There's a briny, fishy smell coming off the shores of Douglas Lake. It's 6:30 in the morning, but scores of people are lined up on the marina dock, as boat after boat flits past, fast and bright as a firefly. There's a red one, and green one, and a blue one—each going deep into the heart of the lake and bringing back its bounty: shimming, wriggling bass.
This is Day 2 of the Bassmaster Elite Series Douglas Lake Challenge. For the uninitiated, competitive bass-fishing is a real sport, and a hugely popular one—see that ESPN2 truck over there? See those fantasy fishing stats? At that booth you can win an autographed Kevin VanDam jersey; at this one you can take home your own Bass Pro Shop coozie.
The morning is wet and grey—no breathtaking sunrise over the lake today—and the anglers are swathed in rain gear. But no matter. The fish are biting—they might bite even better in the rain—and the day has begun.
By 3:15 p.m. all 99 fisherman must be back at the dock, with up to five bass in hand. Weight counts, as does length—largemouth bass must be at least 12 inches (or the state limit) to count—and late boats will have poundage deducted. One can also lose points for dead fish—Bassmasters pioneered the catch-and-release ethic in sport fishing, back in 1972.
As the boats scatter to the different parts of the lake, the skies burst open and what was a steady drizzle becomes a downpour. The crowd dissipates, but they'll be back.
By lunchtime the skies are clear, and the sun has begun to dry up the damp. Slowly, fans begin to trickle into the marina, settling up chairs in front of the weigh-in stage, visiting tents promoting boats and motors, drinking beer. A loudspeaker blasts Willie Nelson and LMFAO. There are a lot of kids running around.
Down on the dock, Danny and Donna Ashley are waiting for their son Casey to clock in. They drove up from South Carolina for the event. No surprise, Danny Ashley is a bass fisherman, too; he taught Casey to fish as a small child. He says the tournaments are nerve-wracking but exciting, although the same could be said for the sport of bass fishing itself.
"It's just a challenge—finding them and figuring out ways to catch them," Ashley says.
Still, Ashley says the travel and long days out on the water in hot sun and cold rain take their toll on his son. "It's a rough life. You gotta love it, I reckon," Ashley says.
Finally, the boats return. One after another begins pulling up to the dock, clocking in an official time and receiving a watertight tote bag to carry the live fish up to the stage. Jennie DeFoe is watching her three children and waiting on her husband Ott to display his catch. It's Ott's second year on the Bassmasters tour, but he fished the FLW Outdoors tour for four years prior. (FLW is the chief competitor of B.A.S.S., the organization behind Bassmasters.) Ott was the Bassmaster Elite Rookie of the Year last year.
The couple lives in Strawberry Plains, although during the season they're on the road in a camper, traveling from lake to lake. Jennie DeFoe says there are close to 20 families who follow the circuit in campers and RVs.
"Our kids all grow up together," she says. "We're one big happy family for the most part."
Jennie and Ott have been together since they met at Jefferson County High School. Even then, she says, Ott knew he wanted to be a professional fisherman.
"Oh, he made it very clear that if he had to choose between fishing and me, that he'd pick fishing," Jennie laughs. "It worked out for us, but it doesn't for everyone."
When Ott hits the stage, he gets a loud cheer from the hometown crowd. He's landed a whopping 18 pounds and 13 ounces, and he'll finish the day in seventh place, well above the cutoff to make it to the next round. He's wearing cargo shorts with his jersey, which, like everyone else's' is heavily covered with the brand names of his sponsors—bass-fishing is not dissimilar to NASCAR in the way brand names cover every possible surface.
Ott grew up fishing Douglas Lake, and he says it's one of his favorite places in the world to fish.
"There are a lot of good places in East Tennessee [to fish], but you just don't catch a lot of 6- or 7-pound fish in them," Ott says.
He estimates he owns close to 60 different fishing poles and will maybe take 25 out with him on a given tournament days. He fished his first tournament at age 9 and got hooked on the competition.
"They're such smart fish," Ott says.
Another local hero is Caryville's Brandon Card, 27, who's already on pace to be the Rookie of the Year. He's landed 17 pounds of bass and will finish the day in eighth place. He too grew up fishing Douglas Lake (when he wasn't on his first love, Norris Lake.)
He says, quite modestly, that his first year on the tour is going better than expected, although he had already proven his chops as a star fisherman on the University of Kentucky's collegiate bass-fishing team. (Yes, collegiate bass-fishing exists, and yes, there are scholarships for it, and yes, the Vols have a team.)
Card says he started competitive fishing at age 14.
"It's basically man versus animal," Card says. "I just like being outside. It's me versus the fish instead of me versus anyone else."
But of course you're still competing against other people, which is why the pre-tournament research is so important.
"It's all about learning to find fish in a lake you've never been to before," Card says. The anglers are banned from fishing a tournament lake for a month before the event, so they study maps and read research on the lake's best fishing spots to prepare.
"And after that you go out there and fish your heart out," Card says.
Bass-fishing may be a niche sport, but the crowd's enthusiasm is infectious, as they cheer angler after angler holding up their giant fish. South Carolina's Britt Myers will end up winning the day with a haul of 24 pounds and 1 ounce. He'll keep his lead in Day 3, but on the tournament's final day, Myers will be upset by West Virginia's Jeremy Starks by a margin of 2 pounds and 1 ounce. Ott DeFoe will finish seventh in the tournament, and Card will come in ninth.
In June the pros will head to Louisiana for their next challenge, all hoping to land a spot in the Bassmaster Classic next winter. Their fans will keep rooting them on, even if neither DeFoe nor Card scored a hometown victory.