace me," Scott
said with a chuckle after the tournament. Though his ego could
fill a good-sized bass lake (without a trace of irony he says
things like "I'm a fisher of men" and "The word synchronicity is
laced through my whole fiber"), Scott is B.A.S.S. to many
sponsors and fans, and the organization's hierarchy is making a
big mistake if it doesn't bring him back.

The man who upped the ante in tournament bass fishing, however,
is definitely Jacobs, 57, the multimillionaire CEO of Genmar
Holdings Inc., the world's largest privately owned pleasure-boat
manufacturer. Three years ago Jacobs, who was the majority owner
of the Minnesota Vikings from 1984 to '92, launched the FLW
Tour, named for bass-boat pioneer Wood. The next year Jacobs
cajoled Wal-Mart into coming aboard. Mr. Weekend Angler has to
spend his $200 a month on rods, reels, tackle boxes and lures
somewhere, and Lee Scott, Wal-Mart's president, figured it might
as well be at his store. Other big-name sponsors of the FLW Tour
include Chevrolet, Coca-Cola and Wheaties, which explains how
Brauer, by virtue of winning the 1998 FLW points championship,
is joining the Michael Jordan-Bob Richards club.

By and large, FLW's made-for-TV stops (the tournaments are taped
for later telecast) pay higher prize money than do B.A.S.S.
events and have a glitzier feel. FLW announcers broadcasting
from Wal-Mart parking lots talk live to fishermen in their
boats, and weigh-ins at 1999 tour stops are scheduled to be
aired live in Wal-Mart's 2,500 retail outlets. (Attention
shoppers: Back-to-school specials available on aisle 9, and
Skeet Reese has caught a five-pound largemouth!) Jacobs is
already carny-barking the unprecedented riches to be paid in the
FLW Ranger Millennium tournament scheduled for November '99: a
$3.5 million purse with a $1 million first-place prize. Any
angler, rank amateur or seasoned pro, can go after that money,
provided that he or she competes in a Ranger boat, a stipulation
that subverts Jacobs's proclamation that "the Millennium is the
Super Bowl of bass fishing."

Though the comparison would probably turn his proud mane of hair
even grayer, the Minnesota-born Jacobs is rather a North Country
version of Scott. Both are physically imposing men of enormous
competitiveness and self-confidence. Jacobs, too, is fond of
pronouncements. Such as: "When Wal-Mart got involved with us, it
was the biggest decision of that kind in the history of sports."
Or: "Within a few years our tour will put bass fishing on the
front page of every sports section in the country." You tend to
write off half of what he says as the ravings of a corporate
cheerleader, but even his detractors admit that everything
Jacobs has touched--including his father's junk business, in
which he got his start--has turned to gold.

B.A.S.S.'s hierarchy, not surprisingly, views Jacobs with a
mixture of fear and loathing. "I know how they see me," says
Jacobs, "as some guy out of the 1980s who's just in it for the
money. Well, they're wrong." Jacobs is no bass-on-the-brain
aficionado like Scott, but he is a longtime fisherman who is
knowledgeable about the sport. Nevertheless, Genmar exists to
sell boats--in a delicious bit of corporate cross-fertilization,
Ranger Boats, the flagship brand of Jacobs's company, is one of
the major sponsors of the B.A.S.S. tour--so Jacobs cannot
separate his czarship of the Wal-Mart FLW Tour from the purely
commercial. Some veterans believe that Jacobs, for all the prize
money he has brought into the sport, will not be good for the
pro angler in the long run. "He doesn't care anything about us,"
complains Martin, who has hosted a TV fishing show on various
networks for 25 years. "The average Joe Lunchbucket fisherman,
the guy who's going to buy one of his Ranger boats, is just as
important to him."

Right now the two organizations have a tenuous coexistence.
Neither B.A.S.S. nor FLW has attempted to pressure anglers into
signing exclusive contracts. B.A.S.S. says that, with 600,000
members (that's one of every 400 Americans), it's primarily a
conservation and advocacy group and has no reason to care much
about Operation Bass, far less feud with it. Jacobs says, a lot
more coyly, that he sees no reason the tours can't coexist (and
they maintain an unwritten policy of accommodating each other on
tournament dates). But the idea that there won't be a
head-butting somewhere downriver is naive.

Still, Brauer, for one, hopes it doesn't happen. Standing on the
docks at High Rock Lake, wearing an Evinrude cap and a cotton
shirt bearing the logos of, among others, Plano tackle boxes,
Mustad hooks, Daiwa rods and reels and Bo Hawg Pork Lures, he
knows the two-tour system has helped turn that risky decision he
made 18 years ago into a dream come true. "I just hope the two
tours don't get into a war," says Brauer. "Right now, with the
environment the way it is, is the best time in history for the
pro bass angler. Believe me, not a day goes by that Shirley and I
don't pinch ourselves.

"Retirement? Well, that's a lot of years off. There's no reason a
man who stays on top of this game can't be doing it for a long
time. Anyway, I know what I'm going to be doing when I retire.
I'm goin' fishing. So I might as well do it for money."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Reeling in Dough Thanks to rival tours and big-bucks sponsorships, bass-fishing professionals like Denny Brauer (left) are becoming millionaires by Jack McCallum [Denny Brauer's face seen through fish bowl--T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE Off the scale Brauer wowed the Classic crowd with his winning catch. [Denny Brauer holding up bass]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE [Wheaties cereal box featuring Denny Brauer]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE New day dawns Brauer's cereal celebrity and the armadas of aficionados (at High Rock Lake for the B.A.S.S. Masters) have Jacobs casting about for a Super Bowl-like event. [Fishermen on boats]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE [See caption above--Irwin Jacobs fishing]

PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE Scott (above) is bass fishing to many. B.A.S.S. is making a big mistake if it doesn't bring him back. [Ray Scott kissing bass]

"Our tour will put bass fishing on the front page of every
sports section," says Jacobs.