From The Associated Press via Google
COLUMBIANA, Ala. — Skeet Reese's welcome to pro bass fishing moment hit him like a splash of cold water about a dozen years ago.
He was sitting in a meeting with the other anglers the day before a tournament when an organizer noted Reese and other Californians who were trying to dangle their lines into the sport's traditionally Southern-style waters.
Then, a dead-serious voice drawled from the back of the room, "We don't recognize anglers from the West."
That Southern fella is out of the business now. Reese and others from the West Coast and places like suburban Philadelphia are thriving in a sport that increasingly blends hip-hop with Hank Williams, city boys with good ol' boys.
The sport hasn't migrated north quite yet. Two-thirds of the 51 competitors at the Elite Series' signature event, the Bassmaster Classic, will still be from the South when it begins on Lay Lake south of Birmingham on Friday.
But Reese and Philly native Mike Iaconelli finished 1-2 in the Classic last year. Michigan's Kevin VanDam won in 2001, California native Jay Yelas took the prize the next year, followed by Iaconelli.
"I think it's cool that now we've got people from all different parts of the country," Reese said. "It's not just a Southern thing. We've got people from New York and Maryland to California and Oregon and Arizona and Texas. We've got the country pretty well covered."
Japan is well represented, too. The field includes two Japanese anglers, Kataro Kiriyama and Takahiro Omori, who in 2004 became the first Classic winner not born in the U.S.
By contrast, in 2002 and 2003 there were a combined 21 anglers from outside the Deep South with slightly larger fields than this year's event.
An Elite Series event has been held in Syracuse, N.Y., the last four years, and the two events following the Classic will be in California.
Still a Southern-dominated sport, pro bass fishing has at least gradually started to branch out.
There's the flamboyant Reese, with New Zealand rapper Savage's song "Swing" blaring on his ring tone.
And Iaconelli, who grew up 15 minutes from Philadelphia, lives in New Jersey and speaks with a rapid-fire pace that certainly stands out against the more leisurely Southern drawl in these parts.
Iaconelli said he spent his first couple of years in semipro and pro fishing trying to conform to what he thought of as the sport's norms — straight-legged jeans with tucked-in, buttoned-up shirts and personalities to match.
Now, Iaconelli points to anglers like Gerald Swindle, Denny Brauer and Jeff Kriet as bringing different styles to the tour.
"You've got all these polar-opposite personalities and looks and emotions and ways of fishing," he said. "Now you have a whole new generation of angler that you can turn on the TV or read an article and be like, 'I can relate to that guy. That guy's me.' That's important in growing a sport, to be able to capture a big audience, especially the youth."
He even hosts "City Limits Fishing," a cable show where Iaconelli and other anglers find good fishing spots in various major cities.
Reese thinks the success of himself and Iaconelli has broken "the barriers of stereotypical bass fishing." Both wear jeans, just the kind with fashionable holes in them. Both favor hip-hop over Hank. Iaconelli's favorite food: Sushi.
Reese has won four Elite Series events and $2.1 million in his career; Iaconelli has reeled in six wins and $1.65 million.
"We finally have a group of guys here that covers all demographics," Reese said. "There's a lot of people that don't like Mike. I'm sure there's a lot of people that don't like me. All of us still have tons of fans, because we cater to everybody now. Finally, I'd say in the last three years, I have proven to the rest of the country that the California kid can catch fish. I've earned my stripes out here and nobody can take that away from me.
"Now that I've done that, it's kind of opened the doors. Now we're mainstream."
Fellow angler Terry Butcher isn't sure what to think of the music; he confesses he's never heard of rapper 50 Cent, for instance.
Butcher, who grew up in Oklahoma but speaks with a twang that fits nicely in Alabama, thinks the regional diversity is a boon to bass fishing.
"There's all makes and kinds," Butcher said. "California, New York, New Jersey. They come from all over.
"In order for the sport to keep growing, it's got to bring all kinds in. I think it's great."
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service