Why Are These Men Smiling?

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As the Elites prepare to compete on Lake Fork this week, I can’t help but think of my first trip to the famed Texas bass factory. It was April of 2008, and I was there not to fish but rather to cover the event for the Professional Anglers Association, which was still in its heyday. I remember it as one of the most uniformly jubilant fishing events that I’ve ever attended — even those who didn’t catch ‘em seemed happy. The anglers were divided into four-man teams who worked together, we were fed copious amounts of Texas food and drink (you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten peach cobbler out of a six-foot diameter skillet and washed it down wish a Shiner Bock), and Trace Adkins performed.

It could very well have been a humorless and morose event. The stock market had crashed a few months earlier, the first signs of the recession were starting to hit home, and the average price of gas nationwide was headed towards $4 a gallon. 

The PAA, of course, was an organization meant to give the anglers a greater say in their careers, but unless I was exceptionally naive, there wasn’t substantial bitterness in their mission. They did not aim to undermine or replace FLW or BASS, just supplement them. BASS even sent a writer and photographer to cover it, so I suspect there was little or no ill will flowing in that direction.

Happy Gilmore checks were given out, the show was dramatic, and everyone seemed pleased with the format. A decade later, though, it’s tough to find that kind of “one-for-all” feeling at any sporting event, let alone a tournament. The Classic, in my experience, is the closest thing we have, but by necessity it’s so big that the intense emotions and camaraderie are more distilled.

Of course, the recession bottomed out after that tournament, and the PAA — partially through its members’ actions and partially through no fault of its own — went the way of the Edsel. Just 11 years later our sport seems so much adversarial. I guess that’s the way of the world now, in everything from sports to politics to entertainment: it seems that a majority of the people define themselves not by what they like, but rather by what they are against. The word “disruptive” has become so romanticized that people view it as their raison d’etre. Instead of treating the possibility of disruption as a means to an end, they view it as the end in itself. This culture of insubordination has clearly infected our sport, as I’ve heard from anglers on all three tours who wish for others to fail perhaps more than they focus on their own success.

Not all of them are concerned with others’ demise, instead choosing to keep their eyes in their own lane, but the numbers are great enough to cause concern. There will come another shock to our economic or political system at some point, possibly in the form of a recession or an energy crisis or some other geopolitical strife.  Even if the broader culture remains mired in a downward spiral, fishing can’t afford that. Our collective status is too precarious for fracturing at our foundations. I’m not saying you’ve got to love the people on your tour, or on one of the others, but if you do your job rather than trying to kneecap the others (while worrying about getting kneecapped yourself) the results on the scale will speak for themselves.

As Sam Rayburn once said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.”