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Bass-o-Matic 

by Howie Stalwick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & lot of people fish from a bank. Luke Clausen fishes so he can go to the bank.


Shocked at the price of fish at your local supermarket? Don't be. After all, Clausen -- a Spokane Valley native -- just won $500,000 for catching 56 pounds of bass in three days. That's right, $500,000. Half a mil, baby. For three days of, uh, work.


Welcome to the world of professional bass fishing. It may seem bizarre to people who equate fishing with a combo meal at Skipper's, but pro bass fishing is something akin to NASCAR Lite down South.


"It's a totally different world down here," Clausen says by phone from outside Atlanta.


Professional bass fishing has rival tours, autograph seekers, huge crowds, mounds of media coverage and sponsors galore. Compare a pro bass fishermen's shirt with a NASCAR driver's firesuit, and it's a photo finish to see who's wearing more logos.


An estimated 22,000 fans turned out to watch three days of weigh-ins at Clausen's most recent competition, the CITGO Bassmaster Classic on Florida's Lake Tohopekeliga. (Loose translation of Tohopekeliga: I Can't Believe This Many People Showed Up To Watch Grown Men Hold Up Dead Fish.)


EPSN and ESPN2 televised live "action" along with the weigh-ins from Florida and drew a record 9.5 million fish fanatics. The Bassmaster.com Web site reported a record 4 million hits. Who knows how many hits Clausen's own Web site received?


That's right: Clausen, like many pro bass fishermen, has his own Web site. The pros also have their bios on BassFan.com, where you can learn everything about Clausen from his fishing hero (Kevin VanDam -- "Because of his ability to dominate the sport the way he has"), his least favorite lake (Lake Mead, Nev. -- "There's about three fish in there") and his fishing strength ("Clear-water natural lakes").


Clausen says he takes it in stride when outsiders question why someone would pay a guy $500,000 for sitting in a boat for a few hours to catch fish.


"Most people don't understand how hard we're working," Clausen says. "They think of fishing as sitting on a river bank with some night crawlers and a six-pack of beer."


Clausen, 27, grew up fishing with his dad on Newman Lake east of Spokane.


"I won my first boat when I was 17," Clausen recalls. "That's kind of when I first realized I could make more money fishing than working."


Still, Clausen attended Eastern Washington University after graduating from Central Valley High School. Clausen earned degrees in business management and marketing.


"I always wanted a backup," Clausen explains. "Bass fishing isn't the most stable profession. Not many people can make a living doing it."


Clausen, however, has already earned two $500,000 checks in three-plus years on bass fishing's major circuits. He also spent two years in the sport's "minor leagues" in California.


Obviously, Clausen is a wealthy young man, but he jokes about being "single and homeless." He gets home so rarely and fishes so much, he sold his house in the Spokane Valley last year and now travels about the country in his Chevy Suburban, living out of suitcases in hotels or at the homes of friends.


"I've got stuff stored all over the country," Clausen says.


Clausen hauls his own boat to and from tournaments, and fans occasionally recognize him on the road and have him pull over for photos and autographs. That's how big pro bass fishing is down South, which explains (sort of) why thousands of people turn out for the weigh-ins.


"It still really hasn't sunk in," Clausen told the media after last month's win at Lake Tohopekeliga. "I'm pretty much in disbelief. It's like I'm in the middle of a dream."


That's pretty standard fish-speak for pro bass fishermen. Clausen was a bit more forthcoming when he won his first $500,000 prize two years ago at the Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship on Alabama's Logan Martin Lake.


"Coming down here, I never thought I'd win. I was scared," Clausen said at the time. "I was so stressed out this morning that I couldn't even cast. I was a mess; I couldn't fish."


And you thought fishing was easy.


Clausen doesn't deny that he's living the good life. It certainly beats whatever 9-to-5 endeavor he might have wound up pursuing with his college degrees.


"I fish to make a living, and I love to fish," Clausen says. "I love the challenge each day. Every place we go is different."

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