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It’s all about that ‘bass’

Pretty weather in Tennessee can put a song in the most stoic of hearts. Maybe that heart is still singing Nashville resident Meghan Trainor’s sensation “It’s All About That Bass.” But chances are, if you’re one of the 826,000 Tennesseans who purchase an annual fishing license, you’ve changed that “long a” sound to a “short a” sound, because to our Volunteer State anglers, it’s all about that bass…and that treble you’re singing about isn’t the piercing pitch of a musical note; it’s a three-pronged hook.

Bass Fishing is an incredible pastime in Tennessee. COURTESY TENN DEPT OF TOURISM DEV

Bass Fishing is an incredible pastime in Tennessee. PHOTO COURTESY TENNESSEE DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM

This is your casting call, Nashville–in the most literal sense—and you’re not heading to that audition alone. According to the current survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, fishing annually attracts over 33 million individuals to US waters, individuals who spend $41.8 billion on trips, equipment and licenses.

It’s no fish tale when we say fishing is big business in Tennessee—especially when you consider that 60 percent of the US population is only a day’s drive away from 29 major Tennessee reservoirs and 19,000 miles of Tennessee rivers and streams brimming with diversity. In fact, our local waters are home to 315 species of fish, but to Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare, there are only two. “My favorite fish to catch…is a smallmouth bass,” he labors in an I’m-in-no-hurry, Southern drawl. “Next to that…is a largemouth bass. That’s about it…for me.

There’s nothin’…like pullin’ a largemouth bass out of the water. I can stand in front of 20,000 people and sing…and I don’t get nervous or nothing…but…when I realize I’m about to catch a big fish, my nerves go all to pieces. I got to have it.”

That’s a feeling seconded by professional angler and boat builder Gary Clouse who fishes competitively on the BASS tournament circuit—a circuit that often awards payouts of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the competitor who snags the biggest bass in tournament action. “I joined a little bass club when I was fourteen. I just got hooked by the sport. It’s kind of like golf, in that you either love it or you hate it; and if you love it, you get addicted to it.” Clouse, it appears, is addicted.

Gary Clouse founded Pheonix Boats in Winchester, Tenn., in 2007. PHOTO BY BILL BJORK, COURTESY FINSNTALES

Gary Clouse founded Pheonix Boats in Winchester, Tenn., in 2007. PHOTO BY BILL BJORK, COURTESY FINSNTALES

“A lot of professional anglers have moved to Tennessee,” he adds. “Within a short distance, they can hone their skills in a variety of techniques needed to compete on a professional level all over the country.”

Clouse himself made the move from Missouri to Tennessee in 1988 to work in the boating industry. In 2007, he threw his own line in the industrial waters and founded Phoenix Boats, manufactured locally in Winchester, Tennessee. Eight years into the ride, Clouse has witnessed the sales of Phoenix bass boats jump to $30 million. Yes, that’s a lot of zeroes, and if fishing enthusiasts continue to plunge past the water’s edge, that number will jump again–money that pumps directly back into our Tennessee economy.

The popularity of fishing is growing…especially in Tennessee with its yin and yang resources of warm and cold waters, shallow and deep holes, weed cover and rocky, underwater terrain. More anglers are investing in their recreation time, trying to purchase some balance for their busy lives.

“I know only too well that fishing as a hobby…can be expensive…if you let it,” Bare says with his elbows propped casually on his kitchen table, his chin resting lightly on the tips of his A-frame fingers. “A few years ago, my wife Jeannie cooked up a big mess of fish for dinner, and…I started thinkin’ bout how much those fish cost. I figured my boat cost me over $50,000, and I bought a $50,000 SUV to pull it…Then there’s insurance, gas, licenses and lures.” His Sinatra blue eyes twinkle, and he begins to chuckle as he adds, “Baby, those fish ain’t cheap.”

So if fishing can cost a fin and a gill just to set the hook, why do Tennesseans do it? To understand the answer to that question, all you have to do is close your eyes and visualize.

Dawn is beginning to break. A silver sliver of light peaks over the top of the hazy blue of the silhouetted Tennessee hills that frame the horizon. Somewhere in the distance you hear the lonesome call of a bird and a faint splash. You know the fish are there, and they’re hungry. With a twist of the key, you breathe life into a 175HP motor. As you open up the throttle, that rhythmic chug chug becomes a roaring purr, and with every passing second you’re putting at least 100 feet between you and the boat ramp. The world is alive, and so are you.

Pheonix Boats - In eight years, annual sales of Pheonix bass boats has jumped to $30 million! PHOTO COURTESY OF GARY CLOUSE

Pheonix Boats – In eight years, annual sales of Pheonix bass boats has jumped to $30 million! PHOTO COURTESY OF GARY CLOUSE

Couple the fantasy with the challenge of out thinking the fish, and you have yourself quite the sport. It’s a challenge made easier by the technological advancements in electronics that make the interior of some bass boats resemble aircraft carriers. With big screen monitors, full circle sonars and hydraulic shallow water anchors, rigs now have major bling–something outdoor recreation retailer Bass Pro Shops knows all about.

Last year the Bass Pro Group acquired Fishing Holdings LLC, the manufacturer of fishing chariots Ranger, Stratos and Triton Boats. Talk about big bling envy! The decked-out 2015 Triton 22 TRXDC has a suggested retail price of $102,895. You read that right, over a hundred grand for a boat to get you to that fishing hole that nature provided for free.

Now before you wring your fish-scented hands in angst, thinking that you somehow blinked and fishing evolved into a rich man’s pastime… before you worry you’ll be left on the side of the bank with your cane pole, your grandmother’s faded green and white lawn chair and a Styrofoam cooler full of worms and soft drinks… before all this, think again (Although, quite honestly, that image sounds heavenly).

Let’s make a few things clear.

First of all, you don’t have to mortgage the house, forfeit a college education or promise your firstborn child to get in the middle of the action. For example, affordable Tracker boat packages start around $5,000. It might not get you to that fishin’ hole as fast as the big boys, but it WILL get you there, plus you won’t wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night wondering how in the world you’re going to afford the gift that keeps on giving for the next 72 months—the payments for that boat.

Barb Elliott of the Lady Bass Angler’s Association. PHOTO COURTESY SOUTHERN SPORTS GROUP

Barb Elliott of the Lady Bass Angler’s Association. PHOTO COURTESY SOUTHERN SPORTS GROUP

Secondly, fishing isn’t relegated to men. Ladies, you can puff up like a blowfish and complain until you’re blue in the gills about your man spending most weekends and summer nights holding slippery fish instead of adorable you. However, the more you nag, the longer your man will probably stay on the water. You can even join the community page “Fishing Widows” on Facebook, a page “for all of us who have to put up with bait in the fridge, boxes of lures stacked in the closet and fishing line tangled in the vacuum….” Or like thousands of women, you can join your guy on the water and embrace the sport of angling.

Many of the women who fish with their male cohorts are good. Really, really good. Like the big boys, the big girls have their own association, the LBAA—Ladies Bass Anglers Association. This pro circuit has tournaments set in multiple locations throughout the Southeast annually, including a Wild Card Tournament in September, where these female anglers will make a splash in Hendersonville, Tennessee in a Women’s Pro Bass Tournament on Old Hickory Lake.

Luke Bryan also loves to do a little bass fishing. PHOTO COURTESY TOMMY WILCOX

Luke Bryan also loves to do a little bass fishing. PHOTO COURTESY TOMMY WILCOX

Even our local celebrities are seeing tournament action these days. Where golf tournaments have always been major means to raise money for those in need, country crooners like Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church and Vince Gill have also used their notoriety for charitable fundraising efforts by casting their cares away. And many celebs, like Luke Bryan, also fish just for fun!

…And yet when we peruse our personal scrapbooks of time, our most cherished mental images of fishing won’t be of a competition, but of the day we caught our first fish, or the day our child pulled in his or her first catch; more likely than not, from a river bank or a small lake from one of our numerous Tennessee state parks. We remember the pure, sweet, innocent joy. The price? Just a few dollars. The cost of a Tennessee fishing license.

Last year Tennessee made $32 million from the sale of sporting licenses. That money allowed the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency to maintain our wildlife habitats, oversee law enforcement as it pertains to those areas and operate fish hatcheries where fish are raised and stocked.

Greg Cole, general manager for Bass Pro Shops Nashville, tips his hat to the TWRA. “TWRA does a great job of managing our natural resources. Their hearts are in the right place–making Tennessee a great place to visit.” High school teacher Gabe Keen concurs.

Miranda Lambert is said to love the outdoors and takes time to go fishing when she can. PHOTO COURTESY MIRANDA LAMBERT

Miranda Lambert is said to love the outdoors and takes time to go fishing when she can. PHOTO COURTESY MIRANDA LAMBERT

On February 13, 2015 Keen broke the Tennessee state largemouth bass record on Lake Chickamauga, a record that stood for 60 years. Keen reeled in a whopping 15-pound, 2-ounce largemouth giving credibility to a 15-year TWRA stocking program of Florida largemouth in the waters near Chattanooga. It’s been reported that you could hear Keen’s cries of delight all the way to Memphis.

“Fishermen are like children,” Bare jokes. “We get so excited when we catch a fish.”

Gary Shiebler has witnessed that excitement on Bare’s face many times. Shiebler moved from California to Middle Tennessee six years ago and has recorded over a dozen fishing themed CDs (Yep. Entire CDs of nothing but fishing songs). For the past 10 years, Shiebler and Bare have fished together in a weekly tournament on Old Hickory Lake. “I wouldn’t trade anything for my time with Bare,” Shiebler gushes. “We’ve fished all over Tennessee…Center Hill, Percy Priest, Kentucky Lake, the Tennessee River. I enjoy fishing, but truthfully, I enjoy the camaraderie fishing brings to my life in the form of friendships.”

Even in this big business bass bonanza with all its fancy bells and whistles, for most people, the joy of fishing still boils down to those Andy and Opie Taylor moments.

Speaking almost in a whisper, Bare slowly leans back in his kitchen chair, crosses his arms and stares out the window. “When I die…I want my ashes sprinkled on a point on Dale Hollow Lake. Jeannie knows where it is. I caught a lot of fish there…had a lot of great times there. People in Tennessee are lucky. We have the greatest…the prettiest…the best lakes in the world…and most people around here take it for granted. Sometimes I shut my motor off and just sit there in the boat…in the middle of all that water…I look around…and think, we have it all.”