Taxiing down the water runway, building relentless momentum before takeoff, pro bass angler Dean Rojas is ready to awaken the beast - a pair of beasts to be precise. One's within him, another's behind him. The latter, a 225-horse outboard, is bolted to the back of his bassboat - best described as a chip of fiberglass with carpeted decks and a foot-operated accelerator. "You'd better take your hat off," Rojas warns.
I don't have time. We're up on plane and zooming to 65 mph within 1,000 feet before swinging into a 360-degree clockwise pivot around four buoys spaced in a rectangle the size of a swimming pool. That's when the sensation of over-the-top speed - cheeks flapping, tears streaming behind sunglasses - shifts to my spine, which is being mercilessly twisted by the G-forces.
Riding shotgun with Rojas on this 3,500-foot obstacle course is like checking out a NASCAR race with the in-car cam, sans comfy living room couch. I'm white-knuckling a grabrail, squeezing my fingerprints into it, as Rojas pirouettes his Skeeter bassboat counterclockwise around a triangle of buoys barely beyond spitting distance from the brushy shoreline. Spinning out of the turn with aplomb, Rojas power slides us through a slalom, nicking the buoys to shave time. From there, we bank into a sweeping right-hander and haul butt for the finish line. A 70-second run that feels more like an hour strapped to the wing of a 747 - especially without my hat.
"That was fun, man," Rojas shouts, juiced with speed. "This kind of racing is going to be the new deal." I have to agree. Beneath the windburn, I'm grinning like a lunatic.
WWF or WCF?
What Rojas is jazzed about is World Championship Fishing (WCF), the boat-racing/bass-fishing spectacle now in its sophomore season after last year's tryout in southern Illinois. In the six-event 2000 tour, 16 professional bass fishermen do what they do best in the mornings - catch big, green, ugly fish - and what they're learning how to do in the afternoon - race bassboats. A steep learning curve, to be sure. For decades, bassboats have been designed primarily for full-tilt, straight-line boogying. Now these anglers, driven by six-digit purses, are asking their boats to dance.
The new WCF is backed by the venerable Bass Anglers Sportsman's Society (B.A.S.S.), which is hoping to pump excitement into what some would argue is an otherwise somnolent, albeit successful, sport. The double-barreled, racing/fishing events are recorded and televised on the Fox Sports Network, an adjunct of the outfit that briefly brought us the streaking red puck of National Hockey League telecasts. And with the WCF, the same Rupert Murdoch - esque spin applies. It's one part sport, one part made-for-TV entertainment. And it's proving to be phenomenally successful with the fans.
The new WCF is backed by the venerable Bass Anglers Sportsman's Society (B.A.S.S.), which is hoping to pump excitement into what some would argue is an otherwise somnolent, albeit successful, sport. The double-barreled, racing/fishing events are recorded and televised on the Fox Sports Network, an adjunct of the outfit that briefly brought us the streaking red puck of National Hockey League telecasts. And with the WCF, the same Rupert Murdoch-esque spin applies. It's one part sport, one part made-for-TV entertainment. And it's proving to be phenomenally successful with the fans.
The WCF is not without its naysayers. Foremost among them is Ranger Boats, longtime sponsor of such B.A.S.S. events as the Bassmasters Classic, the so-called Super Bowl of bass fishing. After last year's seminal event, Ranger withdrew sponsorship from the WCF but not the other B.A.S.S. competitions, engendering a rancorous cuss fight. Ranger blasted the WCF, claiming that boat racing (though the WCF calls it "boat handling") is at odds with the company's philosophy of safe boating. An interesting position for any builder, seeing that all competition bassboats are lightweight, low-sided platforms, with up to 225 hp nailed to their transoms and easily capable of 70 mph.
For whatever its reason, Ranger is out. But plenty of other builders are anxious to play. As Earl Bentz, president of Triton Boats and former racer for Mercury Marine, puts it, "I applaud all the boat manufacturer who have stuck with the WCF. You can either be the one in front making the dust or be in the back eating it. I like to be making it." He, like many others, believes that the WCF is not only here to stay, but is a growth industry.
Changing the Course
Making dust at the head of the pack is precisely Triton's aim, as it is for Bass Cat, Champion, Skeeter, and Tide Craft. These manufacturers will get their first crack at the gold in the 100-degree August heat of Monroe, Louisiana, an industrial town where raw oysters come in a baker's dozen and the sour pall from the local paper mill carries on the breeze. Each of the three days the anglers hit different waters. First is Lake D'Arbonne, a stump- and tree-strewn reservoir. Second is Caney Lake, the state's piscatorial pigpen, where 20 of Louisiana's largest bass have been taken. And third is the Ouachita River, which runs past a park where spectators will gather to watch the final race.
All competitors must run production-model rigs. So Triton has come up with a new boat. Compared with last year's TR-21, a sizable 21-footer, Triton shrunk the hull to 19'8" for better handling. It has also incorporated sharper chines, akin to knife edges, to dig into the turns. The strakes have been tweaked, and surgery was done on the running surface. Up forward there's a thin shallow groove in the keel that's supposed to help steering. The hull flattens amidships for lift, then becomes more V'd aft for rough waters. Science it ain't. It's more trial and hopefully not much error. The one obvious departure from decades of bassboat design is that Triton uses a center, rather than a side, console to keep the boat balanced in turns.
Getting the boats race-ready is easier said than done, and drivers have had their hands full. Some of the boats buck wildly in turns as the hull gets too much purchase. "We're used to some slip," says competitor Ron Shuffield. "Generally, going into a turn, you want the bow down, at least with the bassboats I've run for 20 years. Now I've got a boat that wants to turn trimmed up a bit. Trim it down, and the hull will bite and you turn too quick."
Rojas, on the other hand, is learning to negotiate right turns, helped by the prop's torque. "When you accelerate, the boat wants to turn right," he explains. "You have to hold on, tap the wheel, and throttle a little; the boat will set up. Then you just go." When I ask what rpm he uses for different turns, he replies honestly, "I have no idea." Everyone here is learning. For all intents and purposes, the playing field is relatively level, with WCF rules that keep any boat or motor from getting too souped up. The entire package - boat, outboard, batteries, and angler - must weigh a minimum of 2,500 pounds. The same strictures go for the engines, almost all of which are 225s. You're not allowed to adjust the timing, the gear ratio, or the carburetor. Furthermore, all propellers have to be stock models. "We wouldn't want anyone to go out and blow the others away," Bentz says. "At the end of the day, all the boats are pretty darned close."
Fish First, Fly Later
To the uninitiated, ripping across a lake to reach a fishing hole would seem like a no-brainer - point the bow and nail it. But on reservoirs studded with brush and sinuous channels through drowned forests, nothing could be further from the truth. You've always had to be able to throw these boats around, and that's not easy. They can chine walk, separate from the water, stuff their bows into waves. In general, they deserve the respect worthy of a bag of pythons. So maybe it is a laudable goal to improve the breed with better-handling boats. But right now, it takes a pro to make it look easy.
Today I'm with Shaw Grigsby, an agreeable, professional-looking sort who fishes in khakis, boat shoes, and a Triton-bedecked long-sleeved shirt to ward off the sun. He wouldn't be out of place in corporate America. Hell, he could be the guy in the office next door. The thing is, he's been a professional bass fisherman since 1984, and an excellent one at that, with $1.2 million in career winnings, plus mega endorsements, and a telegenic face well suited to his TV show, One More Cast With Shaw Grigsby, on The Nashville Network. At one point during the morning, Grigsby turns to me and crows, "We get paid to do this? Pretty awesome, huh?"
Life may be good, but today he's got only three fish. Time is tight, and tardiness incurs penalties in poundage, so Grigsby gives it all he's got on the return trip, which is no straight shot. The route is serpentine in the extreme, forcing him to slow to a piddling 60 mph, with bursts to 78 in the rare straights. With anyone else, my shorts would be bunched in a pucker. But in Shaw I trust, or so I convince myself. He guides this fiberglass sliver with finesse when necessary, brute speed whenever possible. Once, when I try to keep my bug-spattered sunglasses on my face, my hand is blown back by the wind blast. I decide there's no use trying.
Dancing for Dollars
Grigsby seems satisfied with the tune of his rig, ready for the afternoon race. But not ready enough it would seem. Today the racing belongs to Rojas.
This freckled 28-year-old from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, is a former peanut vendor who once won the snack-toss competition for distance, accuracy, and freestyle events at the 1993 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. To prepare for the Louisiana event, he set up his own racing course and practiced daily for three weeks. His dedication has paid off, as he is now leading the boat-handling competition after the first two days and the officials are holding his run for last before the Ouachita River crowds. More excitement that way, the WCF reasons. And they're right. Rojas' run is impressive.
Again, his boat is on plane in a flash, dashing for the Double Cyclone, a hokey moniker for the two 360s. (Repeat after me: "Made for TV.") From a distance, the boat appears to rotate effortlessly around an axis smack through its nose - Rojas obviously forgoing hull grip for a good slide. Seguing into the slalom, a.k.a., the Serpent's Highway, Rojas turns fluidly without wasted energy. By the time 60 ticks have elapsed, he's leaning into Amen Bend, racing flat-out for the laser-triggered finish line, where he throws his hands over his helmeted head. His time: 69.3 seconds, a new course record. The winner of the racing competition, Rojas pockets $25,000. But it was Mark Davis, in a Bass Cat, who won the fishing segment and placed second in the racing, earning him the overall championship and a cool $75,000.
Big bucks and, if what I've seen today is any indication, the beginning of something we're going to be hearing a lot more about. The Bubbas love it. Between the action, camo-clad autograph hounds gather for their heroes' John Hancocks on sweat-stained caps and pages begged from my reporter's notebook. What we've got here is a spectator sport that fuses good ol' boy fishin' with the spirit of Speed Racer. Yup, the WCF just might be onto something after all. A nice touch of Southern madness we can watch on the tube. Pass the beef jerky and Buds, please. We're ready.