The cover of the latest edition of Bassmaster Magazine caught my eye: Tournament Fishing Turns 50. While I often struggle to find unique content in today’s bass mags, this particular piece, written by former Bassmaster boss Bob Cobb, grabbed my interest. Included was an in-depth look at history; most notably, the reason for the shift that occurred when fishing became a competitive sport. The result may outline the most paramount question of tournament bass business ever discussed.
Since the beginning of time, human beings have fished for sustenance. Later, as societies progressed, allowing for sporting and leisure activities, certain forms of fishing took on new meaning, most notably with high-class members of society. China viewed fishing as an upscale sport for centuries, followed by European trout fishermen taking their game to new levels through fly fishing during the Industrial Revolution.
That same mentality appeared to follow European anglers to America, as many things did, and soon similar practices were viewed as the highest form of fishing stateside. However, as the U.S. population continued to explode, land was developed all across the country’s midsection, primarily for farming. Nearly all of those new farms contained ponds, many of which were stocked with easily-transportable, hardy largemouth bass through the assistance of groups like the USDA.
Later, massive power-generating lakes were developed throughout the Southern and Western U.S., creating millions of acres of suitable bass habitat. Not surprisingly, fishermen took to the expanded waters for both sport and a way to easily feed their growing families. The result was the bass quickly becoming America’s most popular game fish.
The sport of bass fishing continued to progress through the early part of the 20th century. Fishermen quickly discovered the effectiveness of artificial lures, adding a whole new concept to the game. During the middle of the 1900s, huge technological advancements in equipment pushed things further with the introduction of fiberglass rods, nylon fishing lines, depthfinders and trolling motors. Indeed, the popularity of bass fishing pushed the fishing industry further than ever before.
As Cobb’s article outlined, along with the rise in popularity of bass fishing came a naturally competitive aspect. In fact, baseball great Ted Williams is credited for being one of the first to publicly announce his personal fishing skill, thus giving a Sports Illustrated photographer the idea for one of America’s first fishing tournaments.
As loosely run events and hometown derbies advanced, Ray Scott recognized potential. Here was a sport primarily enjoyed by men in a society of sports fans, yet no national competitive format existed.
It’s important to pause there and reflect. As we learn form Cobb’s article and many that preceded it, the primary reason behind Scott forming his organization was competition. However, perhaps a later, unforeseen benefit was even greater, as B.A.S.S. would become the most influential environmental group in bass fishing history.
Getting back to our story, Scott began to organize his first tournament on Beaver Lake, taking advantage of a surge of tourist interest to the area thanks, in part, to good bass fishing. His idea was to personally invite the best fishermen from around the country, hence the beginning of the term "invitational" when used in tournament description. However, after some time digging up names of potential competitors, interest in the event still waned. Scott needed more participants, and this is where the story really gets interesting.
After brainstorming a bit, Scott came up with the idea of turning the event into a regional challenge between anglers from Tulsa, Okla. and Memphis, Tenn. “An open invitation to defend bassin’ manhood,” the article surmised. In fact, a separate Tulsa vs. Memphis side pot was initiated in Scott’s inaugural All-American Invitational.
The outcome is not important; what matters most is that Scott saw his last straw to attract participants – the entire basis for his plan – as an all-out brawl on the water. Like boxing, basketball, golf or any other popular sport of the time. Mano-y-mano to see who’s best.
Fast forward a handful of decades, and we witness a shift in the mentality of tournament fishing, leading to our discussion. Nowadays, when interviewed on the weigh-in stage, it’s common for the sport’s greatest athletes to comment “It’s just between me and the fish”, or something along that line. No more is it Tulsa whipping Memphis' butt. Now, head-to-head competition seems to have taken a back seat.
What does this matter, you ask? Well, for starters, such formatting may be responsible for tournament bass fishing’s mediocre placement in modern culture when compared to other sports, where head-to-head competition is more apparent.
Drawing a parallel with another non-team sport, professional golf recorded a meteoric rise in popularity in the early 1960s thanks largely to weekly battles between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. A similar rise in popularity at the time for NBA basketball can be credited to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. But somewhere, we lost that in tournament fishing, despite the apparent origination being based on that very same theme.
Did we make a mistake in the way we drew up the plans? Should professional bass fishing focus more on the athletes and less on the fish? Are we doomed when it comes to becoming truly recognized as a professional sport?
Perhaps we’ll never know.
But if I were in charge, I’d ask Ray Scott.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)