By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: BassFan will suspend feature publication during the holidays as it does each year, although important, breaking news will still be reported. The staff wishes everyone a joyous holiday and we'll be back after New Year's. A new First Cast story will not appear until Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019.)
For as much that transpired over the first half of the year, the second half of 2018 will be remembered as the period of time when the highest level of the sport got turned on its head by the launch of the Bass Pro Tour, an ambitious expansion of the Major League Fishing brand aimed at presenting tournament competition in a different light with the hope of drawing in a wider range of viewers and fans.
With the first BPT tournament fast approaching – the inaugural event is set for the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes in Florida in late January – this is a storyline that will continue to evolve. It wasn’t the only significant occurrence in the back half of the year, though. Below is a rundown of a few other storylines that had people talking. If you missed part 1 of our year in review, click here.
Mother Nature Wins
One variable tournament officials can never control or predict is what Mother Nature does during a tournament week. B.A.S.S. got served a double dose of no-win weather during the Elite Series season, forcing it to postpone two events and eventually cancel one of them.
It started with the Sabine River event, originally slated for April 6-9 out of Orange, Texas. Heavy rains in the weeks leading up to the event created conditions that were too hazardous to attempt to get the event in. Initially, it was delayed by a day, but B.A.S.S. ultimately postponed it until June 7-10, when Greg Hackney won in wire-to-wire fashion.
The next B.A.S.S. event in Mother Nature’s crosshairs was the Upper Chesapeake Bay derby, slated for July 26-29. Competitors arrived for practice and found a swollen fishery, the result of a string of storms that limited fishing options and created iffy scenarios in terms of navigation.
B.A.S.S. made the decision after the pre-tournament briefing to postpone the tournament due to high water and potentially hazardous boating conditions. Local news reports showed video of water thundering through the Conowingo Dam, the last dam on the Susquehanna River before it empties into the upper bay.
The decision to postpone roiled some competitors, who argued there were areas that were accessible and fishable. Others were frustrated by the financial loss incurred (travel expenses, lodging, etc.).
With few options left on the calendar and knowing it would took a considerable amount of time for the water conditions to stabilize in the area, B.A.S.S. decided to not reschedule the tournament.
In an effort to mitigate frustration among the field, B.A.S.S. expanded the Classic Bracket from the first eight anglers below the points cut line for the Bassmaster Classic to the first 16. The expanded format allowed for three Classic berths to be awarded versus the one that was initially planned.
Farewell to Co-Anglers
The topic of co-anglers has been a hot-button issue for years among FLW Tour pros. Some have campaigned heavily to get rid of them at the Tour level, arguing that their side pot derby often affected how the pros strategized on the water. Others felt they were necessary to continue growing the sport and to offer an avenue for amateurs to qualify to compete at the pro level.
Clent Davis went from nearly giving up fishing at the pro level to winning the Forrest Wood Cup this year.
While the role of co-anglers has been slowly scaled back – their Tour-level participation was reduced to two days beginning in 2015 and they were phased out of the Forrest Wood Cup the same year – FLW seemed reluctant to part ways completely with them. That all changed with the announcement in July that beginning in 2019, co-anglers will no longer compete in FLW Tour events.
In place of co-anglers, FLW will introduce a marshal program similar to what the Elite Series has used since 2009. The move, to no one’s surprise, drew positive feedback from Tour pros.
After the 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series season wrapped up, Clent Davis had about had it with tournament fishing. He was frustrated with his performance. He missed spending time with his family. He was ready to cash out and call it quits. By the second week of August 2018, he was standing on stage inside Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs, Ark., confetti raining down from the rafters after he completed an incredible final-day comeback to win the Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Ouachita.
Stuck in 10th place and trailing the leader by nearly 5 pounds entering day 3, Davis had a remarkable day, catching a tournament-best 17-13 all the while putting the focus on having fun.
“I don’t believe I just won this,” he said while on stage. “This is all I’ve worked for my whole life and I guess it was time for it to happen."
He caught the only double-digit stringer of day 3 and wound up winning by 7-04, the sixth-largest margin in Cup history. He also became the first angler in FLW Tour or Forrest Wood Cup history to complete a 10th-to-1st rally on the final day of competition.
His mission throughout was simple: Don't make the same mistakes he made at the 2015 Cup at Ouachita. He relied mainly on finesse tactics and finished 32nd. This time around, it was all about deep brush piles, big baits and being patient.
Right around ICAST, rumors started to swirl throughout the sport that something big was about to happen. And then on Sept. 11, the announcement came: Major League Fishing was expanding with the launch of the Bass Pro Tour, which would debut with an invitation-only 80-man field in 2019. The unveiling of the BPT, backed by ownership at Outdoor Sportsman Group (BassFan’s parent company) and in partnership with title sponsor Bass Pro Shops, touched off a cause and effect scenario never before seen in the sport.
The initial furor about the BPT centered on the invitation process. It was evident that previous MLF competitors, a group that included many of the sport’s biggest stars, would be extended invitations, but there was little clarity as to what criteria was used to dole out the remaining invites. According to MLF co-founder Boyd Duckett, the process by which the invite list was arrived upon was not an easy one.
"We picked 80 guys who we think can help us take this thing to the next level, and we probably could've chosen another 80,” he said the day after the announcement was made. “We did the best we could."
Meetings were set up in Guntersville, Ala., Tulsa, Okla., and Atlanta to give invitees a closer look at the BPT business model – the initial framework included a nearly $10 million purse – and how the competition framework would be set up (tournaments will take place over a six-day span and feature a catch-weigh-release format). More importantly, the main selling point was that much of the decision-making power, including how the entry fee/payout structure would look, would be ceded to the competitors, a break from standard operating procedure at other tournament organizations.
In the meantime, and sensing many of the Elite Series anglers were considering a move to the BPT, B.A.S.S. scrambled to revamp its 2019 program in an attempt to prevent a mass exodus. First, it canceled the West Coast swing slated for the California Delta and Columbia River, replacing those venues with Lake Guntersville and Cayuga Lake. B.A.S.S. also relaxed its qualification criteria, inviting all 2018 Elite Series competitors back for 2019. B.A.S.S. also presented significant financial incentives for anglers who opted return to the Elite Series, offering an entry fee system that would result in some anglers netting money by season’s end.
Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough to sway many of the anglers to stay. Timmy Horton and Edwin Evers, both household names associated with B.A.S.S., were the first competitors to announce their intention to move to the BPT. It touched off a cavalcade of anglers making their 2019 plans known via their social media pages, including those who declined BPT invites and some who didn’t receive an invite.
A few days after being inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame, Kevin VanDam announced he was headed to the BPT, likely signaling the end of his career that included four Bassmaster Classic wins, seven Angler of the Year titles, 25 victories and more than $6 million in winnings.
The whole situation even caught the attention of the The New York Times.
Once the BPT roster was finalized – after Gary Clouse opted to accept an Elite Series invite and JT Kenney declined his invite to take a color analyst position on BPT’s web coverage – the competitors voted to eliminate entry fees, marking the first time a major national tournament circuit has done so.
Understandably, the move was viewed as a major milestone for the sport.
Meanwhile, FLW made it known that it planned no changes to its entry fee/payout system despite an angler petition requesting alterations be made in the wake of the BPT announcement. Once all the dust settled, B.A.S.S. announced its Elite Series will feature 75 anglers for 2019 while the FLW Tour will start with 170 pros. For a recap of who’s fishing where, click here.
Money spent on tackle and won on the tournament trails wasn’t the only financial activity in the industry this year.
Acquisitions and investment continued on the corporate side within the sport with Lew’s Holdings Corporation, a property held by the Peak Rock Capital private equity firm, acquiring soft-plastics giant Southern Plastics, which is based in Eufaula, Ala. The November deal ties in with the Lew’s acquisition of Strike King in late 2017 as Southern Plastics has made soft plastic baits for Strike King for more than 20 years. With the deal, Lew’s has positioned itself to be a major force in the tackle market with a full suite of product offerings, ranging from rods and reels to hard baits, soft baits and line.
One day after the Lew’s/Southern Plastics deal was announced, another huge domino in the tackle industry fell into the hands of another private equity firm. In a deal that had been rumored for months after parent company Newell Brands announced a plan to liquidate some of the assets it acquired when it merged with Jarden Corp., Pure Fishing was sold to Sycamore Partners for $1.3 billion. Brands such as Abu Garcia, Berkley, Penn, Shakespeake, Pflueger and Ugly Stik are part of the portfolio now in the hands of Sycamore, which has additional holdings in the retail clothing and home office sector.
Capping off a busy month of November in terms of business dealings, Triton Boats founder Earl Bentz marked his return to the boat-building world with a report that he’s founded Caymas Boats, which will be based in Ashland City, Tenn. Initial plans are for the company to produce saltwater boats at first, then branch into bass boats.
What did we miss? If you feel there was another story in 2018 that didn’t make the Stories of the Year list, let us know about it. Click here to drop us a note in our Feedback section.