Bassmaster not just for the boys

The Baltimore Sun

To break into the all-male club called the Bassmaster Classic, Kim Bain-Moore answered the call of nature and solved the dilemma of answering nature's call.

Before dawn tomorrow, Bain-Moore will point the bow of her low-slung boat onto Louisiana's Red River to kick off three days of competition in the king of all bass fishing tournaments. First place is worth $500,000.

"I can see myself up there," she says of standing on the stage for Sunday's final weigh-in. "I actually can."

Being the first woman to qualify for the 38-year-old tournament known as "the Super Bowl of bass fishing" didn't happen overnight, and it wasn't a gimmick cooked up by some overactive flack.

It followed the baby-steps progression of all institutions, where someone winds up being heralded as "the first." Ishama Monroe became the first black professional angler to qualify for the Classic in 2003. The next year, the tournament had its first Asian winner, Takahiro Omori.

But a woman? That not only required keen fishing skills to secure one of the 51 coveted spots, but it also took breaking the porcelain ceiling of something delicately called "the potty issue" by Ray Scott, the founder of BASS (short for Bass Anglers Sportsman Society) and the Classic. Scott said there was no way to deal with women having to go to the bathroom on a 21-foot bass boat.

"It can certainly be tricky," says Bain-Moore, laughing.

BASS rules require anglers to stay on their boats the entire day. Top competitors often draw a flotilla of spectators and media boats that bob close by. Privacy is at a minimum.

Scott - the bodacious, cowboy-booted former insurance salesman who fishes with presidents and pals around with country music stars - was firm in his belief that a squeaky-clean contest and co-ed fishing contests were mutually exclusive. When it came to bass fishing, men and their sanitary habits ruled.

It wasn't until after Scott sold his empire - in 1986, to a group headed by a woman - that the first woman fished in a BASS-sponsored event. Vojai Reed, the wife of a Classic champion, fished in the 1991 Missouri Open. Lucy Mize, also the wife of a Classic contender, came close to making the elite level of BASS competition in 2007.

But it took Bain-Moore, a 28-year-old Australian who lives in Alabaster, Ala., to do it in October - when she won the Women's Bassmaster Tour championship and Angler of the Year competition, which in addition to prize money included an invitation to the Classic.

"This is the reward for all the hard work I put in," she says.

As a child, Bain-Moore learned from her parents how to read the water and read the fish. Early on, she realized a day on a lake trying outsmart a six-pound bass beat anything happening in a hermetically sealed office tower. Her father, a fishing tournament director, schooled her in the particulars of competition. She started coming to this country to fish in tournaments before she was 20.

It all came together in Chicago in 2000, when as a spectator at her first Classic she felt the excitement and knew she belonged.

The next year, ESPN bought BASS and looked for ways to expand the empire. In 2005, the media giant ran a women-only contest, then launched the Women's Bassmaster Tour.

It was inevitable that women would find their way into the Classic, "given the fact that ESPN has to provide entertainment and provide buzz every year," says Monte Burke, a writer for Forbes magazine and author of Sowbelly, a history of bass fishing culture. "But that said, it's great. I'll be cheering for her."

Not everyone cheers change, however. After Japan's Omori won, griping started in bass fishing chat rooms about the fact that the titleholder was not an American. As recently as 2003, Scott was still skeptical of adding women to the pro circuit.

"The simple truth," Scott wrote on the Web site BassFan.com, "is that there's no fan base or widespread interest among TV sports viewers to watch women fish professionally."

But Burke disagrees.

"I think having women on the tour could create more interest. Men and women fishing against each other, to me that's a winner," he says. "As a red-blooded male, I don't think sexiness is a bad thing. There's a lot of fan interest in Rafael Nadal and Tom Brady, so it goes both ways."

The Classic already has been good to Bain-Moore. Husband Andre Moore, a two-time Classic competitor, proposed to her on the stage of the 2005 event in Pittsburgh. Katie Couric has featured her on the CBS Evening News. On Interstate 20 on the way into Shreveport, La., Bain-Moore smiles down from a billboard promoting the tournament. ESPN is awash in what it calls "Kim-Bania."

"It's been pretty crazy for a fishing gal from Australia, but I'm managing," she says.

As far as the potty issue, Bain-Moore has that figured out, too.

"Usually when I'm fishing, I'm so focused that I don't remember that I have to," she says. "But if I do have to this weekend, I'll just shimmy over the edge, get it done and move on. No worries."

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