Fish 'n Chick
The new women's professional bass fishing tour is filled with anglers from the South. It has drama, intrigue -- and a zealous competitor from Chardon?
Sometimes Kelly Spear pees into a white dog bowl. That doesn’t mean she’s crude — the farmhouse she shares with her husband, Bill, in Chardon, is refined and tidy. Sometimes Spear tosses plastic frogs into a backyard fire pit. That doesn’t mean she’s crazy — even competitors call her smart. So, why would any 43-year-old in her right mind do those things?
The answer is bass fishin’, man.
When Spear is competing on the lake for eight hours a pop, concentrating on changing conditions — water temperature and depth, wind speed, spawning season, barometric changes, the list goes on — that might determine where a huge lunker hides, sometimes nature calls. And when it does, thank goodness for the dog bowl resting beside her five fishing rods.
“You think I’m going to stop during the middle of a bass-fishing tournament and say to my fellow angler, ‘Can you please take me to the ladies’ room?’ ” Spear says as she sits on her living room couch. “If she’s anything like me, she’d say, ‘Hang it off the boat, baby! We’re out here to fish!’”
Problem is, it’s early April at latitude 41.61 N. No one is fishing in Chardon today, not even Spear and her angler-pal father (“Grubby” to his buddies), who sits next to her.
Northeast Ohio lakes typically are too cold to fish for bass until early May. Spear admits this can make her fidgety.
She loves to stand on her dad’s 18-1/2-foot Ranger boat and shimmy a jig until one dumb member of a school thinks it’s food; mostly because she doesn’t want to be schooled: The majority of her competitors in the inaugural season of the Women’s Bassmaster Tour are from the South. They’re likely on the water today.
So, thank goodness for frog tossing. During the six months when Spear can’t fish for bass in Ohio, she often dons her brown winter jacket, a scarf and hat, and heads toward a huge oak tree in front of her barn off GAR Highway.
When Spear is focused on her target — a small fire pit resting 20 yards away in snow beside the tree — her wide eyes squint slightly, and pursed lips mask a nearly perfect row of front teeth. Her right hand holds a black aluminum rod, but her left hand grips the weapon — the frog-shaped jig.
Her long, lanky left hand moves back a few inches and flips the jig underhand, like it’s a small remote control headed for a couch pillow. It’s a casual flip, but her eyes don’t move or blink. Not until the jig’s 6-foot arch ends softly in the snow, an inch left of the fire pit, exactly where she aimed.
Quickly, she places her left hand on the rod and uses her right to spin its reel, the jig bobbing along the cold ground until it’s back in her left hand. Next target: one inch to the right of the last one. Eyes locked. Picture a fish (hand back) and he’s hungry (underhand flip) right under (jig flies) there.
Spear flips and pitches her jig for the next hour, maybe two, maybe long enough for the rest of Northeast Ohio to think she’s nuts. Except for her father, Dave Owens, who taught her the technique as a finesse alternative to overhand casting. When his hair was brown instead of gray, he would put his arm around his daughter and point to a specific spot in the water — usually around the edges of a boat dock or a lily pad — and land his jig gently, hopefully in front of a reactive fish’s face.
Spear’s father showed her how to work a jig slowly, letting it sink with anticipation, as if a bass were a cat responding to a ball of string being twitched across the floor. You want that bass to pounce.
Today, it’s Spear’s version of the crossover dribble, her go-to move when the weather warms and she’s standing at the back of a boat instead of in her back yard.
“I’m five minutes from the water and can practice any technique 365 days a year if I want,” says Sammie Jo Denyes’ (“Den-yea”), a WBT pro in Baker, Fla., who was named Amateur of the Year in 1998 by the now-defunct Women’s Bass Fishing Association. She fished with Spear last October at a WBT tour preview event on Lewisville Lake in suburban Dallas.
“You can’t fish when snow and ice are coming down. Frankly, I don’t know how the Yankee does it,” she concedes. “But dang, she’s got the whole package. A great angler.”
Dave Owens is a garrulous, fun-loving man who has been fishing with his daughter since she was 8 years old, when the family lived in Parma and spent summer vacations fishing for walleye and smallmouth bass in Pelee Island, Ontario.
“Dad and I are connected at the fishing hip,” Spear says. “He’s taught me everything I know about the sport, and I get my competitive nature from him. Our bass-fishing rivalry can get pretty cutthroat and — ”
“You can get cutthroat,” he says. “I’m nothing but a polite gentleman and scholar.”
His daughter laughs. “If you’re such a scholar,” she says, “why don’t you go get the map?”
He smiles and walks out of the room.
Last year, Spear and her father fished a series of team tournaments throughout Ohio called the Norton Marine Midwest Pro series and qualified to compete in its two-day championship. Soon after, they discovered that BASS, an organization owned by ESPN Inc. since 2001, planned to launch the Women’s Bassmaster Tour.
“I knew I had to be part of history-making,” says Spear, who works as a manager and fitness instructor at Curves for Women in Chardon and as a Weight Watchers meeting leader. “The bigger the challenge, the more I want to do something.”
This is a woman who decided to start walking for a little exercise six years ago. Nothing major. But the more Spear walked, the faster she wanted to go. Until obsession trumps reason and the result is race-walking five marathons.
“Bless her heart, the woman just never seems to run down,” says Alvin Pugh, owner of Ashland, Va.-based PRO’S Soft~Bait Glue and one of Spear’s sponsors.
Spear figured her two best traits were vigor and discipline — she lost 25 pounds, and opts for PowerBars when her fishing buddies pound beer. She thought to herself: I love to fish, and who knows — if this tour grows and I win, I could do it for a living.
Two companies, Triton Boats and Mercury Marine, hope to make that happen for female anglers by sponsoring the WBT. At each of the tour’s five events in 2006, the winning female “boater” (an angler who fishes from the front of her own boat) and “non-boater” (an angler — Spear included — who fishes from the back of a boater’s boat and competes only against others in the same category) win average cash and merchandise worth $35,000 and $25,000, respectively.
The WBT is separate and completely unequal from the popular men’s BASS circuit. The top 60 male finishers share a haul worth more than $3 million at tournaments. The top 30 women will split $426,700 in cash and prizes.
“I think we still have a ways to go before we are treated as equally as the men,” says Kimberlee Striker, an Alabama angler who also owns a salon.
Approximately 26 percent of the 34.1 million U.S. anglers are women, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We saw a very underserved category,” says Don Rucks, vice president and general manager of BASS. “We felt we needed to be in that niche.”
This is a chapter in bass fishing history that hasn’t played out yet, but one thing is certain: The book is getting more popular. Bass fishing could be America’s next NASCAR, replete with zealous, Southern-centric fans that align themselves with favorite pros who aren’t household names — Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli, Aaron Martens, Gerald Swindle — and watch them religiously Saturday mornings on ESPN.
Certainly, both sports have critics, folks who can’t believe anyone would watch race cars make 1,000 left-hand turns or anglers cast plastic objects 2,000 times into a lake. But the sport is sprawling — BASS will play host to more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide this year.
People like bass fishing because it’s not complicated: rod, reel, bait, fish and maybe a 12-pack of cold brew. But when you reel your line back and get moss and lake sludge in return, you know more about defeat. When you cast your line into a low-hanging tree and spend five minutes untangling the mess, you know more about humility. Ah, but when you feel the tug of a bite — even just once all day — you don’t pull back your rod. You flex your legs and whip that sucker back with all your might. It’s you against the fish, man against nature. And in the middle of the summer — or winter, in Spear’s case — that’s just cool.
Spear’s father re-enters the living room, holding a 4-foot, colored map of Neely Henry Lake in Gadsden, Ala., site of the WBT’s first event. In a few weeks, he’ll join his daughter for three days of practice on the lake before a two-day tournament that includes 208 boaters and non-boaters. Only the top six in each category will vie for the title during a third day; the top 30 in each category will receive $43,440 in total cash and prizes.
Also at stake: valuable points toward qualifying for the Women’s Bassmaster Tour championship, to be held Feb. 22 through 25, 2007 on Lake Mitchell near Birmingham, Ala., in conjunction with the 2007 men’s CITGO Bassmaster Classic. (“The Classic” is to bass anglers what the World Series is to baseball fans.) The women’s event will feature the top 12 boaters and non-boaters from the WBT’s inaugural season.
First-place on Lake Mitchell earns you a 2007 fully rigged Triton boat valued at $50,000 and $10,000 cash. The winning non-boater gets a similar package.
“We need to get you your own boat,” Spear’s father says, and his daughter looks down anxiously as if to say, “I know, I know.”
As a non-boater, Spear doesn’t decide where to fish during tournaments. The boater stands in the front and goes where she thinks fish will bite; Spear stands in the back and hopes the boater is right.
Spear figures she needs about $50,000 to get a well-equipped boat, and it’s her No. 1 goal.
Nevertheless, Spear’s father has downloaded specific areas of the Neely Henry Lake map to a GPS device on his Ranger. Spear has studied the map for weeks, analyzing concentric circles that indicate depth, and looking for possible drop-offs and ledges where bass like to hide.
“I also want to find old railroad beds and buried structures because fish love those,” she says. To further prepare, she has read volumes of bass fishing books and magazines, watched a video collection about the sport, and scoured Internet sites and chat rooms that detail the nuances of bass fishing in the South.
And there are nuances.
Ohio lakes typically are much smaller than Southern lakes and more saturated with tournaments that deplete the bass count. “In lakes around Cleveland, fish have seen just about anything presented to them,” Spear says. “You have to fish hard here.”
So she lugs a large tackle box with compartments galore and fishes a “search” bait and rod/reel combination — say, a crank bait with a heavy line — for about an hour. If it doesn’t work, she’ll grab another rod and maybe try a worm. Still nothing after another hour? Then give ’em that trusted jig with a garlic scent. There’s a reason why Wal-Mart has so many tackle aisles in Ohio.
“If you can catch a bass in Ohio, you can catch a bass anywhere,” Spear says. Then, she pauses. “At least that’s what I’m hoping.”
What Spear really wants during the Women’s Bassmaster Tour’s debut event in Alabama is a beaut like the one she caught on a creek near Lake Griffith in Florida when she was 13 years old.
She was fishing on a boat her dad had bought on the spot from a banker who didn’t want to tow it home. One minute the teenager was learning how to rig a shiner minnow with a cork bobber, and the next minute she was getting her photo taken with both arms around an 8-pound largemouth. “When I caught it, I started screaming and dancing,” she recalls.
A fishin’ story: As Spear’s father tells it, he used a 9-inch worm — nothing special — and soon looked into the eyes of a 15-pounder — he swears, the thing must have been 15 pounds! — at Santee Cooper Lake in South Carolina.
He’s telling you, the belly of the bass looked like a basketball. It caught the worm near a piece of isolated structure (Was it timber?). Anyway, that’s why you never — he means, never — pass up one lone twig or little cypress tree. So, he starts to reel it in and the line breaks. Just breaks like that. A shame. Still, it’s awesome to see a creature like that.
Spear recalls the story as she’s fishing on Neely Henry Lake in Alabama. It’s April 20, the first day of the two-day inaugural WBT event. And she just wants to see a “keeper,” something longer than 12 inches. Anything smaller, and the “short fish” goes back.
The whole state of Alabama is a bass-fishing mecca. The number of ’Bama pros on the lake outnumber Buckeye Staters at the event 14-2. Don Rucks, vice president and general manager of BASS, says nearly 210,000 of the organization’s 535,000 members live within in a 500-mile radius of Birmingham. Spear might be in foreign territory, but she has studied the map with her dad for weeks. Plus, when they pre-fished the lake, she caught several decent-sized bass.
Now, as a non-boater in competition, she’s allowed to keep three fish in her boater’s “live well” (an oxidized tank of lake water that keeps fish alive) at any time. If she catches a fourth, she can throw one back.
Her plan, since she and boater Sherri Dodson launched Dodson’s Triton boat wrapped in bright pink (to raise awareness for breast cancer research) at 6 a.m., is to go for the three-fish limit using her trusted jigs, then switch to heavier bait to catch larger bass later in the day. Dodson, an accomplished angler from Alabama, and Spear get along just fine.
“The lake was shallow and unpredictable,” Spear says after the event. More like a river system, the water looked like tea in some parts and chocolate in others.
Spear is getting used to adapting to unfamiliar lakes. When she fished with Sammie Jo Denyes’ at the WBT preview event at Lake Lewisville last October, she adjusted quickly. “I’ve been in the back of the boat as a non-boater, so I know how intimidating it can be,” Denyes’ recalls. “The fishing was tough there. I look back and the Yankee’s got a bass right away.” Five minutes later, Spear had another one. “I said, ‘My goodness, you can fish, girl,’ ” says Denyes’. “I went to the back of the boat to watch her for a minute. She pulls out this scent I’ve never heard of [that smells like garlic]. About a half hour later, she’s pulling in yet another one!”
But in Alabama, the first event of the pro tour, Spear can’t recapture that magic. At 12:30 p.m., Spear snags a 1-pound-2-ounce Kentucky striper — a keeper.
“Bass are fighting fish,” she’ll say later. “They will give you battles. It’s such a rush when you hook one. ... You think, Just get it in the boat, just get it in the boat!”
During the rest of the day, she catches two more fish but neither are keepers. When she brings her striper to ESPN’s weigh-in stand, she’s interviewed by the station, which covers WBT events on “Bass Saturday.”
The interviewer asks Spear, “Where in the world is Chardon, Ohio?”
“Snow capital of the world, east of Cleveland,” she replies, then notices her new sponsor, Lee Sisson of Florida-based Lee Sisson Lures, in the audience. Spear loudly begins thanking all her sponsors.
“He laughed and asked me if I wanted his job,” she says. “Then he handed me the microphone and let me do my thing.”
Thunderstorms pounded Alabama that night. “The fish got all lockjaw for me” on Day 2, Spear says. She didn’t catch a fish that day and finished tied for 77th out of 104. “Sometimes, you just realize you need to watch and learn more,” she says, “but I’m convinced I can compete on this level.”
A fishin’ story: As Charlie Case, of Case Plastics, tells it, Spear’s dad was sitting in a lawn chair one day. He puts his arms behind his head to relax, and he has these huge sweat stains under each one. He stank from fishin’ all day, and a friend from Parma says, “Why you grubby son of a bitch!” The name stuck. Ah, the camaraderie of fishin’ is hard to beat, eh?
Grubby and his daughter are standing next to each other on his Ranger boat, cruising near the west end of Portage Lakes. The weather is good for fishing in early May — mostly sunny, with water temperature ranging from 64 to 68 degrees.
Spear is wearing blue jeans instead of a winter coat. Her green short-sleeved shirt is untucked. Behind her back is a beautiful scene: expensive houses lining either side of the lake that’s nearly empty and blue, and a few slow-moving white clouds above.
“I bet there’s bass under there!” she says, pointing to a 1-foot separation between the top of the water and the bottom of a ratty dock. She reaches into the boat and grabs another rod, quickly changing from a spinner bait to a plastic jig that looks like a small frog.
She takes the jig in her left hand flips it underhand toward the opening. It lands with a soft plop, making a tiny ripple exactly where she aimed. Perfect toss. No bite. Damn bass.
She reels in the jig, and her arm repeats the movement. Spear does this again and again — 15 straight minutes, hitting her mark nearly every time. Her backyard fire pit would be proud.
She turns to her father, who’s fishing out of the back of his own boat, and looks at him. Grubby doesn’t see her as he flicks his wrist and watches his bait ascend skyward then fall into the lake.
“Alabama was tough, but I learned a lot,” she says, now looking into the water. “The first year will be a real test, but I love that I made the decision to give it a shot.” She flips her jig again and continues: “When you’re launching in the morning and it’s still dusk, it’s beautiful. All the boats go out and hit full throttle as the sun comes up. Then, it’s game on.”
But none of those boats are hers. Not yet. But give her time.
She has three more WBT events this year, and $50,000 will buy her a new boat. She’ll be in control. Her father will download lake maps to her GPS device. Who knows? Maybe she’ll be the WBT’s first female version of Kevin VanDam. She’ll squint and purse her lips and catch lunkers like you wouldn’t believe. Her first chance will be July 27 through 29 at Lake Norman, N.C. The latitude will be 35.59 N, but part of her pitchin’ and flippin’ soul will be in Chardon.
At noon, Spear’s father pulls in the first catch of the day, a 1-1/2-pound smallmouth bass. It looks similar to every other bass in the lake — slimy and gray — and it’s writhing to stay alive.
He grabs it by the mouth, and holds it up to his waist. His daughter kneels to its level and admires the fish’s size. She grins and touches its scales. Before her dad tosses the bass back, Spear looks eye to eye at a fish out of water, admirable and attractive in its own way, determined to survive no matter the challenge.
12:00 AM EST
June 27, 2006