The stage was certainly set. I have to admit, I was all but giddy on the eve of the Heavy Hitters finale.
The players were perfect. Andy Morgan conquered the Knockout Round. Thrift had smashed Group B. Wheeler was there; no surprise. Lefebre, Ish and Ehrler made it. Jeff Sprague and Michael Neal – two masters of the BPT format – waited in the shadows. This was going to be a nail-biter.
For me, Bass Pro Tour competition has become synonymous with last-minute heroics. Regardless of venue or time of year, there always seems to be a late-day charge that overwhelmingly adds to the drama. It’s my favorite aspect of the competition, providing proof of players rising to the next level of performance.
But here, at one of the league’s premier stops, the drama never showed. Could it be?
Let me explain.
First, recall with me the initial complaints by fans about the BPT format. Small fish. Dinkfest. Spinning-rod showdown.
Yes, we all remember how things started out, when just about any fish made the board and the featured fisheries were packed with 1-pounders. But, like so many times in its short span, Major
League Fishing made adjustments in the name of theatrics. We, the fans, are the winners. Minimum-weight requirements were upped across the board and the Heavy Hitters format was brought into inception.
It’s a very unique tournament. While the standard BPT rules apply, minimum bass sizes increase as the event proceeds, as do big bass bounties paid for the day’s largest fish. For starters, 25 grand went to the lunkers of the intro rounds, followed by 50K for the semifinal big bass, and a whopping 100 large going to the final-day hawg. Imagine that: $100,000 for the largest bass caught among 10 guys. I’m still shaking my head.
Anyway, such makes for a serious side-hustle. An angler could, potentially, not win the tournament, but still take home winnings in excess of any other regular season bass tournament in the world. Even winnings in excess of the Heavy Hitters champion.
And that’s exactly what happened.
By now, we all know that tournament winner Alton Jones pocketed $100,000 for handily winning the event. Second-place finisher and big-bass award winner Jeff Sprague (who should tattoo $BPT$ on his arm) won $125,000.
Ok, so what’s the big deal? If the BPT wants to make a format with gigantic big-bass bounties, so be it, right? I mean, with guys like Ish Monroe and Dave Lefebre hanging around a six-figure bounty, things are likely to get interesting.
Unfortunately, however, the bounty killed the blitz. The extra incentive removed the patented MLF excitement factor created by a last-minute charge.
We all watched it happen. With a couple hours to go, Jones got in his stride and took control of the event. Then, nearly all of the other competitors, being smart, economically-impacted touring bass pros, decided it was in their best interest to fish the other tournament and go for the big-bass bounty.
I knew we were in trouble when Thrift started sight-fishing. Most competitors saw Jones’ lead – a sizable 15 pounds, minimum – as too overwhelming to overcome. They punted.
Now, who could blame these guys? Given the opportunity, nearly every competitive bass fisherman out there would have done the same. Okay, maybe not Van Dam, but everyone else. The math is simple: try to overcome a considerable lead or find a 6-pound fish on a bed and earn a year’s salary?
The result was a full-out coast to the finish line for Jones. And while Alton may have very well won the event regardless of the chosen format or payout, I wonder how things would have changed if the big-bass award wasn’t so tempting? I wonder, could an angler have put something together and made a comeback if they’d fished for 3-pounders?
Late in the day, while all of this was going on and no one cared to challenge, Fletcher Shyrock pulled into one nondescript pocket and quickly caught three bass in 10 minutes. What if they’d weighed three pounds apiece? What if an angler had made a meteoric rise up the ScoreTracker with an hour to go? Would that have put more anglers on alert, pushing them faster, and further, as has happened in the past? Could someone have keyed in to an offshore hotspot like so many times before and lapped the field with a half-dozen casts?
Remember, in the traditional BPT format, this seems to nearly always happen. Somebody makes a charge as the leader sweats it out, knowing he must do more to hold off many of the world’s best. And also remember, this body of water – Shearon Harris Reservoir – was noted as one of the best big-bass fisheries in the state by a very knowledgeable Marty Stone. Here, a 15-pound cushion is far from safe.
We’ll never know.
As a fan, I’ve relished the alternative format tournaments. Megabucks was the prime example. Heavy Hitters easily claims a spot on my list as the most ingenious tweak the BPT has made to date.
A tweak … maybe needing a tweak?
(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.)