Bassmaster Douglas Lake Challenge – Dandridge, TN
Driving through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited national park that spans western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, the rugged forest landscape enveloped nearly all of our senses. We hiked to stunning waterfalls, heard the echo of a
flowing stream through the never-ending trees, and took in the smells of the diverse plant life all around us. We made our way along the Appalachian Trail, one of the world’s most well-known hiking trails, and tried to imagine what Southern Appalachian culture must have been like when this part of the country was first being discovered.
We made our way up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park as well as the highest point in the state of Tennessee. After hiking a half mile up a steep path, we were rewarded with a 360 degree view of the entire national park, with rolling hills, forests, and streams of water as far as the eye could see. As we gazed upon the wilderness landscape of East Tennessee, our minds were immediately drawn to the myriad of outdoor activities that this area could offer. Hiking, fishing, hunting, or any other outdoor sport has found a perfect and permanent home in East Tennessee. The South Appalachian culture has always been steeped in outdoors traditions, and the area has continued to preserve not only the beautiful terrain, but also the activities that are provided from it.
In other words, we couldn’t have picked a better place than Tennessee to enjoy the Bassmasters Douglas Lake Challenge fishing tournament.
Bass fishing has grown steadily over the years in the United States, making the black bass the second most specifically sought-after game fish in the country. During the early 19th century, wealthy sport anglers in the northeastern United States fished primarily trout and salmon using fly fishing rods. While smallmouth bass were sought by some fly fishermen, most bass fishing was done by sustenance anglers using poles and live bait. According to Charles Waterman in Black Bass & the Fly Rod, the working-class heritage of bass fishing strongly influenced the sport and is “manifested even today in its terminology, hobbyist literature, and media coverage”.
The sport has changed dramatically since its humble beginnings. Modern bass fishing has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry, driving multiple business sectors. The sport has spawned the development of all manner of fishing gear, including rods, reels, lines, lures, electronic depth and fish-finding instruments, float tubes, and specialized bass boats. Not to mention the various clothing lines and accessory products geared specifically toward anglers.
In 1967, the popularity of the sport led to the formation of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.). Geared toward bass fisherman, the federation was started in order to provide a quality and credible tournament structure, as well as to promote and perpetuate recreational fishing as a national pastime. In 1971 they staged the first Bassmaster Classic, a tournament that has become the premier event for bass fishing. Now owned by ESPN, BASS continues to sponsor a series of bass fishing tournaments throughout the year, including the Bassmaster Elite Series. The Elite Series, which the Douglas Lake Challenge tournament falls under, has a total of eight regular season events with a total of $11 million to give away in prizes. The Elite Series is bass fishing’s most competitive lucrative league, with events held from coast to coast and through all seasons of bass fishing.
Not knowing what to expect, at 6:00 AM we made our way down to the pier for the boat launch and the start of the tournament. The sun wouldn’t rise for another 45 minutes, but we could see hundreds of boat lights dotting the lake, making their way to the starting area. As we made our way closer to the action, we began to notice a different scene unfolding from the one that we assumed we’d be covering. Instead of quiet fishermen heading out slowly for a day of solitary fishing, we were introduced to a much more vibrant display. Normally, fishing is thought of as a patient endeavor, with anglers enjoying the peace of spending a serine day waiting for the fish to bite. But with a bass fishing tournament, the professional and competitive aspects makes it look more like NASCAR on the water.
First there was the boats, covered with logos from sponsors and painted with fierce or festive colors. Then came the actual boat launch, where the anglers were announced as if they were entering a boxing ring before roaring their engines and pushing their boats to 70 mph to get to their preferred spot on the lake. And finally, there were the fans, who miraculously came out before the sun had risen to cheer on their favorite angler as he left to go catch fish for the day. It resembled anything but the fishing trips that we’d ever been on, but if we closed our eyes and listened to the boats, announcer, and crowd, we could definitely have been back at Daytona.
So what is one to do while waiting for the anglers to return with their catch of the day? Well, the Bassmaster websitehas got you covered. Not only are they live tweeting and posting updates to Facebook and their blog, but they’re also checking in with the anglers on BASSCam, a collection of cameras placed on boats that show anglers catching bass all day long. Without getting into too much detail, anglers “practice fish” the lakes before the tournament starts in order to learn not only the contours or the lake bottom but also where the fish like to school up. History and often local knowledge helps anglers figure out when and where the fish like to move throughout the day. Some anglers like to get to their “honey holes” right away and fish the area the entire day, while others like to move in and out between depths in order to catch a variety of fish and hope to land on a school of them. Different tournaments and lakes require different techniques as well as different rules, with the majority of tournaments having a per day fish limit. So the fishermen catch as many fish as they can, but only weigh in their heaviest fish each day before totaling them up for the weekend and crowning a champion.
And last but certainly not least, there’s the weigh-ins at the end of the day. Probably the most recognizable aspect of bass fishing sporting events, its the time when anglers get to show off the size and quality of their catch to a thrilled crowd as well as a TV audience. With a stage set up and an ESPN2 camera team ready, anglers were introduced one by one with their own personal theme song before weighing their 5 best fish caught that day. Have a big catch or make it into the Top 10 for the day? Reach into the bag and grab a few bass to hold up in front of an admiring crowd. A couple of large fish elicited generous “Ooooohs” and “Ahhhhhhs” from the larger-than-expected crowd in attendance.
Taking in the surprising scene happening all around us, I just had to ask someone in the crowd what was in it for them to come out and watch guys holding up fish that they’d caught. “This is something that we all do (fishing),” he said. “You can relate to sitting out there all day long trying to catch the biggest and best fish that you can. But these guys do it really well, so you’re kind of in awe of it. Or you come out here and see the fish and think, ‘Hey, I’ve caught bigger ones than that!’, and feel good about yourself. That’s all it is really, having fun outdoors in a beautiful nature setting competing to see who can catch the biggest fish.”
And that was it in a nutshell. A beautiful lake in Tennessee filled with guys trying to catch the biggest fish, just like people had been doing for hundreds of years. Only this time, there were live weigh-ins to avoid countless “thiiiiiiiiiis big” stories.