By Todd Ceisner
Before long it will be decision time for the vast majority of anglers who were FLW Tour competitors in 2019. With the recent sale of FLW to Major League Fishing and with details starting to emerge about what MLF has planned for a revamped FLW Tour (now called the FLW Pro Circuit) in 2020, anglers will soon be deciding where they’ll cast for cash next year.
But for five FLW Tour veterans, a much larger decision looms, one that could shape the next phase of their careers. John Cox, Buddy Gross, Bryan Schmitt, Wes Logan and Austin Felix all qualified for the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series via the Bassmaster Opens this year and now have the option to compete on B.A.S.S.’s top circuit or the FLW Pro Circuit, which will transition to a six-day tournament schedule and feature a hybrid format of traditional five-fish limits and MLF’s catch-weigh-release system.
Among the other changes MLF intends to make are replacing the FLW Cup with a year-end Angler of the Year event along with an increase in entry fees. Payouts will see the top 50 finishers take home at least $10,000 and those finishing 51st through 75th earning $5,000 apiece.
When reached by BassFan this week, Gross, Logan and Felix said their minds are made up – they’re headed to the Elite Series. Schmitt said he’s made his decision, but wasn’t prepared to reveal it, while Cox is holding out hope that he might be able to compete on both circuits next year.
All five anglers said they felt quite fortunate to have a choice as to which organization to fish with in 2020, but they also had personal reasons for making the decision they did. Some found the changes MLF is implementing to the format and entry fee/payout system too drastic while some simply prefer the traditional five-fish limit format.
Cox Wants To Try Both
Cox, a three-time Tour winner and 2016 FLW Cup champion, is on the fence about which direction he will go if he’s forced to choose between the Elite Series and the FLW Pro Circuit. If schedules allow, he’d prefer to compete in both. That way, he says, he can still experience the five-fish limit format he’s excelled at while getting a taste of the MLF format, which will be employed over the final three days at Pro Circuit events.
Wes Logan believes his best chance to take the next step in his career will be with B.A.S.S.
“The new format is not something I feel like I’d do well at, but I would like to try it out,” Cox said. “It would be so cool to do the Elites and do the FLW ones, even without practice. I don’t want to hate on it because I haven’t fished it, but I’m just glad to have both opportunities. I’m excited about both schedules and if the schedules stay the same, I would only miss one (FLW) tournament. If you’re willing to pay an entry and not show up for one, who cares. You’re not stranding a co-angler or anything like that. For me, that would be ideal. That way, I can try the new format and see if it works for me and still be able to do what I love to do.”
Cox said he has not been told by either organization that he needs to commit exclusively to being a competitor for one or the other.
“Both doors are open right now, so I’m going to pay both entry fees,” he said. “If I’m forced to pick one or the other, I think whomever puts pressure on me I might go the other way. I want to have as many options as I can to support my family and pay my bills. If someone is going push me away from having those options, then you’re against me.”
Logan Sees Future With Elite Series
Logan, who has two FLW Tour seasons under his belt, says this offseason has been “pretty crazy” amid all the FLW sale rumors while wrestling with the decision over his future.
“This is my first real year of talking to major sponsors and I asked another guy who fishes the Tour if it’s always this crazy because it seems like nobody knows what’s going on,” he said. “He said he’s seen nothing like this.”
Logan said he went into the final Central Open at Grand Lake under the impression that if MLF purchased FLW, it would slash the field for the 2020 FLW Tour to 30 or 40 anglers. It was the hot rumor at the time, he said, and seeing that he had finished 83rd in points this year, he was worried that door would be closed for him.
“I knew going into Grand, if I could catch them good, I could control my own destiny as far as where I would be fishing,” Logan said. “From that standpoint, it was probably the most stressful tournament I’ve been in.”
A fifth-place finish (his third top-10 in the Central Opens) sealed up the AOY title and gave him the option to choose between the Elite Series and the FLW Pro Circuit.
“Obviously, I fished the Opens to qualify,” he said. “I’m not sure why else you would fish them. It’s not for the money. I’m going to go to B.A.S.S. after seeing what MLF presented. I was going to consider it if there was a major entry fee drop or something significant done to the payouts. I have nothing against FLW. I love those people. I started my career with them. This is 100 percent about the future for me. Going to the Elites is the way to make a living in fishing at this point in time.”
Traditional Format Suits Gross
Buddy Gross’ motivation for fishing the Eastern Division of the Opens this year was to hopefully capitalize on one of the tournaments being at Lake Chickamauga, which is part of the TVA system that he’s thrived on. A win would trigger an automatic invitation to the 2020 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Guntersville, another of his favorite fisheries.
While he fell short at Chickamauga (he finished third), he logged two other decent results and finished fourth in points.
“It’s the first year I fished them all and I really fished them (to have) options,” he said. “With Chickamauga on the schedule, I was looking for a Classic berth because I know Guntersville better than Chick and wanted to be there.”
Buddy Gross says he prefers the five-fish format and will accept the Elite Series invitation for 2020.
Still, he’s thankful that his strong Open season has resulted in him having a chance to dictate the next step in his pro fishing career. He’s a two-time FLW Tour winner and said he’d be willing to entertain the possibility of fishing both the Elite Series and Pro Circuit, but he’s opting to go the B.A.S.S. route.
“Barring something else coming out, I’m going to the Elites,” he said. “Anytime you have options it’s a great thing. Both organizations are great with great people and I have friends at both places. I just wish I had a magic ball to see into the future at this point.”
Gross said he deliberated greatly about the decision before concluding the Elite Series was his best option.
“It’s something we prayed about and (the Elite Series) feels like the right place to be for the style of fishing I like to do,” he said. “The lakes they’re going to and the schedule of when we’ll be there was key. To be a rookie and be on my home lake (Lake Chickamauga), even though February is the worst time to be there, it’s still home.”
Felix Excited For Next Challenge
Felix said he opted to fish the Opens this year in addition to the Tour schedule as a way to give himself options for down the road. He actually would’ve moved to the Elite Series in 2019 had he been among the FLW Tour anglers who were invited.
“I was really hoping I’d get invited to the Elites because I thought I had the ability,” he said. “I was a little annoyed actually, so I figured my best route was to fish the Opens this year to give myself the opportunity.”
After not competing in the Opens last year for the first time in a while, he’s glad he got back in this year. He finished fifth in points in the Eastern Division.
“This year, everything worked out great and I was fortunate enough to qualify,” he said. “I honestly think qualifying through the Opens is one of hardest things to do in the sport next to winning an event. You’re up against a bunch of pros and locals and you can’t have a bad day at any of the tournaments.”
Like the others in his situation, Felix was waiting to see what came out after the FLW sale before he made a commitment of any kind.
“Since I’ve qualified, I’ve been sitting back and seeing what’s going to happen,” he said. “At this point, I’m going to the Elite Series. When I saw (MLF) was increasing entry fees and added a bunch of extra days of fishing and limiting practice, there’s a lot of variables with the format change. It makes me nervous and I feel like there wasn’t a bunch of extra money injected like I was hoping, which may have caused me to stay.”
Knowing how difficult the path to the Elite Series is, he didn’t want to pass up it up while he has the chance.
“The Elites will always be there. They have a strong following and that’s never going to change,” he added. “As hard as it is to qualify, I feel like I have to take the opportunity. Plus, most of my sponsors are urging me to go that way.
Austin Felix would've accepted an Elite Series invitation had one been extended to him last year.
“It’s always been a goal to get to the Elite Series. It’s always been a little more difficult to get into like a closed-off club. I’m grateful for everything I learned at FLW, but I feel like it’s another step up. It’s a smaller field and the opportunity to fish a Classic is something you dream about. I expect to compete.”
The former FLW College Fishing champion said his decision to depart FLW was a bittersweet one, knowing that he’ll have to adjust to a different scheduling philosophy at B.A.S.S.
“It’s going to be different,” he said. “As far as fishing goes, I feel like I can compete anywhere. What I’m nervous about, though, is I like to fish around the spawn and FLW’s schedule always seemed to wrap around the spawn. B.A.S.S. tries to avoid it, so that might require some change in tactics.”
Open Success a ‘Bonus’ for Schmitt
Schmitt, winner of the 2017 Mississippi River FLW Tour, won the AOY title in the Eastern Division of the Bassmaster Opens this year with three top-10 finishes in four events. He said he opted to sign up for the Opens in an attempt to give himself as many options as possible.
“I wanted to fish as much as I could this year and if I was lucky enough to be in the position I am now then that would be a bonus,” he said. “With all of the changes last year, there was no better year to do it than this year. I feel very, very lucky and for the other guys that don’t, I feel sort of sad for them.”
The Maryland native said he’s “99 percent sure” on the decision and said much of it was based upon the impact his fishing and travel would have on his family.
“Everybody talks about the support at home and it’s extremely important for me,” he said. “I have a family that’s growing and I have two family obligations next year that line up better for me going in one direction. Scheduling is a major element to it.”