By Todd Ceisner
Change is coming to how many of the top bass pros measure a good day on the water.
No longer will a five-fish limit suffice. In the Bass Pro Tour, as it has been in Major League Fishing events since the circuit came on the scene in 2011, it’s all about numbers going forward. Sure, an 8-pounder will still draw plenty of oohs and ahhs and make a big impression on the leaderboard, but once that fish goes back in the water, all of the focus shifts to from where and when the next bite will come. A 20-pound day may just be considered average depending on the venue.
While many of the sport’s top names – VanDam, Iaconelli, Reese, Christie, Rose, etc. – are very familiar with the MLF format, having competed in some of, if not all, the Cup and Selects events, they also had the traditional five-fish format of the Elite Series or FLW Tour to go back to. That’s no longer the case as the aforementioned group, along with 75 others, have made a minimum three-year commitment to the BPT. In doing so, they said “so long” to weigh-in bags and fish care and culling clips.
Shifting away from the five-fish limit mindset will be easier for some than others. Of the 80 anglers on the initial BPT roster, 52 have competed in at least one MLF event so they know what’s coming and have some sense of how to prepare. For the other 28, the first BPT tournament will be their first real taste of a format they’ve only seen before on television. Granted, the catch-weigh-release format was previously used in the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, but that was a one-off tournament held once a year. Now, these guys are playing for keeps – and keepers.
Here are the key differences that will stand out to BassFans about the BPT format:
> No limit on number of bass weighed
> To be deemed scoreable, each bass must weigh at least 1 pound
> Weight-based cut line will be implemented during Sudden Death Round, where the 10 finalists will be determined
> Tournament champion will not be determined by cumulative weight, but by weight caught on final day, reminiscent of how the Forrest Wood Cup champion was determined between 1996-2000.
According to BassFan research, the average individual daily round in MLF Cup competition looks like this:
> 11.4 bass
> 20.09 pounds
> Average fish: 1.76 pounds
While there have never been more than 10 competitors on the water in a given round of MLF Cup competition, the historical data offers a glimpse at what BassFans can expect to see once the BPT gets rolling.
With the format change, expect more emphasis to be placed on fishing conditions of a given day rather than what may unfold a day or two down the road. With the 80-man field being split into two 40-man groups and those groups alternating days on the water over the first four days of competition, getting on consistent patterns will be a challenge if not a fleeting proposition. When the Sudden Death Round (top 20 from both 40-man groups) arrives, weights from the earlier round are zeroed out and the remaining anglers will try to reach a pre-determined cut weight in order to advance to the final round, where the weights are again zeroed.
Rather than one continuous four-day tournament, the BPT tournaments will shape up like four one-day shootouts for those who advance to the final day.
BassFan gathered the following feedback from BPT anglers – some with and some without previous MLF experience – about the mindset it will take to adjust to the format change.
Elam: ‘Won’t Be Easy’
James Elam likes to think his way through practice and the early part of a tournament. He’s calculated in how he practices, but he’ll have to revamp everything about his approach to a tournament with his move to the BPT after six seasons on the Elite Series.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy for me to adjust to that because of the difference.
“I’m the kind of guy that likes to see it all and picks three different areas and I like to consider everything or as much as I can. It’s going be a quick deal trying to figure it out and finding them. The main thing is what’s on the table as far numbers go. I’m going to have to get out of the pattern mindset for the five biggest and guys will have to go after the major thing that’s going on. If you can get on the numbers and size, you don’t have to be on the size when you can 2-pound them to death.
James Watson thinks versatility won't be as important under the BPT format as it has been on other tournament trails.
“It’s going to be scary and I might not do well at first, but I’ve looked back at tournaments where I’ve done well and there are some where I’d have done well in an MLF format. Others not so much.”
Elam can also see himself downsizing baits in an effort to generate more bites over the course of a day.
“No swimbaiting for me anymore,” he quipped.
Hard Decision for Christie
The decision to leave the Elite Series and join the BPT was a tough one for many anglers, Jason Christie included.
“I grew up watching B.A.S.S. and that’s where I wanted to be at and that’s why (this decision) was a big struggle for me,” he said. “I loved fishing for five fish. That’s how I built my reputation, fishing baits to catch five. It’s how I love to fish. I didn’t want to change that and that’s what made the decision so hard for me.”
Ultimately, though, he made the move to the BPT with an eye toward the future.
“I finally realized that I run a business and I had to put emotion aside and make the best business decision,” he added. “For a lot of guys, it was probably an easy decision, but it wasn’t for me. I did a lot of thinking about it.”
As for the format change, Christie is no stranger for MLF events so it be a heavy lift to commit to it on a full-time basis.
“I’ve fished a lot of MLF events and have been pretty successful,” he said. “The ones I’ve won I’ve won flipping or throwing a bladed jig or a spook – the same way I usually fish, but what changes is you have to think about ‘Can I still fish for five with MLF but have to do things that will get bites?’ Fishing MLF has made me a better fisherman because there’s no time to goof around. You have to make decisions quick and that helps me figure things out faster.
“It’s different, but it’s subtle. Rather than throwing a Super Spook trying to catch seven fish, I’ll go with a regular spook to get more bites. What scares me the most is being able to practice. Do you go practice for big ones? Is sight-fishing going to be a thing? Fishing will change with this format.”
From a sponsor’s perspective, Christie sees the move to a no-limit format being beneficial for lure companies.
“I work with Pradco and it’s awesome for us because we don’t make a bunch of big, specialized items,” he said. “It will be good for selling stuff that just catches fish.”
No Issue for Watson
James Watson has his success in the MLF format partially to thank for helping build his persona within the sport. Making the transition from the FLW Tour to the BPT won’t be a daunting task for the Missouri pro.
Justin Lucas is hoping to carry over the momentum he gained from winning the Elite Series AOY title to the BPT, regardless of the format.
“I think it’ll be easy,” he said. “I’ve got 10 or 12 days of practice under my belt. That’s the equivalent of a whole year.”
Aside from the black-and-white differences in scoring, Watson believes the ScoreTracker updates will also play a big role in how competitors try to shape their days.
“When you’re not catching them and others are, you tend to fish your strengths until you’re forced to fish something else,” he said. “When you fish your strengths, sooner or later you’re going to knock it out.”
Further, Watson believes the BPT format will not give anglers with an all-around skillset an upper hand.
“Versatility has been a big part of the great anglers’ success, but I don’t think versatility will matter as much as it used to,” he said. “We’ll go one day and have a day off, then go back out against 39 guys with 20 getting to stay. It will put more of an emphasis on somebody’s strengths and a lot on conditions.”
Lucas Isn’t Concerned
Justin Lucas competed in two MLF Selects in 2018 and said he learned a lot from operating under the no-limits format. Results of those events won’t be publicly available until the episodes air on Outdoor Channel, but coming off a year in which he won the Elite Series Angler of the Year title, he hopes to carry over the momentum and confidence, no matter the format.
“When you win AOY and look back at it, I feel like it raised my own confidence to another level,” he said. “I feel like I can be put anywhere in the country and have a legit chance to have a great tournament. I’ve always felt confident within reason, but I’m never overly confident.”
A recent gathering of Costa pro staffers was the first time Lucas had been on the water since capturing the AOY title.
“I’ve not fished hard, but if I had to figure it out, I feel like I could,” he said. “I want to keep that feeling going because it’s legit. There were times when I’d drop the trolling motor in the water and feel like I was going to catch every fish in that area and then go to next spot and do the same thing.”
Lucas thinks more is being made of the looming change than it’s actually worth.
Bradley Roy disagrees with the notion that BPT events will largely be dink fests.
“At least 75 to 80 percent of guys who catch the most usually have the five biggest,” he said. “It’s just a new challenge to me. It’s still competition on the same playing field. To me, I’m not hurt one way or another because I still want to beat the best guys. If we’re going to get more people involved and they watch this show, people will see them catching them more than five fish for 9 or 10 pounds. It’ll be easier for them to understand because they’ll see someone has 10 fish for 24 pounds or something like that.”
Nervous Excitement for Roy
Bradley Roy sold his 2018 tournament boat a month ago and has been in hunting mode most of the fall. He admits, though, he’s starting to get the itch to go fishing soon and he’s anxious to see how he’ll react under the different format.
“I’ll always eager for new opportunities because you never know who’s going to excel,” he said. “Over the years, the five-fish limit has set up well for a lot of guys and I’ve pushed my mindset in that direction. At the same time, I feel like I’m pretty decent at getting bites so from that sense, I’m excited for a new format. If you can get bites and get quality you’re going to excel.”
On the flipside, he said he’s just as worried about some of the unsettled details about the format, such as how many hours a competition day will cover and whether the field will be able to probe the entire lake.
“Some of that is unknown and that has me a little anxious,” he said. “As far as the fishing goes, that will take care of itself. I don’t think (the adjustment) will take as long as some might think. We all have to strive to get bites as quick as possible and figure out what’s going on so those 1- and 2-pounders will mean more than being thrown back and forgotten about.”
Roy said he actually started to think about how he’d fare under a catch-weigh-release format toward the end of the Elite Series season and doesn’t believe that fans will be tuning in to watch “dink fests.”
“The value of a 3- or 4-pounder will still be there, especially if you’re around a bunch of them,” he said. “To excel, the quality will have to be there regardless.”