In its continuing maturation as a sports town, Sacramento hooks another big league event this week.
This whirlwind tournament brings to town the best for four days of harried competition, captured in high-definition by dozens of cameras for ESPN and streamed live via the Web around the globe. During contests, sponsor logos plaster nearly every flat surface in sight. Wearing replica jerseys, fans mob stars for autographs. They play along in fantasy leagues at home.
This sport isn’t about balls but bass.
Starting April 30, Sacramento hosts for the first time the Bassmaster Elite Series, an apex of competitive professional fishing. With 106 top-ranked anglers, the four-day tournament casts off from Discovery Park at dawn with weigh-ins at 3 p.m. each day. The champion gets a $100,000 check on Sunday.
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“It’s awesome,” said Mike Sophia, director of the Sacramento Sports Commission, who estimated the event’s economic impact at $1.6 million. “We went after this event. It’s a great deal for our economy and the whole outdoor sports community.”
Sacramento fits the ideal fishing (and fishing fan) demographics, according to Bassmaster organizers. “We’ve been in several different locations in the state, but this is our first time to bring the Elite Series to the Sacramento River,” said Eric Lopez, Bassmaster’s director of event operations. “These are the best anglers in the world. That’s all they do – fish.”
Why should we care? Consider what pro bass fishing has going for it:
1. It’s a sport for average folks.
“This is an every guy sport,” said Lopez, who spent years with ESPN doing event planning for such diverse sports franchises as the Olympics, World Cup and X Games. “People like to identify themselves as somebody who likes – or may like – to fish.”
With all the trappings of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup (including gas fumes), Bassmaster has gone from Southeastern niche sport to global brand.
Just like NASCAR plugs into fans’ behind-the-wheel-in-traffic fantasies, Bassmaster invites its own vicarious appeal. Its fan festival this weekend features the opportunity to learn how to fish successfully from the pros as well as to try out top equipment and bass boats.
“Everybody thinks they can fish – and they can,” Lopez said. “It’s a matter if they can catch.”
Among the Elite pros, ages range from 19 to 60-plus. Although the top series is currently all male, Bassmaster officials expect some women to break into bass fishing’s big leagues soon. “Fish don’t know sex,” Lopez said. “It’s only a matter of time.”
2. These fish will swim free.
Large-mouth bass – in the 4- to 10-pound range – are the goal of these anglers, but none of their catches will be served for dinner.
“It’s all catch and release,” said Auburn’s Skeet Reese, who won the Bassmaster Elite tournament at Lake Guntersville, Ala., earlier this month. “Our boats have these big aerated tanks. You’re allowed to weigh in five each day. It’s a culling process. You keep fishing and letting the smaller ones go.”
After the afternoon weigh-in, the fish are returned to their home waters.
“They must be alive for the weigh-in,” Lopez said. “There are big penalties for a dead fish.”
3. The boats are super cool.
Flat-bottomed bass boats whisk the anglers to their preferred waters. With powerful engines and price tags up to $80,000, these boats can travel 80 mph on the water. They’ll depart in groups from Discovery Park starting at 6:15 a.m. each day. (The docks in Old Sacramento will be a good down-river viewing point for this early morning scramble. The boats do have to slow to 5 mph in no-wake zones.)
Once they launch, the anglers can fish anywhere on the Sacramento River or the Delta. They’ve just got to make it back by the weigh-in deadline.
“Two hours out is about as far as you can go here,” said Reese, the 2007 Angler of the Year. “The secret to catching bass is time on the water; there’s no substitute for that. Patience is key.”
Timing is crucial, too. “Down here on the Delta this time of year, there’s only a 45-minute window when the fish are really active and they feed,” Reese said. “You’ve got to be there when they’re biting.”
So is the right lure. “Lure selection is very important; I carry more lures than most tackle shops,” Reese added. “It’s endless; you’re always trying to come up with something that’s the newest, greatest thing. You’re trying to find something the fish haven’t seen a thousand times before, and in these waters, that’s not easy. A lot of people fish here.”
4. An ounce can be worth $100,000.
Every ounce equals one point. After two days, the field is cut to 52 anglers with the best scores. On Sunday, only the top 12 anglers fish. Like a golf tournament, the winner is determined by a cumulative score for all four days. The winner earns $100,000. Second place gets $25,000 with lesser purses down the line through all 52.
“It can be a game of ounces,” said Reese, who estimates the winner will top 88 pounds for the 20 fish weighed over four days. “I’ve lost tournaments by an ounce.”
Sunday, each finalist is accompanied by an ESPN cameraman and a contest marshal, who relays details of each catch to tournament officials. Those weights are fed into a live leader-board for fans watching at home. Fans also can see live on-boat video. (The tournament itself will be broadcast on ESPN2 at a date to be announced.)
“You literally can sit at your computer and watch someone fish all day,” Lopez said.
5. It’s about more than fish.
So far, the drought has been kind to these waters, observed Reese, 46, who has been fishing this area for nearly 30 years.
“Right now, you don’t see the effects yet,” he said. “You don’t see big fluctuations in the river like you do at Folsom Lake. We’re going to see effects – mainly saltwater intrusion – as we go into the summer.”
The weekend family-friendly festival features lots of hands-on opportunities to learn about the river system and ecology as well as its bass and how to catch them.
“We try to be good stewards,” Lopez said. “We want to make sure our sport is around for generations.”
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BASSMASTER ELITE AT SACRAMENTO RIVER
What: 106 of nation’s best anglers compete for $100,000 first prize
Where: Discovery Park, 1000 Garden Highway, Sacramento; expo and weigh-in are located near the boat launch area.
When: April 30-May 3; boats launch at 6:15 a.m. each day; weigh-in at 3 p.m. each afternoon.
Bassmaster festival: This free family expo will be open noon to 5 p.m. May 2 and 3.