Living LARGE(MOUTH)

Professional bass fishing, it turns out, is NASCAR on water -- a rolling, roaring billboard for products competing in a rich marketplace. But, being a bass pro isn't all fame and money...

Field & Stream Online Editors

Friday morning, and the businessman in the lobby of the French Quarter hotel in New Orleans has a life that reflects the hard-charging attitude of the new century: A six-figure income. A New York publicist. Book deal. Two TV shows. And a very busy schedule: Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana in the last 36 hours. Newspaper interview this morning; two TV stations this afternoon. Flight out tonight. Book signing tomorrow. Then...let's see, is it on to Utah or Nevada, or does he meet the family for the afternoon in a hotel room in Atlanta? He is -- what else? -- a professional bass angler.

And if he's lucky, he might get to fish this week.

"This business is about selling, and we're just glorified salesmen," says Shaw Grigsby, one of the all-time money winners on the pro bass circuit. "Our job is to move product. If we don't do that, we're out of business -- the tours are out of business.

"Today, I'd say I spend less than 30 percent of my time on the water -- and it's like that for most of the top fishermen."

What about the good ol' boy in a pickup truck, a mountain of chew in his cheek, spit cup in hand, Southern accent dripping with grits? Where's the guy from the Saturday morning TV shows, the funster with the gut drooping over a dessert-plate-sized silver belt buckle, tossing lures through a brilliant sunrise on a reservoir where every fish landed is a "gooood fish," every scene is "the prettiest thang you ever seen" -- and all of it is washed down with a soothing swallow of country western music?

"If it was only like that," Grigsby sighs. "That's the world we love. But the more successful you become, the less you fish. The business is off the water."

Any Which Way You Can Market
Professional bass fishing, it turns out, is NASCAR on water -- a rolling, roaring biboard for products competing in a rich marketplace. America's 60 million anglers spend $40 billion per year on bass fishing alone. Like auto racers, anglers wear uniforms encrusted with sponsor logos. Like the red-hot stock-car circuit, sponsorships are tied directly to the increasingly interconnected web of mass media merchandising: TV shows, magazines, books, videos, Internet sites, retailing, clinics, trade shows.

Like a majority of pro sports stars today, the top names on the bass tour make more money shilling for products than they do competing. That's where the money is, so that's where most of their attention goes. Fishing may have been the engine that started the tour, but today it's just along for the ride.

And the waters can be rough.

The men you see fishing in the tournaments, or casting on your TV screen, typically have itineraries that are more Manhattan than Mayberry. And while a dozen might have earnings well into six figures, the vast majority are rolling the dice chasing a dream that doesn't exist. The only thing most of them win is a life of road trips to outdoors shows and dealer promotions -- and debt.

"When you get past the top 12, the second echelon -- the vast majority of guys on the tours -- win about $15,000 a year at best," says Tim Tucker, author of Diary of a Bass Pro and a reporter who has covered the pro tours for almost 30 years.

"Their expenses run about $36,000 a year in entry fees and travel, not counting gear. They make up the shortfall by running all over the country for one- or two-night promotions for sponsors, and living on plastic.

"A lot of the guys -- especially the younger ones -- are living and dying on credit cards. I remember a guy who won a $100,000 first-place paycheck after two years of trying, and he said $60,000 of it was going to his credit cards.

"It's not a very romantic life. It's a hard business, even for the guys at the top. Those guys work 80 hours a week. Their schedules are killers."

Just ask Kevin VanDam, the Michigan bass angler who rocketed to fame in the '90s with a string of victories.

"I worked at my brother's marine dealership before I became a professional fisherman, and seeing the pros coming in for promotions always looked pretty glamorous and exciting to me," VanDam says. "But living it is a different story. Being away from home, living in hotel rooms for four weeks at a time, is common.

"Don't get me wrong; I'm not whining. But the travel and the scheduling take the glamour out of it, believe me."

Pros like Grigsby and VanDam are careful to praise their blessings. "Hey, we know we're living lives most guys would give an arm and a leg to have a shot at," VanDam says. "And when we're finally out on the water, it's just heaven. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

"But I'm not sure the average guy understands what this is all about. They don't see the business side."

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Georgia
Once established at the top, many pros find themselves swamped by unrelenting going to his credit cards.

"It's not a very romantic life. It's a hard business, even for the guys at the top. Those guys work 80 hours a week. Their schedules are killers."

Just ask Kevin VanDam, the Michigan bass angler who rocketed to fame in the '90s with a string of victories.

"I worked at my brother's marine dealership before I became a professional fisherman, and seeing the pros coming in for promotions always looked pretty glamorous and exciting to me," VanDam says. "But living it is a different story. Being away from home, living in hotel rooms for four weeks at a time, is common.

"Don't get me wrong; I'm not whining. But the travel and the scheduling take the glamour out of it, believe me."

Pros like Grigsby and VanDam are careful to praise their blessings. "Hey, we know we're living lives most guys would give an arm and a leg to have a shot at," VanDam says. "And when we're finally out on the water, it's just heaven. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

"But I'm not sure the average guy understands what this is all about. They don't see the business side."

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Georgia
Once established at the top, many pros find themselves swamped by unrelenting