This week we’re meeting writer Don Barone. We are honored to speak with DB, as he prefers, given his decades as a photographer, filmmaker and author, coveringthe BASS professional fishing circuit, meeting anglers, growing to understand their passions and dreams. His angle was different than any other outdoors writer because he was a writer first, needing no proper form nor respecting yellow caution tape holding him tight to some corporate message. From the rigors of BASS, highways, campers, uninspired diner food, hotels, pre-dawn launches and picnic table interviews before late day weigh-ins, came a stirring collection of essays, interviews, observations and heart wrenching studies of real people chasing real dreams, one fish at a time. Don has decided to retire now from 14 years on the circuit, but not from its people.
“I had no idea. They kept spelling it. BASS? I thought I was going to cover concerts or something. It was like, what?” Don was an Emmy winning ESPN investigative journalist. He earned Emmy’s, AP, writing and photography awards. He was quite comfortable doing his job. Some corporate suits thought he’d be perfect to write about fishermen. “I didn’t leave ESPN to go to BASS. They sent me there,” he said. “Number one, I didn’t fish. He (the BASS editor) hated the fact that I don’t like the outdoors, and I said it.”
“Diary of a BASS Master Virgin” was an early piece greeted with old school resistance for using the v-word. Shortsightedness almost muted a birth of free form bass boat journalism chronicling chances at the pot, the podium, even just a corner in a magazine picture. Don saw the light, which he might have hated since it was sunrise and sunset, but it turned him on. The editor blocked it. DB held his water. ESPN ran it on another website. “It got one million hits,” DB said. ESPN reminded BASS that his story had more hits than anything they had written in the last six months. First mic drop.
In the Internet’s infancy, sponsors demanded clicks and likes but “Bill caught a nice green bucket mouth on a piece of shallow mud with a Ned rig,” was just not DB’s style and he wasn’t ready to care that much or write about a new nuclear chicken patterned plastic. Lyrics, poems, observations, real moments of joy and failure, in addition to his photographic memory, eventually usurped corporate confines of perceived reader desires. DB brought the attention advertisers craved but more importantly, pure reader devotion.
DB admits he barely graduated from high school, then waited ten years to enroll at the University of Buffalo. He remembered, “Before my first class, it was snowing and blowing, sitting in a raggedy ass old Mustang, that the driver’s window wouldn’t go all the way up. My first class was English 101 and I thought, ‘you know what, I’m not going to do it.’ But I knew if I went home, like that, my wife would shoot me. If I left that parking lot, that day, then I’m a bartender the rest of my life. So I went to class.” That teacher challenged him to read and understand a 1920’s Ernest Hemingway post about rivers and trout. “It is clear and wide with a pebbly bottom and the water is the color of champagne.” Again and again she sent him home to reread. It takes time to see things for what they are or for what might be behind the curtain.
Unsurprisingly, class required him to write, which he did haphazardly. For his first 300 word paper, DB penned a piece about his time running numbers. “Your grammar and spelling are horrendous,” she wrote on page one, “But it was the funniest damned thing I’ve read in a long time.” From Teacher’s Assistant Peggy Henderson’s red pen, began a recognition of his pure talent with unapologetic disregard for literary standards or confines.
“And I got an A.
It was the only A I ever got in my life.”
“It is indeed what I was put on this planet to do. It just comes very easily,” DB said modestly. “I couldn’t diagram a sentence. I don’t even know what the hell that is. The only thing a boss ever told me was, ‘Are we going to get sued over this?” You come to understand what DB observes at tourney stops, predawn parking lots or hallways leading to yet another motel because he invites readers to grab ahold of anglers, not just stand as third party to their casting or choosing lures, but to their emotions, thoughts, plans, their real insides, then he turns the whole damned thing inside out because that’s real life. That’s where DB’s stories shine.
Over the years, he came to understand Hemingway’s champagne, Shakespeare in the alley, CSN&Y teaching your children well, Paul McCartney and a wizard named Aaron Martens. Depending on how you view history, everything came apart or came together when Don Barone started introducing us to heartland fishermen.
Meeting writer Don Barone makes you question lots of rules. “You were an editor’s nightmare. When you set up with BASS, did you just throw words at the wall to see what would stick?” I asked.
“A good friend of mine said, ‘The best part of what those people said is that you got them to change.’ The difference there is whatever I’ve written and the way I write it, is very popular. The greatest compliments I get, people say, ‘You know DB, I don’t normally read, but when I see your stuff, I love it, I just love reading it. Those people are me. Those are people who had trouble in high school and everywhere else. That I get,” DB said.
“I never once looked at an AP style of writing.
“For a guy who failed English all the time in high school, I’ve made my entire living for the last forty years, writing words,” DB said. Next, we’ll hear more from Don Barone about his career and those anglers who changed his life, but really never convinced him to like water all that much.
Meeting DB and a second mic drop
How This All Happened
DB was ESPN’s investigative journalist sent to cover the BASS tournament fishing series, actually “to fix it,” despite his dislike of water, disinterest in fishing and general malaise for anything outdoors. His observations, musings and feelings, his literary recipes stirred with imagery, lyrics, poetry and tears, made him a beloved BASS family member and a ruffled darling in corporate offices.
“I said (to ESPN), give me some facts…so they hit me with close to 700 stories I’ve done, hundreds of tournaments, hundreds of weigh-ins but the one that got me the most was, they broke it down, I was on the road 1850 days over 14 years…it was five and half years gone from home. And you have to tag that with the ESPN stuff, which was probably another five years gone. I said, you know, I just can’t do it anymore.” DB had a family back home. He missed them as much as he loved his assignment, which was, initially, to meet, interview and report on BASS fishermen. His plans were always different from what some suits had designed.
All great artists see things differently, maybe in abstracts, maybe upside down. DB watched a caravan of bass boats with anglers in bright sponsored jerseys and saw people first. He saw a sport and a grind fueled by passions and heartland dreams. He realized a six year practice squad linebacker is just as anxious for a front office call as a Kentucky son with two kids and a wife working nights so he can find himself that six pounder and change into a new jersey with a big truck logo. Their stadiums are different but dreams are not.
Back in the day, DB interned in NY and California where he was introduced to people who wrote like he did, and, “A guy named Bukowski.” Classic. Charles Bukowski, who penned books like Factotum and Ham on Rye, was some inspiration, along with Beat Generation-era writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and houses like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press, where writers typed for themselves, not editors. “But that’s me too. When you go back and look back at literature, you look at Kerouac, critics panned him because he wrote all of these long sentences, all this crazy stuff, but it sold. Hemingway with all the dialogue and all that, it sold. And that’s what saved me, it’s that people read it.”
“Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?” Charles Bukowski
“All over the world, people read it. So if you’re going to come into me and say there’s this book, whatever this book’s called, the Style Book, I mean, that’s what everyone else is doing,” DB said. “In the business, it’s all about clicks. Most of my readers were in Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and certainly spread throughout the South. Right on the border of 58/42 per cent women, very high level income reach. When they dug down into it, to see how many people fished, well, not all of them. Maybe 30 per cent didn’t. But they read it.” Insert mic drop.
“My days, my years, my life has seen ups and downs, lights and darkness. If I wrote only and continuously of the “light” and never mentioned the other, then as an artist, I would be a liar.” Charles Bukowski.
So Don Barone builds a massive, nationwide audience with his special knitting of words, often sparse, occasionally gripping, easy, perfectly aligned. He built real trust. “I never bullshitted anybody. I’ve never said, ‘buy a St. Croix” because no one would listen to me,” he laughed.
For a short time, DB worked at ESPN with Hunter S. Thompson “Because John Walsh thought a different point of view would expand, something other than scores,” he said. Yes, he of Gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing, amphetamine-fueled political polemics and all night, ether-rich introductions to gamblers, cheats and lowlifes, tried his hand at analyzing some amount of sports.
“He told me, you can either be, I’m sorry for the word, a pussy, or you can be an outlaw. I chose to be an outlaw. My son’s middle name is Hunter. We turned into pretty good friends. People at ESPN hated him, I loved him. He told me, ‘Never pay attention to anyone who writes your check, you write your check.’ He didn’t last very long. He wrote maybe one or two stories of his own and then he would just kind of sign off.”
“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right,” said Henry Ford
DB has been surrounded by rust belt truth, people working hard on a trail often supported by family working hard back home to keep them there where many never make it to a podium or became champions who few outside the bubble might recognize. He sat with them all, asked about their kids and parents, how they got by and chances of tour success. He didn’t ask about rods, lines or chatter baits. Enter Aaron Martens. He was likely not so different from many other tour anglers in his work ethic and dreams except DB recognized he was magical.
This is how Don Barone changed the world of outdoor writing.
“He stood alone in the dark parking lot looking straight up at the nighttime sky. And he started to twirl around in circles, and suddenly, magically, children from all over the campground came running towards him. They too started to twirl and point up to the stars above, lit only by the light of my iPhone which Aaron had “borrowed” from me once I showed him the nighttime sky app that illuminated the heavens above. And now he too is up there among the stars looking downward, from heaven. My good buddy, and the good buddy to many, many more people, has passed. I knew a wizard once, and his name was Aaron Martens. And I am a better, gentler man because the wizard was my friend.”
DB is humble with his position, awards, following and future. “I talked about the other end of the fishing rod. And it just lit up. No one did that before.”
“I bought an RV and lived with them. Went everywhere they went. Parked where they parked. I was embedded. I told their stories,” DB said. “When I wrote a story about them, thousands of people read it.”
Having earned and enjoyed a successful career with ESPN and on the grueling BASS professional fishing tour, DB is retiring. Not to sit on a couch and watch it all go by, certainly not to purchase a Tracker Pro Team 190 bass boat or to give ice fishing a go, but to take another look at life and the heartland folks he has been fortunate to meet. DB’s career has been about seeing how ordinary fits sweetly into the extraordinary.
“I’m at the Toyota Tundra Owner’s Tournament somewhere where it is still warm during the day with a cool sea breeze at night. Not sure the state, but in this story that doesn’t matter.
There is all around me a sea of Tundra’s and those who drive them. It is a bass fishing tournament, I forgot most of it, except one part, one image burned into my brain.
A big strong man, a tiny child, holding hands at the tanks of the weigh-in line.
I do not know who they are or where they are from, but standing some 30 feet away I do, in my heart, know this about them…they are Father and Son.
I know that by how the child looks to the man holding his hand.” Excerpted from Hank Cherry: The hand of a champion by Don Barone.
“You know, I went into this thinking this was about a couple of guys fishing on a dock and whoever got the first fish got a case of Bud. I didn’t even know what a Classic was,” he said. From that came an introduction to the behind the scene crew, the guys who kept things working. “They wouldn’t talk to me. They said no one had ever talked with them before. I did a story about them and it lit up. I said, these guys are really cool, they’re like NASCAR that get wet.” That access gave him cover to get up to speed, to start to understand the tour. “When I came to BASS, I changed the game.” DB changed the game because it needed fixing. Kerouac. Bukowski. Thompson. Peggy Henderson. They all moved him to stay true to what he already was.
There is a deal to be made when you read DB’s words. Now you know his work is not statistics, leaderboard summaries or analysis of one anglers slump or rise. It’s everything behind all that. Don’s not offering tackle tips; no one would read them. Elite Series pro angler Brandon Palaniuk said, “DB is one of a kind in this world! He has sat in rooms with some of the world’s top athletes across various sports but he has always stayed true to his writing. He was never interested in the numbers, the scoreboard, or the time clock. He is interested in what makes you tick in your heart and soul no matter what level of the sport you are at.”
“Writing the story was the easiest thing I did,” DB said.
It’s hard to bullshit your own doctor
“It’s unfortunate that my docs are bass fishermen. So I couldn’t bullshit them.” After so many years on the road, it’s time for a rest. He’s busy writing children’s books, updating his website and dealing with editors who still correct him on their and there. Don went to BASS as a journalist who wouldn’t use a style book to prop a bar stool on nickel beer night and left their tour as a beloved writer who saw the ordinary and knew it was extraordinary. “KVD always said I was the 101st Angler. They trusted me. BASS was the greatest, greatest job I ever had,” DB said.
“I have a YouTube channel but I really don’t know how to use it. I might get the 12 year old kid next door to come over and show me how to do it,” he laughed. A video project in development includes female bass anglers. “The only rough spot I’ve ever had with BASS is, why are we ignoring 50 per cent of the population of this planet? And, so, I’m not.” Don Barone changed the sports writing landscape, not just because he knew his lyrics or could fit in Muhammad Ali or Paul McCartney, but because he remains true to his own consciousness. That’s his magic.
Thank you DB; while it was never your mission, you changed the world of outdoors writing. You just stayed true to your mission, like all those BASS anglers.
As for that stream, Hemingway wrote, “It is clear and wide with a pebbly bottom and the water is the color of champagne.” It was never about fishing, was it? It was all about romance.
Sometimes you just have to read things a few times to understand. There should always be hope. And romance.