by Stacy Barawed
Seven hours before our Bassmaster Marshal registration meeting, I was in my hotel room, slightly panicking. My delayed flight from California had landed in South Carolina the previous evening, but my luggage was somewhere between Dallas and the Greenville-Spartanburg airport. There I was, in the same clothes I had worn on my flight, praying I'd reconnect with my bag at some point that day since it contained my life vest and all the rain gear I needed to wear over the next two days.
Fearing the worst, I headed to the nearest shopping center in hopes of purchasing everything I would need if my bag didn't make it on time. Luckily, I got a phone call minutes after stepping into a department store. "We have your bag!" I wasted no time and made the 90-minute round trip to the airport to pick it up.
After stopping for lunch and freshening up at my hotel, I was on my way to the Civic Center of Anderson, S.C., for the Marshal briefing where we would review rules and regulations, attend a social with the Elite pros and find out which angler each of us Marshals would be paired with on Day 1.
I was instantly given a warm welcome upon check-in, and all of the stress from the previous 24 hours seemed to just wash away. Marshals were handed complimentary hats and hoodies — and if you know me at all, you're well aware that I love free stuff. This day had already gone from good to great. I then headed to the briefing room where I discovered a sea of gentlemen in hats. I was the only female, which, honestly, wasn't very surprising.
Tournament rules were explained and Marshals' questions were answered over the next 45 minutes. It was reassuring to know that everyone in the room took their duties as seriously as I did. I even assisted some older gentlemen who needed help installing the BASSTrakk app on their phones — so I made a few friends right away.
We then headed next door for our social with the Elite anglers. Right away, I noticed a large catering spread and immediately regretted the huge lunch I had eaten a couple hours prior to arriving.
After five minutes or so, in walked the Elites. Admittedly, I became starstruck. Seth Fieder! Chris Zaldain! Stetson Blaylock! These were pros who I watched on television and followed on Instagram and Facebook, and here they were, right in front of me, getting ready to fill up on rib tips and banana pudding.
A few words were given by the B.A.S.S. organization before the dinner line started. In the middle of it all, the Marshals received text messages with their angler pairings for the following day. My Day 1 Elite pro would be Bernie Schultz. A B.A.S.S. member pointed him out across the room, so I made a beeline for his table before he started eating.
Too late. Like a fool, I introduced myself while he was chewing. Not cool, Stacy. Not cool. He graciously brushed it off, though. We shook hands, and he asked me to be at the ramp at 6:15 a.m. the following morning.
I headed back to my table with some banana pudding (I never pass up dessert even if I'm not hungry), chatted it up with a couple of my fellow Marshals, then headed back to the hotel to get a good night's rest.
Backing 75 boats down a three-lane ramp takes a good amount of choreography, and I was as impressed by this as I was by the DJ's choice in music (80s and 90s pop, which always gets me going in the morning). By 6:15, the sun was starting to creep up, a small public crowd was gathering and I was in the passenger seat of Bernie's boat, just taking it all in. Once everyone was on the water, the national anthem was sung, and the boats got into some semblance of order, preparing for takeoff.
And I do mean takeoff. If you've never been on a bass boat, allow me to explain: Have you ever stuck your head out of the window of a car doing 75 mph on the freeway? Hopefully not — but if you have, imagine the force of those winds against your entire body for two minutes or two hours depending on how far your angler chooses to run right out of the gates.
Lucky for me, Bernie made a quick 15 to 20 minute run and our first stop was a quiet little cove, with birds chirping in the distance and the sun rising behind us. The temperatures were expected to hit the mid-70s, and it was already starting to warm up. I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful morning. I sat back and observed my pro.
I had done some research on Bernie the night before, and I learned that he not only has a fishing career that spans decades, but that this very event would put him over the $1 million lifetime earnings mark. Therefore, I didn't take one minute of this time with him for granted.
Over the next several hours, I watched intently, just trying to stay out of the way and keep my big yapper shut while taking mental notes at the same time. When appropriate, I logged his catches into BASSTrakk and took photos and videos to pass along to the officials back on shore. But I was also there to learn. I wanted to take home something that would help me in my own local club tournaments.
And what was the main thing I learned? Slow down.
Bernie used a wacky-rigged plastic worm, one of my go-to baits, but I noticed that his movements were far more subtle and far more calculated than mine. From where I sat, he was barely moving his rod whereas I tend to make sharp jerks and then move to a different location if I don't get a bite right away. He would locate a fish and then do everything in his power to catch that fish. Being deliberate and methodical were the keys to his success on the water.
After limiting and culling a few times, we headed back for our 3:45 check-in. Once the weigh-in ceremony concluded, I headed out to get a bite to eat and then retired to my hotel room so I could rest before doing it all over again the next day.
I stepped out of my hotel and couldn't believe my eyes. Rain. So much rain. I knew storms were coming (hence the rain gear I packed), but I didn't expect such thick sheets of water to be falling from the sky. What would this feel like at 70 MPH? I guess I'd find out soon enough.
My angler for Day 2 was Greg Dipalma, an Elite rookie. He was young, fired up, and the rain didn't seem to damper his mood. I was eager to get a fresh perspective from someone new to the tour.
The rain delayed our blast off for 10 or so minutes, and then we were off. Compared to the previous morning, this takeoff was like night and day. I won't bore you with the details of how it took me 30 seconds to realize I was unprepared for water flying at my face at such velocity, but let's just say that next time I'll be better equipped.
Sight fishing was the name of the game on Day 1, but because of the forecasted rain, many predicted that the anglers would have to do something drastically different on this particular morning. Greg started the day fishing topwater lures but didn't have success until he switched to a drop shot. Fortunately, the rain started letting up, giving him enough visibility to start bed fishing again.
And that's when he spotted it — a 5-pounder on a bed. He was practically salivating.
Greg did everything he could to catch that fish. He'd try for 20 to30 minutes, leave and fish another area of the large cove, come back to it for another 45 minutes, then leave and try back for another 20 minutes. In the meantime, he would catch and cull fish, but he knew this particular female could be a game changer for him. At one point, he was literally bumping his plastic worm on her head, but she wouldn't budge. Eventually we left that area.
During the last hour, we found ourselves back in front of that 5-pounder. She was stubborn as ever, and unfortunately we headed back to check-in without her.
Days 3 and 4
With my marshaling duties over, I was free to enjoy all of the festivities that came with the semi-finals and finals over the next two days: sponsor booths, watch parties and even a little beach time down on the shore. I enjoyed just hanging around backstage with the competitors prior to the weigh-ins, and chatting it up with the anglers who stuck around to root on those who made the cut. The best part? No rain.
Championship Sunday was bittersweet. The crowd was huge, loud and there was an exciting buzz about local favorite Brandon Cobb possibly going wire-to-wire for the win. A line of trucks had formed, ready to tow anglers to the stage in their boats to determine who would win $100,000 and the coveted title of Elite champion. My Marshal status gave me such access that these trucks would have run over my foot if I wasn't paying enough attention.
One by one, anglers removed bags from their livewells, posed for the crowd, then hopped on stage to speak to Dave Mercer. Fish were weighed and places were solidified within the top 10. Getting bumped up or down that list potentially represented thousands of dollars in earnings, and well as critical Angler of the Year points, so every ounce counted.
After nine of the weigh-ins, Stetson Blaylock sat in first place. When Brandon Cobb took the stage, you could have cut the anticipation with a knife.
He needed 13 pounds, 6 ounces to unseat Blaylock and take the title, completing a wire-to-wire finish. When Mercer announced his official weight of 16 pounds, 14 ounces, the crowd erupted. He lifted his trophy over his head, his wife joined him on stage, and what seemed like the entire town of Anderson was cheering him on.
This is where it became bittersweet for me. It was coming to an end. It started out rocky, but after spending a week in South Carolina, I grew to love it — the area, the food and the people. I hadn't been called "darlin'" so much in my entire life.
The entire B.A.S.S. organization treated me like nothing less than family, and they really do roll out the red carpet for everyone involved. This is definitely a world-class organization, and I can't wait to see everyone's faces again when I attend the Classic next year and decide where I want to Marshal next — hopefully somewhere dry. If you are a fan of fishing and have the opportunity to be a Marshal, do it! You won't be disappointed.
Thank you, B.A.S.S.