Bass in Action: Idaho Bass Fishing Builds its Own Culture 

The Southern states may have the reputation, but Idaho is in the mix

The worm in my fingers struggles for life as I set it onto my hook. A few quick practiced loops and it is securely skewered, ready to be dropped into the rocks in front of me. I have found the perfect lazy man's place for fishing--a deep section of the Snake River that undercuts a rock ledge. When the bait is dropped, it swirls around in a perfect small-mouth bass habitat. I don't even have to cast and I'm pounding the fish.

One after another, 10- to 11-inch bass are fighting with me only to be let go. You can only keep bass that are 12 inches or longer on the Snake River, and I let almost all the bass I catch go anyway.

In the distance, I hear the roar of a bass boat engine. Quick, low and light, I see the boat fly by me, causing a wake. I reel in my line and wonder about all the money that guy must have dropped on that boat: thousands and thousands of dollars, no doubt. The wake hits the shoreline and the fish stop biting for a few minutes.

Done fishing, I climb into my cheap but very functional duck boat and cruise back to the dock. I am going a lot slower than the bass boat I just saw. It would be a nice hobby, I think to myself.

But for some, bass fishing is no hobby. Turn on the TV and start surfing the sportsmen channels. You know the ones: the guy sitting in the tree stand, or on the boat casting and casting. Look and see how many of those guys are sponsored by something that's related to fishing: Lure manufactures, boat makers, trailer makers, line brokers and sporting goods companies like Cabela's and Bass Pro Shop make up the bulk of the sponsors.

Bass fishing is not a worm-on-a-hook sort of affair for a large number of people. It is a big business.

In fact, bass fishing has grown during the past century into a billion-dollar industry that can be seen throughout America. Back in the '90s, General Mills even featured a bass fisherman on the front of a Wheaties box. Denny Brauer of Camdenton, Mo., got the face time by winning as points champion of a $1 million Forest Wood Open bass tournament.

"I am absolutely thrilled to be in the company of the greatest athletes in history," Brauer said. "I never dreamed that my love of bass fishing would ever lead to a spot on the Wheaties box."

Not only is bass fishing on cereal boxes, it is on TV all the time as well. Bass fishing is on the same channel that hosts NBA and NFL games. But unlike those sports, bass fishing is physically egalitarian. You don't need to be super strong, big or fast to compete. With bass fishing, you just have to fish--a lot. And you need to be smart about how you do it, knowing conditions, tactics, bait and weather.

While it might be physically egalitarian, that does not make bass fishing an easy thing to pursue monetarily, especially on the professional level.

"Entry fees into the pro tournaments are about [$4,000] each. The only way you can afford it is to get a number of sponsors to pay your way," said Bruce Flesher, president of the Idaho Bass Federation.

Fletcher is, by his own admission, "a reformed trout fisherman." Those fees are the reason for logos on the shirts and the stickers on the boats.

Sponsors are vital to the success of a fisherman.

"If you don't have [$100,000] to carry yourself for the year ... entry fees, travel expenses ... if you finish below 10th place in a tournament, your check gets smaller and smaller. If you finish a tour event as a winner, you are going to get [$125,000]. But you have to win a few of those a year to really be making a living. It is a difficult thing," Flesher said.

Difficult, but not impossible, according to Flesher. Prodding him, I asked for the top three things a fisherman can do to "go pro" in the bass world.

"They need the ability to get on the water and spend time to learn the habits of these creatures. Where to go, where they hide, what they eat, what happens when weather changes, when the water changes ... that sort of thing," Flesher said.

OK, so the fisherman/woman needs to know how to catch fish. Check.

"They must be able to market themselves," he said. "If a person can't, then they can't pick up the right sponsors. The ability to gain endorsements is no different than a pro basketball player that endorses Nike shoes. ... They all have to be able to stand up and speak in front of the crowds."

Going pro involves becoming a salesman for your sponsors. Got it.

"Third is a basic understanding of the biology of the fish," Flesher said.

Right, know thy quarry.

Wrapping it all up, Flesher added that the fisherman needs "a lot of money and a lot of sponsors."

Knowledge about bass and bass fishing does not just show up one day with the fishing community. In a large part, bass fishing is a cultural statement.

"Down South, there is a bass boat in every other garage. Where we live, it is not the same," Flesher lamented.

The culture of bass fishing is more popular in the Southern states because that is where the sport originated. Back in the 1880s, when most sport fishermen were Anglophile trout and salmon chasers, a small Southern contingent took up bass fishing for sport.

Previously, bass fishing was considered a subsistence fish, relegated to the poor man. To this day, bass fishermen have tried to keep that working-class appeal and feeling. By the 1900s, bass fishing was--excuse the pun--catching on fast. By 1960, the bass had become the most-popular fresh-water fish in the country.

The southerly origins of bass fishing also stem from the fact that the region has weather patterns more conducive to growing records. The warm weather means that the fish grow for longer periods in a year. Idaho has a shorter growth season and, consequently, the state is often overlooked as a viable bass fishery.

"Idaho bass fishing can be considered a bit of a hidden treasure. There are so many places around that hold bass and plenty of good ones, too. We may not necessarily have fish weighing in with double digits like down South due to a shortened growth season, but we do have good fish. ... [Lake] Coeur d' Alene could compete with the California Delta, one of the best fisheries in the West, for large mouth," said Jared Spickelmier, president of the Boise State Anglers Club.

"We have better bass fishing in Idaho than a lot of the Southern states, yet we are known for cold-water fish," said Flesher.

Even the Payette River is listed nationally as one of the best small-mouth bass fisheries in the country.

But the bass in Idaho are not native; they are an introduced species. According to Jeff Dillon, the state fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Idaho has relatively few native game fish.

"Idaho has only about 12 native game fish. Trout, salmon, stealhead--the ones that you think of. ... We have about 30 species of introduced game fish. That is a pretty common theme all over the West ... as the West was settled by people coming from the East and Midwest. They said, 'Gosh, look at all this water. Why aren't there the species that we have back home?'

"Back in the early 1900s, fish were moved all across the country, and it was in an effort to provide food fish, not so much the sport fishing opportunity. Bass are good to eat, blue gill are good to eat. And at one time, folks thought that carp would be a good fish to spread around the country, mainly as a food source more than anything else," Dillon said.

The first bass were transported to Caldwell via railcars in the early 1900s, according to Dillon. The fish were released into ponds and, at some point, escaped into the river, forming the base population that we have now.

The non-native, warm-water species in Idaho actually fill a niche in the habitat.

"It is taking advantage of altered habitats that wouldn't have any fish to catch if we didn't have these introduced species" said Dillon.

Pre-agriculture in Southern Idaho, no warm-water irrigation reservoirs existed. Native species do not thrive in warm-water climates, so the introduction of the warm-water species "fills a hole that the native fish can't provide," he said.

Native, or non-bass fishing, is huge to communities throughout Idaho. Lake Lowell hosts a number of bass tournaments each year. According to Dillon, Lake Lowell's angling adds "a half-million in direct spending."

But Lake Lowell is a small fry in the scheme of things. Larger lakes, like Brownlee Reservoir, have a much larger economic impact.

"It is a place supported almost entirely by warm-water fish. It's introduced warm-water fish that support that fishery. Based on our most recent economic survey, Brownlee generates about $12 million of economic spending in the state. Just in Idaho, additional spending in Oregon," Dillon said.

All of that cannot be attributed to bass, however.

"We don't have economic data on bass fishing as a whole; we don't have that split out," he added.

It seems that splitting out how much money is spent on what type of fish is complicated in our waterways.

"It is hard to sort out; many of our lakes are so-called two-story fisheries. You have the surface water that is inhospitable to trout, but it might have some deeper water that can support them," Dillon said. "Salmon Creek Falls Reservoir is a good example. It has small mouth and walleye as well as a trout. So when we get economic data, it is hard to sort it out by species."

While we might not be able to sort out the effect of each fish on our Idaho lakes, Flesher points out that "more money nationally is spent in the pursuit of bass than any other freshwater fish. We are talking billions of dollars a year."

According to bassresources.com, the bass-fishing industry brings in an estimated $4.8 billion per year.

While bass might be big money, the sport definitely has a working-class fan base. The clothes, the mustaches and the trucks all identify the bass-fishing culture. It is an odd juxtaposition--the wealth needed to fish at the highest levels is virtually unattainable by the majority of its fans.

"It's not just a redneck sport like a lot of people seem to think," added Spickelmier. "I've seen people from all walks of life participate."

But, to some extent, bass fishing at the highest levels can never be a poor man's sport. With boats in the tens of thousands of dollars and the fees to enter tournaments, the amount of money required is beyond most people's resources. If an affluent redneck can exist, then I would guess that he or she is the most apt to consider bass fishing as a career.

With all that money around it would seem foolish not to have some sort of system for training the next generation of fishermen. Cue the college-level bass fishermen who are getting ready for the challenge. Spickelmier is a fine example.

"For me, fishing for bass is a challenge unlike any other species. It is as much a mind game trying to figure out their seasonal patterns, locations, what they are trying to eat. No day is the same as the one before; no season is ever the same as another."

Spickelmier started fishing in 2008 when he returned to college after nine years in the Marine Corps. He is a photography major at Boise State. So, how does a college-level bass fishermen become a bass pro?

"You just need to work your way up the ladder to get there," he said. "Everything is a series of qualifications to get to the next level. With the college tournaments, we have regional qualifiers, then we go to regionals, and then to the national championship. If you win either of the national championships, then you get an invite to fish in their biggest tournament respectively. ... You qualify for the state team, go to divisional, then the federation championships. In short, it's just continually proving yourself."

But for Spickelmier, bass fishing is more than just fishing.

"My biggest honor is being a part of the Army Bass Anglers Coalition and the Marine Bass Anglers team. We are an organization dedicated to supporting wounded warriors, and specifically Returning Heroes Home, Veteran Outdoors and Heroes on the Water."

The Army Bass Anglers Coalition is a group dedicated to healing via the outdoors while Returning Heroes Home focuses on rehabilitating wounded veterans in a home-like atmosphere. Veteran Outdoors works to send wounded veterans on big-game hunts, as well as one-of-a-kind fishing trips and Heroes on the Water uses kayaking and fishing as a rehabilitation method for returning soldiers.

The ABAC has a slogan: "Support. Defend. Fish." To quote Larry the Cable Guy, "That's just funny, I don't care who you are."

The ABAC has been featured on several TV stations.

"I have even been fortunate enough to participate on the new fishing show called Force on Force that [recently] premiered on the Sportsman Channel," Spickelmier said.

Force on Force is unique to the channel and the tournament series because it has different branches of the military fishing against each other. May the best soldier win.

"The best part of the show is that it's filmed in whatever conditions we face, because as we do in the military, we have to fight in any condition given us. The whole point of the show, again, is to simply raise awareness of our three nonprofits while we're having fun and trash talking a little," Spickelmier said.

But college-level fishing isn't an early enough start for some. In 2009, the Illinois High School Athletic Association began to recognize bass fishing as a sport and is funding it as such. In its first year, the Illinois club had 220 teams compete in its first high-school tournament. Alabama and other Southern schools are following suit. Some students are even winning scholarship money via bass-fishing tournaments.

Bethel University in Tennessee was the first college to offer fishing scholarships to three students--two men and one woman--in 2010. The scholarships functioned in the same way as any other athletic-based scholarship.

That's right, college scholarships for bass fishing.

A student could, if he or she got lucky, fish in high-school tournaments, get on a good college team and then migrate to the professional level of fishing, hopefully picking up some tournament wins and opening doors to sponsors along the way.

No one told me that I could fish for a living when I talked to the guidance counselor back in high school.

Personally, I don't think a logo will make it on my shirt anytime soon--I'll stick to my worms and hooks. It is less complicated that way. And, honestly, I catch a fair number of bass when I go fishing anyway. But it won't make me $1 million or get me on the cover of a Wheaties box.

I asked Spickelmier what his perfect day of bass fishing was. "Not to be cheesy, it's any day on the water. ... Just put a fish at the end of my line," he said.

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