2016-03-01 / ReBooted

Bassmaster Fast

Jill Gleeson

He’s a relatively little guy, a few inches below my 5’9”. But Joe Sancho’s got a rock-star thing happening nonetheless, with his shaved head, mirrored sunglasses and braided goatee that stops about where his broad chest gets started. He actually is a rock star, at least in the world of professional bass fishing, which until three hours ago I didn’t even know existed. But I’ve still managed to score a ride on Joe’s ridiculously powerful boat, a sleek 20-foot Ranger, which is about to zip and zoom all over the St. Lawrence River. I wonder, as he cranks up the engine to a jaw-rattling rumble, “Just how fast does this baby go?”

The event that brought Joe and me, some state politicians and a lot of other press and big-time fishermen to St. Lawrence State Park, in the sublime Thousand Islands-Seaway region of upstate New York, was the annual Bassmasters Governor’s Challenge. Gov. Cuomo had taken a rain check, but I’d spotted Lt. Gov. Kathleen Hochul on the water, game face on, rod in hand. She’d looked a lot more at home than I felt. The group of journalists I was with got plenty of pointers from a fellow with the Department of Environmental Conservation, but I’d come closer to hooking myself and the DEC guy than I did a bass. By the time I stepped off the boat I was just glad no one had lost an eye.

I’d failed at fishing, but at lunch I sidled up to Joe, intrigued by the concept of professional fishermen. He told me about a whole ‘nother world that lurked, much like a bass under murky waters, beneath the one I knew. It involved more than a hundred anglers who travel the country competing to land the highest total weight in bass. They have to qualify for the tour — dubbed the Bassmaster Elite Series — and snag sponsors to offset the cost of it, kind of like in NASCAR. And what really intrigued me: Just like in NASCAR, they go seriously fast. They whizz around the water from fishing spot to fishing spot in hopped-up speed boats, a brilliant addition to an activity that always seemed to me about as exciting as folding laundry.

An hour later, as we pull away from the dock, Joe finally tells me his go-fast boat does as much as 75 mph. That’s fast on land. On water, where a bad bump at that speed can send you careening like a Wallenda through the air, it’s insane. But I grab hold of what I can, plaster a grin on my face, and tell him to go for it. When we reach the middle of the mighty St. Lawrence, the Canadian shoreline unspooling to our left, Joe increases our speed. I let out a surprised giggle, and he opens the throttle more. The wind whips my hair into my mouth, my sunglasses nearly fly from my face, and I’m now screaming with uncontrolled laughter. And we are nowhere near top speed.

Joe pushes the boat harder and the speedometer climbs…55…60…65… The ride is generally smoother than I’d supposed it would be, but whenever we hit a small wave or wake, the boat lifts off the water, landing with a small splash before roaring onward. And then we reach a wide spot in the river and Joe begins driving in circles, spinning donuts like he’s behind the wheel of a car in a deserted parking lot in the midst of a snowstorm. I briefly consider the possibility that I’m about to end up bass food.

Instead Joe pulls out of the turn, heading back up the river, and I’m begging him to push it all the way, up to 75. He does, and I scream with more laughter. He’s laughing, too, by this point, nearly as hard as I am. I tell him I had no idea fishermen were this crazy. Joe says he didn’t realize writers were so wild. “Guess you can’t judge a book by its cover,” I reply, high-fiving him as we take off toward the dock. •SCM

Jill Gleeson dares to venture outside of her comfort zone and learns a lesson every time. Follow her adventures on Twitter @gopinkboots.

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