MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- Can the big one get away when your boat's doing 70 mph?
The World Championship Fishing circuit, sanctioned by the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, now blends old-fashioned fishing with a bass-boat obstacle course in which competitors sometimes reach that speed.
The events have some critics questioning whether the sedate old sport has the need for such speed.
''What's it got to do with fishing?'' said Ray Scott, founder and former president of the 600,000-member BASS. ''You can't get a bait under water at 6,000 rpm.''
Scott says the high-speed contests are bad for the sport's image and could tarnish the organization's reputation for promoting boating safety.
Helen Sevier, his successor at Montgomery, Ala.-based BASS, says the WCF events are designed to draw new, younger fans with ''spectator-friendly, made-for-TV events.''
She questioned Scott's motivation.
''Why would anyone involved in the fishing industry seek to destroy something that will be so beneficial to the industry and its millions of participants?'' Sevier said in a statement.
The first WCF event, held in August in Illinois, drew 38,000 spectators over three days. BASS officials say that's a record for fishing-boating events.
BASS plans six more this summer at sites to be announced, spokesman George McNeilly said.
At the Illinois event, 22 fishermen paid $35,000 for the chance at a $251,000 first-place catch (out of a $525,000 purse) on Rend Lake, with 60 percent of the score coming from the weight of their catch and 40 percent from the timed course. There were several mishaps, but no serious injuries.
One competitor, Skeet Reese, was flung out of the cockpit and into the opposite side of the boat while taking a 180-degree turn too fast. But the kill switch shut off the motor before he was thrown from the boat. The image was shown twice on Fox TV's one-hour Thanksgiving Day telecast of the event.
It didn't dampen Reese's enthusiasm for WCF.
''I think it's awesome,'' said the Californian, who bruised both arms. ''I support it. I think this is the best marketing tool we've had to bring people into fishing.
''Is somebody blowing this out of proportion? Absolutely. Are we creating havoc on the waterways? No.''
Reese said the danger level in the competition isn't very high. ''On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd consider it about a 2,'' he said. ''I think overall the chances of something really detrimental happening are pretty slim.''
The boats reach top speeds of about 70 mph on two 1,000-foot straightaways, then make a pair of 180-degree turns.
The average speed is less than 40 mph and the risk is minimal, Sevier said.
''I would contend that boating in a WCF competition is safer than venturing out on a public lake on a busy summer afternoon,'' she said. ''The assertion that WCF will lead to unsafe boating by amateurs is about as ridiculous as saying that NASCAR fans will be inspired to race door-to-door on the interstate.''
Harold Sharp, the second person to join BASS in 1968, said he fears what risks fishermen will take for a six-figure payday.
''I think you're going to cause some of these anglers to push their boats beyond what they can control, just to try to win,'' said Sharp, director of BASS' fishing tournaments from 1970 to '87 under Scott and a booking agent for several pro anglers. ''It's a very dangerous thing.''
Scott has sent letters and video clips of the first event lobbying against the high-speed events to the media, state government officials and sanctioning organizations.
Alabama Lt. Gov. Steve Windom responded to Scott's letter by saying he was ''shocked and surprised that there are fishing competitions that mix fishing and boat racing.''
Windom expressed concern ''that the glamorization of high-speed bass boat driving on television could cause amateur boaters all over the country to mimic this behavior.''
According to Scott, there is no contradiction between his opposition to the high-speed bass events and his recording of a promotion played for callers at Tennessee-based Triton Boats touting the fact that one of the company's boats ''won the World Championship Fishing bass and boat competition'' and ''outran and outmaneuvered every other bass boat in the competition.''
Scott, who sold BASS in 1987, said the ad was not a personal stamp of approval on the WCF events.
''Power is not my argument; I don't like the abuse of it,'' he said. ''I don't have a quarrel with boat racing. What I have a quarrel with is mixing the two. It's a bad message to be sending for young people.
''There's nothing personal about it. If I can be shown any correlation between racing and catching bass, I'd say let's go.''
End Adv for Sunday, March 12, and thereafter
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