A great opportunity came my way this week when I was offered a chance to speak at the Teen Sportfishing Association (TSA) meeting near my home in Volusia County. Much of Florida is without sanctioned bass fishing as a high school sport due to legal mumbo-jumbo, so the TSA is where it’s at for teenagers with the fishing itch, as I had at their age.
My game plan was to introduce the youngsters to opportunities beyond the high school years; open their eyes to college fishing as a real sport, and even touch on sponsorships and career paths. Throwing in several giveaways and trivia questions ensured I wouldn’t bore anyone.
I was greeted by eager kids and supportive adults who couldn’t have made my job easier, or more entertaining. The “peer pressure” banter of the boys was hilarious when applied to their common interest in bass fishing. I chuckled behind the scenes as a 12-year-old tried to gain the approval of the older boys by showing off fish pictures on his phone. Given no leeway, the youngster was immediately accused of holding the bass too close to the camera.
The kids were all ears when it came to the programs offered at many colleges throughout the country - especially schools like McKendree, Bethel and others, with real scholarship money and bass fishing expense accounts. No matter how old you are, there’s just something about free tackle.
In any case, I quizzed the crowd a bit to get a feel of their dedication toward pro bass fishing. The first question’s always easy:
“How many of you know who Kevin VanDam is?” I asked. Every hand in the audience went up.
“Gerald Swindle, Mike Iaconelli?” Most of the kids kept their hands held high.
“Now how many of you” I continued, “are members of B.A.S.S. – the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society?”
All the hands in the audience, with the exception of two, when down. “How about FLW?” The last two hands remaining fell. I was baffled, but didn’t let on. Out of about 40 kids – every one of whom are eaten up with tournament bass fishing – only two were members of either of the largest tournament organizations in the world.
At home later that evening, I pondered the implications behind that fact.
For starters, it’s safe to assume that, if the young anglers at my seminar weren’t members of a central group, the majority of their bass fishing parents weren’t either. What a striking difference this is from my upbringing, when nearly every bass angler I knew was a member of B.A.S.S.; the older crowd often displaying the organization's patch on their favorite fishing jackets.
Back in the day, the pride and participation of B.A.S.S. as a true Sportsman’s Society wasn’t taken lightly. In fact, the foundation of B.A.S.S. was built on both fishing competition and environmental issues, the latter of which was most responsible for its quick growth.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, founder Ray Scott made it his personal vendetta to attack water polluters in the U.S., filing over 200 lawsuits throughout the Southeast. Scott saw the deterioration of our waterways as a personal threat to his new business and everything it stood for, and often appeared on the nation’s leading news and talk shows to promote his message.
Scott’s evolution of the B.A.S.S. Federation program took his movement to the grassroots level, building a brotherhood among anglers eager to share their beliefs and recruit the next generation of bass anglers and self-taught environmentalists.
Scott’s wildly successful Bassmaster Magazine came along and further sold the idea that, if you were a bass fisherman in America, you needed to be a member of B.A.S.S.. Yet, as evidenced by my recent focus group, somewhere that idea’s been lost.
Certainly, a large factor is driven by a change in media. Fishermen – specifically hardcore tournament anglers – are looking elsewhere for information these days. Instant access to websites, podcasts and live broadcasts have replaced waiting by the mailbox for our next bass fix, so the magazine perk has diminished.
But what about that B.A.S.S. pride? Has the brotherhood been lost on today’s generation?
Unfortunately, it appears so. Again, increased options are likely to blame, as today’s youth are more likely to discuss and share an entertaining Instagram post as they are talk clean water policy. In addition, our success with environmental actions over the last 20 years has likely led to a little complacency, which isn’t all bad.
FLW, popular at the regional level through its BFL tournament circuit, loses any interest outside of its immediate tournament locations, as evidenced in Florida, where Okeechobee is the only game in town. Membership lacks elsewhere.
So does the lack of a central body pose a problem for bass anglers? It may.
Immediately, I contrast avid bass anglers to duck hunters. In the duck hunting community, two very strong member groups, Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl, continue to fight for hunters' rights, lobby in Washington and represent millions of members as a whole unit. Somehow, they have kept the model alive, and continue to reap the benefits of a unified front. Ask my same question at a duck-calling clinic in front of a bunch of teenagers, and well over half will raise their hands as members of DU.
Now I want to make clear that there are a lot of good people – dedicated, smart people – working hard at B.A.S.S., FLW and other groups to ensure our community is represented when discussing the most important environmental topics of today, especially those affecting bass fishing.
But, I wonder, where have we gone as active members? And, even more concerning, where are we headed?
(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.)