At one time, the professional bass fishing Triple Crown was represented by three of the sport’s highest paying events: the Bassmaster Classic, Red Man All-American and the U.S. Open. Winning each was the goal of many of the earliest pioneers of competitive fishing, representing dominance at all levels and across the most diverse tournament venues.
While the All-American and Classic required grueling qualification processes, pros across the country began to recognize the U.S. Open – held annually on Nevada’s Lake Mead outside of Las Vegas – as a candidate to make extra cash throughout the 1980s. Here was a jackpot event with a giant payday; the biggest obligation for many competitors being a cross-country drive.
As momentum gained throughout the period, a noticeable shift occurred in the late '90s with the creation of the FLW Tour, as well as increased pressure from the national trails to keep their athletes fishing all year, thanks to increased event numbers. A decade later, tough economic times brought a temporary halt to the Open altogether, as did many regional trials once poised to surpass the numbers of the national tournament scene.
Things weren’t looking good for the semi-pro angler interested in high-dollar competition.
However, a resurgence appears to be taking place – 2015 saw a record-sized U.S. Open field, which was surpassed in 2016, then again this year with a field exceeding 200 boats. The whopper-sized prize money is back, even eclipsing the paydays of yesteryear. With it, some of the sport’s biggest names have returned to compete.
Future plans by WON Bass – organizer of the U.S. Open – is expansion of its existing California Open, as well as the creation of the Arizona Open, all offering lucrative prize packages including fully-rigged boats. Goals for the U.S. Open itself are to reach a field size of 250 boats.
So what’s their secret? How has this once-struggling tournament trail turned the tides on the overall trend of “all or nothing” pro bass circuits and brought about such a dedicated following?
The answer may lie in the WON Bass model of doing things their own way.
For starters, logistics must be considered. For what seems like an eternity, the two major tournament organizations have teetered back and forth as to their commitment to the West Coast fisheries and angling community. Despite often-incredible catch rates and community support, it seems impossible for B.A.S.S. and FLW to get the bulk of their touring pros on board with the idea of going west each season - the dollars just don’t line up.
For that reason, tournament bass anglers of the West have always held a bit of an isolationist following, and fully supported any homegrown cause.
National sponsors have recognized this; many have been supporters of the Open for decades. However, additions and increases to the sponsor team – most notably from Bass Cat Boats and Mercury Marine – are helping to take things to a new level. With $60,000-plus prize boats being given away at all WON Bass Open events, it’s easy to predict a surge in popularity.
The overall payout of the U.S. Open event calls for notice. The champion took away over $110,000 in cash and prizes, 6th place was over 10 grand, and all of the top 40 more than doubled their $1,600 entry fee. When compared to other events in the same entry-fee category, it’s not even a contest.
However, even with consideration of all the previously mentioned positives, perhaps one aspect of the WON Bass events outshine all the rest, and may be a sign of things to come: a shared-weight format.
Here, pros are paired with co-anglers – like at many events. However, the two anglers become a team for the day and share their cumulative five-fish stringer weight, regardless of who catches the bass. The idea is to increase camaraderie, which the format does in leaps and bounds when compared to the cutthroat competitions usually taking place between the front and back of the boat.
In addition, such a format requires co-anglers to sign up with a boater to ensure entry. This often puts non-boaters out pounding the pavement looking for interested boat owners, increasing the overall field size.
Finally, the format is simply fun, bringing back competitors year after year. “The experience, the fun and the friendships really sink in with these guys after fishing,” WON Bass director of operations Billy Egan commented. “We see them come back after fishing their first year.”
At one time, such a format garnered criticism. The best fisherman may not prevail, or, even worse, cheating could be involved. At this point, it appears we’re moving beyond that.
While polygraphs can be implemented at any time, and have been used in the past, the overall feel is that there’s nothing wrong with big-money competition in a more light-hearted atmosphere. “It’s all about the fun” Egan concluded. He also recognized his company’s ability to give working pros a shot at real money. “The U.S. Open gives them one big event; one they can save up for, that they can schedule and that they fish every year.”
It appears Egan and his crew are on the right track. Big fields, big prizes and big fun, all for less than a third of an accepted pro tournament entry rate.
Which begs the question: How far are you from Vegas?
(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.)