I have to hand it to FLW Magazine. While many print publications seem to load their pages with small snippets of nonsense, FLW continues to push the throttle forward toward hardcore tournament intel, giving us addicts our fix.
Recently, I marked a few pages that caused me to re-read the content. First off was a particularly statistical piece called 2017 Bassmetrics, outlining everything I wanted to know about the best performers on Tour. As I looked into the top-15 list, I was astonished to note that not a single competitor was age 50 or older. In fact, all of the top-10 were 45 or younger.
The magazine’s Cup Edition was loaded with even more data. Here, I found that four of the recent top-10 Forrest Wood Cup finishers were under the age of 30. Last year, half of the top competitors fit that age bracket.
Even though I was aware of these statistics, when I saw them on paper, I was a bit shocked. With the reported struggles of many tour veterans and previous winners - many once household names - I wonder, are they simply too old? Has youth replaced experience?
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Larry Nixon - known to the competitive circle as ""the General" for his longevity and continued battle-field performance. Nixon’s ailments are well-known to fans: continued problems with his hands and wrists, nearly all of which can be attributed to a lifetime of fishing. After numerous surgeries, Nixon has found the best remedy is rest and time away from fishing during the offseason. I wonder, does that hurt him when compared to, say, a 20-something who spends his winter in the Deep South, fishing every day?
A quick chat with Andy Morgan revealed more physical considerations. Finding himself at the gym nearly every day he’s not away hunting, Morgan has seen a considerable benefit in his overall stamina thanks to exercise, as well less back fatigue. At this point in his career, he’s finding the need to condition his body just to stay on a level playing feel with his competitors.
When we view tournament bass fishing as a whole through the years, we’re seeing a notable shift in overall age structure of the successful competitors. At one time, experience and time on the water were the strongest tools a traveling angler could possess. Recently, however, we watched as Justin Atkins, Brandon Cobb, Michel Neal and others beat the Nixons and Morgans of the world in the 2017 Cup on Lake Murray. To put it in perspective, many of the veteran competitors had fished tournaments on Murray longer than these young guns had been alive.
The reasons lie in three variables: technology, information and networking.
Beginning on the tech side, today’s anglers learn more in three days of idling than the best bass pros once did in three years of fishing. I’m not that old of a guy, yet I can remember searching for bottom hardspots, or clearings in an offshore weedbed, by casting out a Carolina rig and dragging it endlessly across miles of bottom during tournament practice time. At the end of the day, if I found one good spot, I considered it a success. Today, Side Imaging allows anglers to find dozens each time out.
GPS units can now dial us in within inches of productive areas. Sonar looks in all directions, and has the ability to record. Underwater cameras are high def. New mapping technology can even help us repeat patterns in different sections of the lake. At this point, a 10-year old can find the best spot on a lake.
However, it’s important to point out that many of the older competitors credited the young guns at the 2017 Cup with understanding and utilizing that technology better than themselves, thus leading to even greater success. “I just don’t know how to tune those graphs like they do.” a few of the old guard mentioned.
Information has also played a key role. Again, reflecting back and feeling older as we go, I remember saving clippings from BASS Times and other tournament-reporting pubs – stuffing them in a folder and taking them on the road – in order to reduce the learning curve when scouting a new lake. Maybe, just maybe, something in the background of a magazine photo might give me a clue to a previous winner's locale, I hoped.
As Internet media became commonplace, available information blossomed. However, none has done more to “clue everyone in” than what is currently happening with live tournament broadcasts. While viewing this type of program recently happening at Lake St. Clair, I could have easily driven to every competitor's boat – based just on background familiarity – in about 10 minutes. Sure makes it easy to find the hotspots.
Finally, Tommy Biffle said it best on BassFan recently when it comes to networking: “The thing is you've got to have guys telling you the right thing; not half the story, but the whole deal.”
Here, again, I see a major change. Reflecting on such behavior, it seems that many of the older bass tournament veterans are much more secretive with their information. From GPS coordinates all the way down to lure color, they feel playing it close to the vest carries with it a slight competitive advantage.
What we’re seeing from the young pros, however, is the belief that two heads – or sometimes three or four – are better than one. A recent interview with Cup champ Atkins and his closest friends revealed that they often share everything, from waypoints to bags of worms, in order to ensure each member of the “team” finishes well. Pool knowledge and experience, pool resources – even sometimes pool money and food – and success is more likely. Besides, something as simple as lure color doesn’t determine the winner, right? Form my viewpoint, the young guns see things in a much more organic state – almost imaginative, if you will – when it comes to tournament success. To them, many variables can’t be explained and shouldn’t be worried about.
Perhaps this is the new age of competitive fishing. The stats don’t lie – it’s becoming much more difficult to remain near the top.
It sure sucks getting old.
(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.)