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BASS Masters boasts lure of competition

"You can't cheat a bass onto a hook."

Chris Elliott and Brent Chapman, two of the younger competitors in this year's "Super Bowl of bass fishing," stood outside the Louisiana Superdome in the darkness and discussed strategy.

"You going to run far?" Chapman asked.

"Don't think so," Elliott responded. "I want to put some fish in the boat before it gets too hot."

Fish or fly? That was the question on everybody's mind.

The 45 anglers gathered in a parking lot beside 45 identical $40,000 bass boats knew they had the power and fuel to run hundreds of miles across the Louisiana delta.

"But you can run for hours and then find out somebody caught the tournament-winning bass right around the corner from the boat ramp," Elliott said. "Then again, if you run, you might find a spot that nobody's fished."

The stakes were high. First place in the 29th Annual BASS Masters Classic was worth $100,000, another $1-million in endorsements and the love and adoration from hundreds of thousands of bass-fishing fans.

"This is it," Chapman said. "This is what we all worked so hard for."

A 28-year-old professional fisherman, Chapman said martial arts help him stay in shape on the grueling tournament trail.

"Physical conditioning is key," he said. "If you don't stay in shape, you won't last."

The typical four-day tournament really means seven days fishing _ three of practice and four of competition. Contend-ers stand in a bass boat, often balancing on one leg while controlling the trolling motor pedal with the other, and cast and reel 1,500 times in an average eight-hour day.

"It wears you out," said Elliott, a 23-year-old college student from Raleigh, N.C., who worked his way up through the local tournament trail and qualified as an amateur for the most prestigious event in freshwater fishing. "But that is what you've got to do if you want to win."

Only the world's best anglers are invited to the Classic, where the entry fees and expenses are picked up by the 600,000-member Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) and its industry sponsors.

Twenty thousand fans from around the country crowded into the Superdome last weekend to watch Chapman, Elliot and big bass guns such as Denny Brauer, Larry Nixon and Rick Clunn weigh in their catch three afternoons in a row.

Here is how it works:

Competitors fish three eight-hour days, at the end of which they can weigh five fish. The fish must be at least 12 inches long and alive when they are brought to the weigh-in. Dead fish result in a 4-ounce penalty. After the fish are weighed, they are released. The angler with the highest cumulative weight at the end off the tournament wins.

The field consists of 45 anglers (40 pros and five amateurs who qualified on the BASS Masters Invitational Tournament Trail) with each contestant guaranteed $4,000 simply for showing up.

Each angler is paired with an observer, usually a member of the media, in identical bass boats provided by the tournament. They can fish with artificial baits only and have literally thousands of square miles of lakes and canals from which to choose. All it takes is stumbling across one hot spot to turn a loser into a winner.

"There is nothing quite like it," said Davy Hite, a 34-year-old from Prosperity, S.C., who came from behind to win this year's classic with a record-setting 55-pound, 10-ounce creel of fish. "It is like any sport; hard work pays off."

Hite looks at anglers like Chapman and Elliott and sees himself a decade ago.

"That was me," he said. "The great thing about bass fishing anybody can be a champ."

Hite recalled his first BASS Masters Classic in 1986. "I couldn't get a good seat I was way up in the upper deck," he said. "I had the guys sign my ball cap, the whole thing, just hoping that someday I would be doing the same thing."

Like many tournament fishermen, Hite started fishing at an early age. Six years ago, he quit his job and started competing full time. After scoring in several regional tournaments and winning BASS angler of the year award in 1997, Hite hit paydirt the next year when he captured the rival FLW Tour's national championship and a $250,000 paycheck.

"It was a dream come true," Hite said. "I felt fortunate to come back and fish the Classic. It is unbelievable to win that too."

While the Classic doesn't offer the money that the FLW Tour does, it is the oldest and, as a result, considered bass fishing's most prestigious event.

But this year, the FLW has pulled out all the stops, offering nearly $4-million in its seven-tournament tour. In November at a lake in Winter Haven, 400 anglers will fish for the largest purse ever _ $1-million _ in the Millennium Tournament.

Where's the money come from? Sponsors.

A recent article in the business section of USA Today stated that if fishing " . . . were a single company, it would be in the top five of the Fortune 500."

According to the the American Sportfishing Association, anglers pump $108-billion into the U.S. economy each year. Major retailers such as Kmart and Wal-Mart, the respective sponsors of the BASS and FLW tours, understand that fishermen spend money.

So do the truck, boat and engine manufacturers. Government statistics show that among Americans making $100,000 or more a year, one in five goes fishing. In fact, more people fish (approximately 60-million) than play golf (24-million) and tennis (17.3-million) combined.

Marketing moguls know fishing's wholesome image sells. Last year, Brauer, the all-time BASS money winner ($1.47-million), '98 Classic champion and winner of the 1998 FLW Angler of the Year award, made history by having his picture featured on the front of more than 2-million Wheaties boxes. And because of the strong brand loyalty among bass fishermen _ similar to that of race car fans _ many call bass fishing the next NASCAR.

"The greatest thing about this sport is that anybody can win," said Jeff Ard, who drove 65 miles with his son and daughter to watch the Classic weigh-in. "I fish, too, and sometimes think about getting out there myself."

His friend Jason Tate said he likes the fair competition. "You can't cheat a bass onto a hook," he said. "It is an even competition same boat, same motor no unfair advantage."

After three long days of hard fishing in 100 degree heat, Elliot entered the Superdome, sitting atop his boat. He had caught his limit that day, but it wasn't enough to move him up the ladder.

"Next year, hopefully, I'll be back," he said. Chapman followed a few minutes later with five bass weighing 19 pounds and 15 ounces, the largest stringer of the tournament. While it wasn't enough to win (he finished 12th), it won him interviews with several television stations.

"I just kept at it," Chapman said. "This is the most fun I ever had at a tournament Isn't that what it is supposed to be all about? Having fun?"