Bob Cobb, founding producer of the acclaimed TV fishing show The Bassmasters, is considered the Fellini of angling. But the look in Cobb’s eye this moment isn’t an artist’s gleam but a soldier’s thousand-yard stare. The object of his gaze — a 300-pound Arkansas fisherman — is on a boat several feet off the bow of Cobb’s vessel. Despite the fact that nothing has happened all morning, Cobb keeps his eyes locked on the keeper-sized fisherman as he casts into northern Florida’s Little Lake Harris. ”Filming fishing when the fish aren’t biting,” Cobb says, ”is like watching the paint dry.”
Standing behind Cobb, Tim Miller is grinding away with a TV news-style video camera. He’ll have to shoot all day in a lurching boat, heavy equipment balanced precariously on his shoulder. Like Cobb, Miller appears to be verging on a trance. All that he’s filming is the 300-pound fisherman not catching fish. ”Say what you like,” the cameraman mutters. ”To me it’s a whole lot better than shooting car commercials in a studio.”
Staring at nothingness for hours is only one of the occupational hazards faced by Cobb and his crew of five men in three boats. But there are compensations. Over the past five years, their weekly Nashville Network program (Sundays, 1-1:30 p.m. and 10:30-11 p.m.) has evolved into the Citizen Kane of fishing shows.
To most people, this isn’t exactly high praise. Traditionally the words ”fishing show” have meant a host named Goober tying lures in his garage. Bassmasters is different: good camerawork, colorful scripts, often dramatic tension.
But what truly distinguishes the program is its extensive coverage of the seven lucrative fishing tournaments sanctioned annually by the 515,000-member Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS). They’re treated as news events — and edited like music videos.
Today the Bassmasters crew is filming the Megabucks V six-day tournament. It has a $600,000 purse and a $108,000 first prize, the biggest in history. Restricted to what the group considers the 250 best bass fisherman in the U.S., it will be the subject of the entire July 1 installment of Bassmasters.
To get material to fill the 30-minute show, the crew must film 10 hours a day for four days. ”No other way to do it. Fishermen want to see the big catches,” Cobb says. ”You have to be there when the fish is caught, with the camera on. You can’t nod off because nothing is happening that second. A fish can hit a lure and be landed in the time it takes a fellow to finish a yawn. If we miss the catch, our audience misses the catch.”
Still, the Bassmaster boats are bound to miss some important catches. Wouldn’t it be easy to doctor a shot of a crucial catch? ”This is an honest show,” Cobb says. ”Credibility is vital to the success of The Bassmasters, and if we ever lose the trust of our viewers, then we might as well hang up our cameras.”
Gentle waves lap the Bassmaster boat as Cobb resumes his silent pondering of the man from Arkansas. Suddenly the fisherman gives up and roars off, creating a substantial wave. Cobb and Miller hustle toward the front of their vessel and scoop up their film equipment. Too late: The crew and some equipment are soaked.
A dripping Cobb reconsiders his strategy. A report comes over a walkie-talkie from the other side of the lake detailing who’s catching what. Cobb looks at a map showing where each fisherman is working, then says, ”Let’s go see Roland.”
Roland. Fishermen say the name the way golfers say Arnold. That’s because for more than 20 years, Roland Martin of Clewiston, Fla., has defined competitive bass fishing. Named Bass Angler of the Year nine times, Roland has won more tournaments than anyone in bass-fishing history.
Even more impressive than Roland’s awards, however, is his star quality. His own well-regarded fishing show has been running on cable’s TBS for six years. Children approach him for autographs. His fishing jacket is covered with corporate logos. He runs his own huge marina and condominium development near Lake Okeechobee, Fla. But even though Roland has grown rich and famous, he has always had the people’s touch.
Unfortunately, Roland hasn’t had the winner’s touch for several years. Still, he is the sentimental favorite among the fishing fans converged here. If Roland could win this, it would be like Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last time at bat. ”To most people,” Cobb says, ”Roland Martin is fishing.”
In the first four days, Roland caught 54 pounds of bass to lead the competition. But with the field down to 10, he ended yesterday in eighth place; he has only a few hours to catch up.
Cobb putters up to Roland’s boat. ”What’s been your strategy?” Cobb asks. Roland flips and reels, flips and reels, then gives a technical reply about ”pattern-fishing,” a system he invented to track the changing movements of bass. Just as Roland finishes his discourse, the fish start biting. Big fish. The cameras are rolling.