This Ozarks community has gone crazy over bass fishing this weekend.
Everywhere you look, there are reminders that bass fishing’s big show, the Bassmaster Elite Series, is in town.
Several thousand fans have jammed into town to get a look at the pros they have seen on television and read about on websites and in magazines. This is their idea of the big leagues.
Since Thursday, those fans have awakened early to watch the flashy bass boats take off on Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes, and they have crowded onto the campus of Arkansas State University to watch the weigh-ins and get autographs and photos of their heroes.
They have toured a sports show, making their own fishing lures at one booth and watching the kids pitch lures into the open mouth of a plastic bass at another.
They have even taken to the water and followed the pros, using binoculars to get a good look at how and where they fish.
Oh, yeah, this is a big deal. There are only 11 Elite tournaments across the nation, from Florida to New York to Wisconsin to Maryland. And when the pros rolled into Mountain Home for an Elite tournament that started Thursday and will end today, they received a hero’s welcome.
“These aren’t your grandfather’s fishing tournaments,” said Eric Lopez, director of events for Bassmaster. “These are events, not just tournaments.
“There is a bidding process for communities to even get these Elite Series events. Some fans will wait until we release our schedule for the next year before even planning their vacation.
“For bass fishermen, these tournaments are huge.”
Count Rickey York of Cherokee Village, Ark., as one of the avid bass fishing fans who couldn’t wait for the big boys to arrive in the Ozarks.
He was in his boat Friday on Bull Shoals, helping photographers get close enough to the pros to take pictures. And he was loving every minute of it.
“I follow Bassmaster on TV and the internet, but I’ve never been to one of these tournaments,” he said. “To me, this is more exciting than being at a ballgame.
“To be able to watch the pros and see how they fish, this is just a blast.”
Nearby, another large group of spectators watched intently as pro Randy Howell worked a bass hovering over a spawning bed at the back of a pocket.
The group of family and friends had traveled from St. Charles and St. Peters, Mo., to see the pros in action.
“What’s impressive is that these guys come here from so many different states, and they have a limited amount of time to find fish,” said Brian Mueller, who was with his wife, Kimberly. “This is a huge lake and you wonder how they narrow down that water to find bass.
“But they do. That’s why they’re pros.”
Rick Clunn has reluctantly become a hero for senior citizens.
After a long career in which he became one of bass fishing’s all-time greats, he slipped out of the public eye for a while. But he stepped back into the spotlight in March when he became the oldest competitor to win a Bassmaster tournament.
Now, approaching his 70th birthday in August, he is a role model for those who are aging but still have some gas in their tank.
“My wife is getting tired of hearing the word ‘old-timer,’ ” joked Clunn, who lives in Ava, Mo. “I think the word ‘mature’ sounds better.”
Whatever the case, Clunn proved that he still has what it takes. In a sport dominated by young guns, with their straight brims on their ballcaps, tattoos and swag, he still belongs.
“People would say, ‘You’re done,’ ” he said after Friday’s round of fishing at Bull Shoals. “Well, no, I’m not.
“No matter how old you are, you can compete at a high level. When I won that tournament, I think it was an inspiration for a lot of people who are getting older.
Still, Clunn concedes the pro game is tougher than it once was.
“You don’t have any dummies out there anymore,” he said. “Every one of these guys is a good fisherman.
“There’s a lot more information out there, the equipment is better and the guys work at it.”
Clunn paused and added, “But I can still fish with them. I still know how to catch ‘em.”
“On the Road Again.” That would be a good theme song for the Bassmaster Elite fishermen.
Fans see the glamorous side — the glitzy weigh-ins, the endorsements, the big checks after winning a tournament, the national recognition.
But there’s a lot more to it than that. Take it from Brent Chapman of Lake Quivira.
Sometimes competing on bass fishing’s highest circuit seems like one big road trip.
“I haven’t been home since Jan. 31 and I won’t be back until May 18,” said Chapman, 43, who has competed in Bassmaster tournaments since 1994. “Luckily, I have my family with me.
“We have a fifth-wheel (RV) and we travel together. Bobbi (Chapman’s wife) home-schools the kids, so we are able to go on the road.
“But sometimes all the traveling isn’t easy.”
There are advantages, though.
For example, Chapman’s children — Mason, 12, and Makayla, 10 — have already seen 44 states, more than most adults have. And Chapman points out that the family has seen and experienced some amazing things while on the road.
“Family has to come first,” Chapman said.
He has done a good job of balancing the demands of pro bass fishing and family life.
Chapman is one of the top fishermen on the circuit. He won the Bassmaster Angler of the Year honors in 2012 and has qualified for 13 Classics, the circuit’s championship events.
But it’s not as easy as it looks, he said.
“It’s way harder than I ever imagined it would be,” Chapman said. “You can be the best angler back home and think you’re pretty good, but everyone at this level is good.
“The competition is unbelievable. When you do well at this level, you’ve done something.”