The way the two men spoke of it, reverence was in their voice. Reverence and respect and, yes, awe. It's the same way people speak of Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. As if it is hallowed ground. A bucket-list type of place, a place not to be missed in this lifetime, or any other lifetime.

"It's the reason I moved up here from Southern California," said Troy Bellah. "It's paradise. It really is."

"It's at the top of my list," said Skeet Reese. "It's been one of the best in the nation since I came there for the first time 29 years ago. And people from around the world come there."

If they could, Bellah and Reese would get an autograph, so smitten are they. But Clear Lake doesn't give autographs, only bass. And there in lies its genius. Very few lakes in this country give it up that easily. In the May issue of Bassmaster magazine, Clear Lake was voted the third-best bass fishing lake in the United States. Considering the competition — Minnesota has 10,000 of them by the way — it's a nice Havoc Bottom Hopper Green Pumpkin in the cap of fishermen from around here (in case you didn't guess, a Havoc Bottom Hopper Green Pumpkin is a plastic worm).

Fact is, if all awards, honors or prizes in sports were compiled in the manner this one was, there would be less arguing at sports bars. Bellah is co-owner of Clearlake Outdoors, a fish and bait shop in Lakeport. Reese grew up in Rohnert Park, was Bassmaster Angler of the Year in 2007 and has made millions off his sport. Neither man thought the people who ranked Clear Lake were hallucinating after eating too many of the Havoc Bottom Hopper Green Pumpkins.

Truth to tell, James Hall didn't throw darts at a U.S. map, ask his aunt her opinion or go to a fortune teller specializing in bass fishing omnipotence.

"I tried to be as scientific and thorough as possible," said Hall, the editor of Bassmaster magazine.

That sentence in itself is worth an entire sports column. How does one get scientific over bass fishing? It's not like the bass are jumping out of the water and grabbing a microphone and saying, yes, I have had trouble not getting caught at Clear Lake all right, but there was this lake in Texas and the place was filthy with humans ...

Or that there is a turnstile gate like at a sports stadium so you can count the number of bass who enter a lake ...

Or it's not like the bass have ticket stubs so you can tell how many are in their seats at Clear Lake.

To be honest, try treating this poll as a joke to the people who compiled it. Three people at Bassmaster worked on it for the first two months. Then another three employees were added for another month.

"We started with catch rates from state wildlife agencies," Hall said. "We wanted lakes that are really healthy. If you catch bass, but if you have to float through debris and trash, that takes away from the experience."

Ask someone who takes a hike in the forest through candy wrappers.

Tournament data was compiled. Approximately 3,500 Bassmaster members nationwide were asked to detail non-tournament lakes. A panel of outdoor writers, elite fishing professionals and industry insiders was formed. By the time the survey was concluded almost every serious bass fisherman — "serious" being someone who fished at least 40 days a year — contributed.

To all those opinions, Hall and his people added these two stable valuables: How easy would it be to get to a lake and how easy would it be to get a boat on a lake? A plane, a boat and a train might be the title of a popular movie, but it's poison to someone who wants to have a good time. Fishing is supposed to be fun and that's why the poll was created.

"It started two years when we were reading a Golf Digest story about the best public golf courses in the United States," Hall said. "We started tossing ideas around. For example, what are the best fishing ponds on a golf course? And then we thought we ought to do the best bass lakes. We want fishing to be fun."

Nothing creates a stone-like image more than sitting in a boat for three hours with the only movement to the cooler for a beer. That's why Reese and Bellah like Clear Lake. Fishing is always a crappie shoot but the lake reduces the odds of a dead hook.

"It's not easy access like Lake Sonoma, which is just off the freeway," said Reese, a Rancho Cotate High School graduate. "It's not a recreational lake because there's a lot of algae floating around (no speed boats skim along, driving away the bass). It is one of the most fertile environments for bass with all the algae and grass. There are free launch points all around Clear Lake. That's not usually the case; most places you have to pay to put your boat in the water."

Clear Lake usually is not stocked as most fishermen there catch-and-release. The idea behind all this fishing is not for food but, rather, for the adrenaline rush coming from the depths, when the line goes taut and imagination races. How big the fish? How big the fight? Fishing, at its compelling essence, is the surprise that keeps on giving, whether it's in a river or on a lake or an ocean.

Clear Lake gives that surprise more consistently than most U.S. lakes. And the fishermen there like the surprise so much, they throw the bass back in the lake so they can be surprised again. And again. If that sounds vaguely insane, it's not. It's a tug from the unseen, from the unknown, from somewhere down there. No one can resist a peek at what's coming up, even if we know it has gills.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.