Ten years ago, I helped a group of kids string up a dozen cane poles in an effort to put them in touch with nature in the form of a pond stocked with small sport fish. The wisdom being that the successful landing of a cache of bream followed by a nature hike and box lunch was going to turn them away from a life on the streets. As the kids piled onto the passenger van headed back to the urban wilds, as we congratulated ourselves for making a difference, I couldn’t help but think how much I’d rather be headed back to the city with them instead of stuck out in the country, my hands covered in fish mucus, my fingernails gritty from night crawlers plucked out of a Styrofoam cup. I’m a city boy.
But Tommy Biffle is a country boy. He punches the clock under the heavy cover of willow in the silent morning coves near his home at Fort Gibson Lake. A good day at the office can bring in half a million dollars in cash and a stringer full of lucrative endorsement deals. You can’t do what Biffle does, namely, catch fish for a living. Few people can. In fact, only about 50 or so fisherman in the world will be eligible to compete in the Elite series of the upcoming Bassmaster Classic, the sport’s championship. Even if you were really good at catching fish, if you had trophies in your rec room and a BASS sticker on your truck, Tommy Biffle would school your ass.
Biffle guesses he was about four years old when he landed his first fish. By now he’s caught too many to remember what he landed that first time, but he’s pretty sure it wasn’t a bass.
LISTEN: This Land contributor Beau Adams explains the sport of bass fishing.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “I’ve been fishing ever since then. Back a long time ago.” Biffle grew up near Muskogee. “A good friend of mine, I told him I was going to be a professional fisherman, back when there wasn’t even professional fisherman. I don’t even know how we come up with it, you know?”
Biffle made good on that promise. He’s netted close to $2 million in his professional career, which puts him in the top ten all-time earnings leaders on the BASS (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society) tour. That’s just the prize money. As with most pro sports these days, corporate dollars follow in the wake of success. Biffle’s tournament shirt sports logos for Ranger bass boats, MerCruiser motors, and Busch Light. He also owns an ATV dealership near Fort Gibson Lake.
Biffle’s hair and beard are arctic-white and his default countenance is scary serious. Trophies of animal heads are cantilevered out of the walls of his dealership. I think to myself, a fisherman is also a hunter. I ask him why he’s so good at the hunt.
“I just practice more,” he told me, leaning on an ATV in his log cabin-inspired showroom. “I’m a believer that if you practice enough at anything, you can be good at it. I kinda wish I had been a pro golfer because they make a lot more money, they fly from here to there, and somebody carries their clubs. I believe I could have been a pro golfer if that’s what I would have thought about back then. But I went fishin’ instead, I guess.”
While it’s true that professional fisherman don’t bring home the kind of cash that their counterparts on the links do, there is plenty of money to be made plugging for largemouth bass. In the upcoming Bassmaster Classic, the winner will net a payday of half a million dollars, a figure that has grown exponentially in Biffle’s time on tour. “Money’s a little bit bigger now. I think at the first one I went to it might’ve been about $50,000 or somethin’ to win, now it’s $500,000,” he said with a sly smile. “But, the cost of livin’s gone up, you know?”
Give up your romantic notions of a serene setting where man pits himself against nature in what may seem like a fair fight. The BASS touring pros scream across the lake in fiberglass boats powered by motors larger than the one in your car, and armed with sonar equipment first developed for use in submarine warfare in WWII. They wear ball caps and Oakleys. This is no Papa Hemingway landing a marlin and then getting loaded in a Havana bar, and it’s not Brad Pitt fighting brown trout in time’s bottomless waters. This is bass country, and if a river runs through it, it’s more than likely been dammed for said purposes. This is arena fishing and some of its participants are all too eager to embrace the gladiatorial nature of the event.
Twenty-seven years on the BASS circuit, Biffle is old school. “That hollerin’ and screamin’ don’t go good with me,” he said, alluding to the new group of anglers making their way on the tour today. “If I catch [a fish], I’m tryin’ to hide him because I don’t want the guy down the bank knowin’ that I caught one. And some of these young guys catch one and you can hear him on the other side of the lake.” One of the more boisterous members of the new school is Michael Iaconelli. His antics on the lake are brash and often seem forced, but his showmanship has brought fans to the sport.
“It probably brings some—some of the younger generation,” Biffle conceded. “Mike Iaconelli is the worst there is. He’s really a good guy, but he’s a total idiot if you turn that camera on. He has a lot of fans, a lot of followers, a lot of people like that. He’s amusing to us because we don’t know what he’s going to do next. It’s gonna be something stupid, you can bet on it.”
Biffle doesn’t suffer the antics of the youngsters gladly. “I’ve kind of got the reputation of runnin’ ’em off ,” he said, his eyes cutting away.
To the uninitiated, professional bass fishing in the 21st century is a circus—a kind of aquatic NASCAR—and a market share any sports franchise would covet. Some of its younger competitors are all too happy to bring a flash of that dynamic to the sport. Highlight reels are full of whoops and high fives. When a fish goes into the live well, a sort of detention center housed in the hull of a bass boat, more celebration occurs in the form of primal screams and Tiger Woods-inspired fist bumps. A bit over-the-top, maybe, until you consider that these guys have fantasy leagues devoted to their watery exploits.
The Classic is billed as “The Super Bowl of Bass Fishing,” a comparison professional fishing’s governing body, BASS (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society), openly invites. There’s a problem with this comparison, though, at least this year. BASS has decided to do something that the executive committee in the walnut-paneled offices of the National Football League never would, which is put their most prestigious event in harm’s way, on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, in the dead of winter. Daily weigh-ins, and the pageantry that goes along with them—blaringly loud music; exploding canons of red, white, and blue confetti; replay footage displayed on Jumbotrons—will be held in Tulsa’s BOK Center.
Tulsa isn’t the problem. In fact, BASS is hoping for a massive turnout of onlookers and estimates that over 10 percent of its membership lives within three hours of the event site. Oklahoma is bass country.
The problem is the calendar. The farmer’s almanac forecasts sunny yet cool temperatures for the first day of the Classic at Grand Lake. This would be ideal. The problem is the same forecast calls for snow the week leading up and cold and rainy for the week after. With the tournament so sandwiched, the event could end up being more black ice than black bass.
“We’re thinkin’ the same thing. This could be the biggest mistake that BASS has ever made as far as the Classic,” Biffle said. “Because if it gets icy and snowy and they can’t go, I don’t know what they’re gonna do. And they don’t have plan B.”
Grand Lake will be the farthest point north that the Classic has ever been held since transitioning from a summer to a late winter contest in 2006. A peak at the BASS website confirms that its decision makers are aware of the gamble. Numerous features explain that Grand Lake is full of a strain of bass that will not be adversely affected by low water temperatures and that all involved expect the competition to yield some of the highest average daily weights in the history of the tournament.
It’s not going to be too cold for the fish, Biffle told me. “The fishin’s gonna be good. It don’t matter if it’s gonna be really, really cold or really nice, the bass are gonna bite. It’s a good wintertime lake and they’re gonna catch ’em. And it’s gonna take a lot of weight to win.”
It might not be too cold for the fish, but it could be for the fishermen. “The roads are gonna be the only real hazard,” Biffle noted. He said that it doesn’t really matter how good the fishing is if you can’t get your boat to the water. “This is a different Classic … this is the first Classic that’s ever been this far north in the month of February, so there are two or three things that are going to happen. It’s either gonna be 60 [degrees] and nice, or it’s going to be 15 and either snowy or raining.”
Michael Mulone isn’t worried. “As a whole, weather is always a concern at every event year-round,” said BASS’s director of event and tourism partnerships. “It’s not just the cold in the winter months we worry about. It could be the extreme heat, it could be floods, it could be drought; especially with the way things have been going across the midsection of the country over the last few years. We have dealt with all of those things.”
Mulone said that the choice of Tulsa for his organization’s grandest event is likely more well thought out than the average person would think. “From our standpoint, we’re in the event business, we don’t want to sound blasé about it, but we are so used to doing outdoor events … this is what we do.”
Like most modern day sports championships, the competition itself sometimes pales in comparison to the pageantry surrounding it. “The fishin’s a little ol’ bitty part of it,” Biffle said. “The fishin’s just there to have a winner, you know.” The real show, he claimed, will be at the daily weigh-ins and trade shows in Tulsa. “They’ve got that new BOK Center and it’s a beautiful, excellent place. I guarantee you it’ll be full everyday and they’ll be turnin’ them away on the last day.”
1. There are no women competing in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic. Women are more window dressing than peer in the BASS world. In fact, the last time a woman qualified for the event was also the first time, when Kim Bain-Moore did so in 2009. Media coverage of the event was provided by the likes of CBS Evening News, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 4. Feb. 15, 2013.