Preston Clark had just wrapped up a grueling, seven-month season on the Bassmaster Elite Series Tour in which he crisscrossed the country several times in a quest to win money and qualify for February's Bassmaster Classic. On a windy, rainy Monday, you would think the last thing Clark would want to do would be to go bass fishing again.
But Clark, 43, a three-year pro from Palatka, Fla., just couldn't pass up the invitation from the staff at ESPN to fish the 30-acre infield lake at Daytona International Speedway.
"I grew up 45 minutes from here," the former air conditioning salesman said. "I've been to 15 Daytona 500s and 13 Pepsi 400s. I never had the opportunity to be on the lake, so I was really excited about it."
Wife Katrina backed his garishly decorated boat on its trailer down the muddy ramp, and he was off.
In a howling northeast wind and driving rain, Clark caught a five-pound bass almost right away using a Texas-rigged, june-bug worm. He followed that up with a couple more fish about a pound smaller.
"This is fun!" he said, smiling as water dripped down his face.
Several other Elite Series pros were sharing the lake that day, including BASS Rookie of the Year Derek Remitz; Steve Kennedy; Greg Hackney; Peter Thliveros; and Chris Lane. Even though this was supposed to be a fun day and not a tournament, the fishermen couldn't resist the tug of competition.
"How many have you got? How big?" they called when their boats got close.
After about an hour, Clark was fishing near the boat ramp when a worker at the track pulled up in his pickup.
"Hey, they're going to turn the pumps on. Make sure you get near the pipes," the man called to Clark.
The bass pro didn't need to be told twice. He used his trolling motor to head over to a wide culvert pipe and waited a couple of minutes until he could see a current of water gushing out. He cast his plastic worm toward the mouth of the pipe and caught a two-pounder right away.
The infield lake was dug in the 1950s to create fill for the track's high banks. It used to be 45 acres, but about 15 acres were filled in to accommodate motor homes. Some of the habitat was lost, but guest anglers continue to pull out hawgs. Last February, racer Darrell Waltrip caught an eight-pound, three-ounce bass during a charity tournament.
"There used to be a lot more reeds_like the Everglades," Clark noted. "I thought it would be deeper. The deepest I measured is six feet. But it's deep enough to hold a whole bunch of fish."
Clark was in the process of releasing his 20th bass when Katrina came over to the bank and reminded him of a luncheon they were supposed to attend at one of the trackside clubhouses.
"Just five more minutes, honey," Clark called to his wife.
Retorted Katrina: "I know what your five minutes are. I've been down that road before."
As she turned to fetch the truck and trailer, Clark said, "While she's getting the truck, I'm going to make a few more casts."
He released five more fish in the time it took to back the trailer down the ramp.
Clark has made a substantial mark on professional bass fishing in his short career. He caught the largest fish in a Bassmaster Classic -- 11 pounds, 10 ounces_at central Florida's Lake Toho in 2006 on the way to finishing sixth overall. He was 15th in the Pittsburgh Classic in 2005. And he won $100,000 for first place in the 2006 Bassmaster Elite Series tournament at South Carolina's Lake Santee Cooper, setting a single-day poundage record that was recently broken.
TRYING TO REBOUND
The 2007 season wasn't quite so stellar, with Clark finishing 75th out of 108 in Angler of the Year points. And unless he gets a third-place finish at October's Bassmaster Southern Open in Alabama, he won't make it to the 2008 Classic.
But, then, Clark has had a few distractions. Last year, Katrina gave birth to triplets Zophia, Ben and Barrett, joining Samantha, now 3. And this year, Katrina went through some health scares that distracted Clark from his fishing.
Katrina says she totally supports her husband's career choice. She says it was her idea for Clark to go full time on the pro circuit.
"Because I knew how good he was," she said. "I had been on the water with him a bunch. He'd tell me what the fish were going to do and then they did it. I knew he had confidence."
It was true. On Clark's final cast that morning at the track, he pointed to a branch poking off the bank and pronounced, "I am going to catch a fish right there."
Which he did. It's that kind of confidence that could propel him to bass fishing's Super Bowl.