Trevor Lo seemed right at home. The morning had broken clear and chilly over this part of northeast Oklahoma and the big outboard on the transom of his boat idled smoothly, a low rumble. This was the final day of practice before this weekend’s Bassmaster Classic, with its $300,000 first prize, and Lo was playing with the big boys.— Wednesday just before dawn, 21-year-old
The reigning national collegiate bass-fishing champion, the first-ever from Minnesota, Lo soon pulled on a space-age plastic mask to protect his face from the 35-degree cold.
Then he pushed his 20-foot-long fiberglass boat away from a very crowded dock. Emblazoned in maroon and gold, port and starboard, with the words “University of Minnesota,” the craft resembled a low-slung scimitar or, more precisely, a waterborne rocket ship. When Lo poured fuel to her, the boat instantly jumped on plane, the shoreline passing by in a heartbeat at 69.7 miles an hour, a blur.
Entry into the Bassmaster Classic is by merit, and Lo earned his spot in the prestigious event by out-fishing a raft of other collegians last summer on Lake Du Bay near Stevens Point, Wis.
With that victory came use for a year of a new boat and its 250-horsepower outboard, along with a new truck to pull it. Also included was a $7,500 stipend to cover fishing expenses, as well as entry into the “Classic,” which, after the final largemouth bass is weighed Sunday, will award $10,000 even to the last place finisher among 55 entrants.
“I started fishing on the St. Croix with my father when I was a kid, in a canoe,” Lo said. “We fished other local lakes also, many of them, and I liked it right from the start.”
Competitive by nature, Lo graduated from Woodbury High School in 2012, where he kicked field goals on the football team. He is Hmong, and his parents, Cha and Anne, both emigrated from Thailand to Minnesota as children, his father when he was 13, his mother when she was 5.
“They were in a refugee camp,” Lo said. “They and their parents didn’t have relatives in Minnesota at the time, but they had sponsors here who helped out, churches and others.”
In competitive bass fishing, brains count. So does persistence. Figuring out where fish might be at a given time, given the vagaries of weather, water temperature and countless other variables, is — to anglers of a certain bent — not only challenging but transfixing.
That said, the sport’s goal is simple: The angler at day’s end with the five fish that weigh the most, wins. And while there’s little doubt good fortune sometimes plays a role in determining a tournament’s outcome, far more important is skill.
Witness perennial winner Kevin VanDam, or “KVD” as he’s known in the bass-fishing world.
Wednesday morning, VanDam, like Lo, was on Grand Lake ’O the Cherokees (referred to locally as Grand Lake) during the last day of practice before this weekend’s Classic.
The world’s top competitive bass angler, with four Classic victories, seven Angler of the Year titles and nearly $6 million in winnings, VanDam is cool, professional and a champion.
He’s the LeBron James of his sport, the Peyton Manning, the Roger Federer — a marketer’s dream whose jackets, caps and other clothing are NASCAR-like billboards for fishing-industry kingpins.
Such salesmanship is critical in competitive bass fishing. Without sponsors, few anglers could afford to pony up $75,000 for boat-and-motor rigs or cover the multitude of expenses (tournament entry fees can cost as much as $5,500) that accompany life on the road, and atop lakes and rivers.
Some sponsors came prepackaged with Lo’s collegiate tournament victory. Toyota is a big promoter-partner of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or B.A.S.S., owner of the Bassmaster circuit, and it provided Lo with the truck he uses to pull his Skeeter Boat and Yamaha outboard.
Other fishing companies have also courted Lo, eager to attach their names and products to an angler who might someday be the next KVD.
“Social media is the big thing, it’s really important,” Lo said Wednesday morning after settling his boat into a quiet arm of Grand Lake and dropping his bow-mounted trolling motor into 45-degree water.
Before leaving the dock, using a selfie stick, Lo had taken a video of himself, which he uploads to a website his sponsors can access. In turn, they’ll edit the video for distribution on their Twitter, Instagram and other accounts.
“Every day I spend one to two hours on social media,” Lo said. “My sponsors know how many followers I have, or how many ‘likes’ I get on a given post, and others in the industry follow this information, too.
“For example, the rods and reels I use are made by a relatively new Florida company called 13 Fishing. I really liked their gear, and when I reached out to them about using their equipment, they already knew about me because they followed me online.”
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Oklahoma may be south of Minnesota, but in both locales, winter lingers.
Grand Lake, for example, on Wednesday was not only cold but unusually cloudy, the detritus of December storms and floods. Thus, fishing is expected to be tough this weekend.
Still, the 60-mile-long lake formed behind the Pensacola Dam after it was completed in 1940, with its 460 miles of shoreline, will doubtless give up five-fish limits to many Classic competitors during each of the contest’s three days of competition.
Local guides this week have suggested a daily average of five fish weighing about 18 pounds might win the event.
“Usually, Grand Lake has clarity of 4 to 12 feet, making it a good jerkbait lake,” Lo said. (Jerkbaits are longish, somewhat slender lures that are retrieved underwater in sweeping, “jerking” motions.)
“But with the lake so cloudy, crankbaits, jigs with plastics, spinnerbaits and Senkos (plastic worms) rigged wacky (with a plain hook through the middle) will be my choices.”
Popular in Minnesota, bass fishing nonetheless has long been the province of the South, where water is open year-round and where the sport in many cases is less a pastime than a lifestyle.
Yet Kevin VanDam is not from the South.
He lives in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Wednesday morning, Trevor Lo, who hails from a similar latitude, was on a lake far from home, in a boat emblazoned with words never before seen on a watercraft in these parts — University of Minnesota.
Competing against the big boys, and intent on proving he belonged, he cast once, then again, and again a thousand times.