Fishing the Mainstream

Ish Monroe has edge, style, and PR savvy. ESPN thinks he's exactly what the white world of professional bass fishing needs.

"Call me Ish," he says. "I prefer Ish." He's Ishama on the dotted line and Shama with his parents, but to anyone else – to the bass fisherman in the back of his boat, to the kids bowing their heads so he can autograph their hats, to pretty much everybody he's met since that day in high school he introduced himself to a girl and she said, "Bless you" – he'd like to be known simply as Ish. More than a name, says an ex-girlfriend of his, it's a separate identity, his "fishing persona."

Ish is cool. Ish has style. Ish – 29 years old, stocky, handsome, black – thinks he brings something new to the sport of bass fishing, something he calls "flavor," which may have to do with the fact that he wears wakeboard shorts and visors at his tournaments and says things like, "I lovethe camera – the camera makes me who I am." (Ish also would like you to know that some of his sponsors are Skeeter, Yamaha, and Lamiglas.) And at this moment, Ish Monroe is grabbing a fish by the lower jaw – 6 pounds of fat, ornery bass – and he's yelling:

"Come an' git you some!"

Sports Illustrated says Monroe "is 
changing the face of competitive bass 
James Sanders
Sports Illustrated says Monroe "is changing the face of competitive bass fishing."
Signing autographs at Clear Lake.
James Sanders
Signing autographs at Clear Lake.

It's an overcast spring day on California's Clear Lake, in a cove known as "The Keys," and Monroe is crouched at the prow of his boat, a can of Red Bull in his veins, an ESPN camera over his shoulder. He is wearing a soaked black ball cap, a green rain jacket with matching pants, and a pair of bug-eye shades with green-tinted lenses. He begins to rise.

"Come an' git you some!"

This is a big moment for Monroe, and he knows it. Here he is, near the top of the tournament standings, on the verge of becoming the first black pro to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic, the sport's Super Bowl, and an ESPN camera is whirring just a few feet away. He has spent most of the tournament flipping along the margins, working so deep in the tules that at one point he could hear his fellow fishermen wonder where the hell he was. One of them swore Monroe was somewhere around here; another called him a fucking asshole. And then along comes this big, yawning fish, and Monroe sees its mouth close around his hook, and then he sees his line begin to swim, and then, ecstatic, he shouts the only thing that comes to mind. (Later, when they replay the clip on the video screens at the Classic, he'll do a double take.)

"Come an' git you some!" Now he is pointing at the camera, at the television viewers, the great majority of whom, unaccustomed to this sort of shit talk on their Saturday-morning fishing shows, are surely dropping their spoons in their grits.

Monroe plucks the hook out of the fish's mouth. "Like I said," he says, settling down for a second, "flippin' a little tighter."

And then (pointing again): "Come an' git you some!"

Then (dropping the fish in a tank): "That's what I'm talkin' about!"

Then (pumping his arms): "Come an' git you some!"

He takes a deep breath and a moment later turns to his bundled-up partner, Virgil, in the back of the boat. "Partner," Monroe says, "can I get a little high-five over there?" Virgil complies and slaps Monroe's palm with a stiff pink hand. Virgil, it's clear, could use some flavor.

In fishing circles, Monroe is described as a "breath of fresh air" and "one of the hottest properties on the Bassmaster circuit" and "more flashy than a double willow blade." Sports Illustrated says he "is changing the face of competitive fishing, a sport heretofore dominated by white Southerners." At the Classic this year, in New Orleans, they asked Deion Sanders – the only man ever to play in both the Super Bowl and the World Series and a self-made celebrity known variously as "Neon" and "Prime Time" – whom he'd want to fish with, if he could have his choice. Sanders, in town to promote his new ESPN show, mentioned Bill Clinton, and he mentioned Oprah, but when he said, "You know I've got to cover the brother first," he was talking about Monroe. "He's doing great things for the sport," Sanders told reporters. "He's really opened a lot of eyes." ("I'm like, 'Deion Sanders wants to go fishing with me? Cool!'" Monroe recalls. "I'll take him out. I'll whoop on him a little bit, but I'll take him out.")

Bass fishing has never inspired the masculine poetry of, say, trout fishing. It's not pretty or lyrical or peaceful. It's 200 guys in their lucky underwear spread across 40,000 acres of dirty water, cussing out one side of the mouth and dangling a cigarette out the other, making three casts a minute into weeds and tules and praying the lake will cough up the fattest, ugliest shitkicker bass it's got – what some anglers call a donkey. Which is to say, bass fishing is not Hemingway, and it's not great TV, either. Two years ago, ESPN bought the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and its Bassmaster tournament trail for a reported $30 million to $40 million, and quickly set about steering the sport into NASCAR's wake, hoping to win the same kind of mainstream appeal. Of course, it's a long cast to the mainstream, especially for a sport that has yet to shed its drawl. To get there, bass needs drama, characters – "Come an' git you some," in other words.

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