Aug 13, 2014

Reeling in the Redneck Fishing Tournament, Bath, Ill.

I’d like to be able to tell you the annual Redneck Fishing Tournament held the first weekend in August in sleepy Bath, Ill., shows what can be accomplished when a bunch of good ol’ boys get together to do something positive about the environment.

In reality, it’s just a clever reason to combine a lot of fun summer redneck activities – drinking, fishing and partying in the middle of nowhere.   

Of course, if it wasn't for the invasion of Asian carp into the Illinois River threatening the ecological balance of not only the river system but eventually the Great Lakes as well, there would have been no impetus to start such an event in 2005.  And since the war on the flying fish invaders began, the tournament has grown in notoriety, if not popularity.  There are even three websites and a couple of Facebook pages one from the tournament’s founder) devoted to the event. 

This year, I finally decided I had to see the spectacle for myself.  For one reason, as small river towns go, I've always felt Bath had more than its share of seedy charm.  Maybe some of that stems from stories my father told me when I was a kid about the floating craps games that would be held on boats maneuvering between Bath and Goofy Ridge in the middle of the night (and good luck finding Goofy Ridge on most maps, by the way).  My memories of my father are few and far between, but from what I remember of his days living in nearby Havana, he had a solid reputation for living life under the radar.

Second, as five of my faithful longtime blog followers may recall from my post about last year’s burgoo festival, my friend Grumpy Joe has a cabin just outside of Chandlerville, which is only 15 minutes south of Bath.  Like previous years, he had invited me, along with several others, to the cabin for pre- and post-fishing tournament festivities. 

Third, my girlfriend’s step-dad, Phil, had made plans to attend the tournament and had encouraged me to come check it out. 

And finally, my friend Rich Miller, an outstanding political writer and a much more professional and prolific blogger than I’ll ever be, had somehow found himself sponsoring two fishing teams in the tournament. 

Put this all together, and how could I resist?  (OK, the annual wet T-shirt contest at the Brick Tavern, the primary business in town and focal point for much of the festival’s entertainment, may have been a factor, too.)

I started my day of redneck revelry at Grumpy Joe’s where, appropriately, friends had gathered for target shooting using his trusty varmint hunter air rifle.   The target:  an unlucky empty Bud Light Raz-ber-rita can. 

With a wild bunch like this, those varmints don't stand a chance.
Nailed it.  My shot is immortalized in marker in the top right corner. 

This fun put me in a great state of mind to channel more of my inner redneck.   I drove on to Bath, found a place to park on a side street by the village park, walked past a small collection of flea market stands and fair food booths, crossed the street at the Brick Tavern, and continued downhill to where the road met the water.   

The official tournament headquarters was in a large parking lot to the left of where the boats are put into the water.  It consisted of registration tent for the fishing teams, a cooking demonstration, a music tent, a food booth and your standard line of port-a-potties.  

On the other side of the street stood the flooded remains of the Boat Tavern, and on the tavern’s balcony was where I found Phil perched perfectly in the shade with an excellent view of all of the boats coming in with their catches, as well as those docked forming a floating party along the water.   

Part of what makes the Redneck Fishing Tournament so genuinely redneck is how the fish are caught. Fishing poles are forbidden; instead, most people use nets.  This actually makes a lot of sense when you see the carp literally jumping out of the water and flying into boats when provoked by noisy boat engines.  Because of that projectile factor, people are encouraged to wear
helmets and other protective gear when fishing.

This brings us to another aspect of the tournament which showcases that wonderful redneck sense of humor – the costume party atmosphere.  Take note of the pirate ship and crew we spotted on the Illinois River.  Yes, some teams love to decorate their boats, and some teams love to dress in …dresses … or another wacky theme.  I spotted crews of tennis players, Harlem Globetrotters and Amish farmers, just to name a few.  (The Amish, by the way, apparently love wet T-shirt contests.  Who knew?)   

Andrew Zimmern, you're missing out.
After we had had enough of the action on the water, Phil and I crossed the street to see what they were doing with some of the day’s catch.  I approached the cooking demonstration with skepticism, since carp does not have the best reputation for being tasty, but I have to admit this guy was working miracles.  Some samples of fried carp were just as mild and tasty as well-prepared catfish, and the hush puppy-like carp cakes were melt-in-your-mouth good.  The pan sautéed carp in tomatoes … well, let’s just say it really needed the tomatoes. 

The spacious outdoor entertainment area at the Brick Tavern
Moving uphill, we rendezvoused with Grumpy Joe’s crew at the Brick Tavern, which had a large, tented outdoor area for hosting bands, as well as a large beer station.  

Hipbone Sam, one of my favorite area blues bands, rocked the stage for several hours.  They must have been good, because we spotted a few musical “legends” in the audience , including a Johnny Cash lookalike (who actually looked more like Neil Diamond in the face, in my opinion) and Gene Simmons.

He's going all out on the rest of the costume and NOT going to wear the KISS boots??
He looks so lonely for some reason. 

After Hipbone Sam’s last set, the entertainment at the Brick got a little more R-rated, and since I try to keep a PG rating for my blog, I stopped taking pictures (at least for blogging purposes).  I also stopped with the libations, so I could safely drive back home.  But I believe the Amish farmers captured a lot of the contest on the cell phones.    

In the end, even though I did not actually participate in the Redneck Fishing Tournament (as I watched the tournament unfold, I had visions of me getting clotheslined by a carp and falling, unconscious, out of the boat), it was a reasonably fun spectator sport.  I wouldn’t put it on my must-do list every year, but you get a good day’s worth of entertainment – or a weekend if you’re inclined to camp there. 

The tournament is held every year on the first weekend of August, so plan accordingly.   

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