A Fish Tale
Rediscovering Richmond's sports history, Brooks Smith takes up fishing.
Farrar: Brooks Smith is rediscovering Richmond's sports history and today, Brooks, we're going to talk about an activity that began, not as a sport, but as a means of survival for even the earliest inhabitants of our region, fishing.
Smith: As Isaac Walton might say, "Oh, the gallant fisher's life, it is the best of any," and you're right. Way back when, when Captain John Smith and Christopher Newport first ventured up the river to the great craggy stones around Richmond, they reported that you could dip a skillet from the gunwale of the boat to catch fish and fry it up right there on the spot.
Farrar: What kinds of fish were native to the river?
Smith: You know, we had all manner of odd fish and, you'll recall, a couple of years ago, I did a piece on sturgeon, those prehistoric creatures that come back to their natal spawning grounds every spring. I wish I could list off all the fish, but I know among them are bass, which to sport fishermen are considered the king of fish to hunt for, in part because they're just so unpredictable and, in a way, they're moody, so they're fun to fish for.
Farrar: Well, fishing from the banks of the James remains a recreational activity for many of us, but there's even a history of professional fishing in Richmond.
Smith: Lo, 'tis true. In the late 80s, Richmond hosted the BASSmasters Classic, and BASS is an acronym that stands for Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society. The BASSmasters Classic is a bit like the Super Bowl of fishing; it takes the best 40 or so professional fishermen from all around the country. They have to compete to get into the Classic, and for three days, they venture up and down the river. The rules are pretty simple: it's the heaviest 3-day weight total wins the prize, and you're only allowed five fish per day, so I guess you fill up your bucket with progressively larger fish and at the end of the three-day run, you weigh in and whoever has the heaviest total claims the prize. We're the only city in the history of the Classic, which started in 1971, to host for three consecutive years, which just goes to show how special our river is.
Farrar: And anglers came from all over to compete.
Smith: They did. We had one local favorite, though, and there's a retired doctor in town named Dr. Greg South. He was a medical doctor by profession; his avocation was fishing and he got into his first Classic in 1984, when it was hosted in Arkansas. A relative unknown in this field of forty elite fishermen, but he ended up coming in a second place winner or second place, so close to winning. He beat everybody in the field except a fellow named Ricky Cline, who was recently named the Best Angler of all time, so it's not a bad person to lose to. He competed again in '86 in Tennessee and then in '88 before a hometown crowd in Richmond and there's a good story that goes with it.
Got off to a mediocre start, I think, in the first day of the competition it was a little bit rainy, which isn't good for fishing, at least not for these elite bass fishermen, and recognizing that he had a, basically, the last day was it for him, he fished for broke. He only fished for the prize, he came in empty for the weigh-in, but as he reported later, 'tis better to have fished and lost, than never to have fished at all.'
Farrar: I understand these tournaments were also spectator sports. People were viewing it on closed-circuit television in the Coliseum.
Smith: Yeah, picture this: a tight, small crown of angler aficionados down by the banks of the James, but amazingly, for this three-year run, we would pack the Coliseum, the 12,000-seat Coliseum, people would sit and watch, throughout the course of the event, these fishermen on the river, and the fire marshals had to turn back people, upwards of a thousand people, trying to get a look at the final day's weigh-in, so this was a big sport, a big attraction, not unlike some of the spectator sports we have now, certainly not as large as RIR or NASCAR, but pretty darn close.
Farrar: Well, so what's the current status of the sport of fishing in the River City?
Smith: There's certainly a lot of people doing it. There's a wonderful book, written by Richmonder John Bryan, it's a classic guide to fishing called "Urban Bass Scene in Richmond," and he basically presented an essential how-to on dipping a line with only ten minutes, a two-piece rod and a pocket tackle kit. I'll tell you what, if you go down to the river or some of the lakes around town these days, it's just teeming with people fishing for recreation and for pleasure, so I think back in the 50s there was this Americana image of father and son or mother and daughter out by the banks of the river fishing, and maybe we're coming back to that. It's fun for the whole family.
Farrar: All right, thanks to Brooks Smith, rediscovering Richmond, continuing his series on the sports of Richmond.
(vocal) I bet you're goin' fishin' all of the time, my baby goin' fishin' too
I bet your life, your lovin' wife's a-gonna catch more fish than you
Any fish bites when you got good bait, and here's a little something I would like to relate,
Any fish bites when you got good bait
I'm a-goin' fishin', yes, I'm goin' fishin', and my baby goin' fishin' too