Nowadays, everybody is a professional fisherman, or knows one.
The phrase gets tossed around for tournament anglers at all levels, guides, charter boat operators, commercial netters, even the guy selling worms at Walmart. And, taken literally, I guess the phrase isn’t too far off.
But to me, the true pro fishermen, at least in our sport, are the guys I call grinders. Tournament to tournament, across the country, these guys derive their income from high finishes in bass derbies. I remember reading about the old days, when top-touring pros would gladly travel out West to fish the U.S. Open, then head seemingly across the universe to be at an event in New York the following week.
Early on, when the first superstars were crowned, competitors fished to win. Sure, endorsement contracts and sponsor money followed, but it was tournament purses that were the draw, not fame and fortune. I don’t remember ever hearing Larry Nixon or Rick Clunn say they got their start because they were after a boat deal.
In any case, a few of the grinders grace our presence in today’s modern era. You’ll see them pop up in a big open event or team tournament when they’re passing through your town. At the ramp, the locals will all be bewildered, asking each other, “What the heck is he doing here?”
These guys fish for the sheer joy of competition. I’ve heard many quoted as saying they don’t “fun fish” at all, and spend all of their time away from the tour in a deer stand or duck blind. It always makes me draw the comparison to other single-athlete sports, like golf, racing, bowling or rodeo. A guy with his golf bag or a saddle, traveling from town to town, just hoping to do well at the next event.
But here’s the problem with that analogy: Golfers can play 30 or more PGA events a year, NASCAR races a similar number of times each season, and bowlers compete in pro events weekly. A touring bass pro may only get to “play” six or eight times in a given year.
Assuming each event consumes about 10 days of an angler’s time, this leaves a whole bunch of days open on the calendar.
This year was the first year in recent times where we saw just six regular season FLW events. Dropped were the FLW Open events that many of the FLW touring pros competed in. A few years prior, B.A.S.S. reduced its Elite Series regular season to eight events. For conversation’s sake, we’re not counting “All Stars”, “Wildcards”, or “Fish-offs” when we’re talking events – let’s deal with the regular season, offering paydays down through the ranks.
This seems to be leaving a few pro anglers in a pinch. As a few fans have expressed, the general distaste for touring pros fishing AAA events, some pros express the “need” to do so.
Dave Lefebre, one of FLW’s most dominant pros across the board, recently vented a little frustration on the heels of a second-place finish at the Lake Champlain EverStart Series.
“Pros shouldn’t fish EverStarts,” he said. “But we have no choice."
Lefebre is one of a group of anglers who derive a large percentage of their income from tournament earnings. Fewer events each season equates to a reduction on the bottom line, plain and simple.
Bass tournament participation is a direct indicator of the economy. According to Kathy Fennel, the president of FLW Operations, participation is up across the board at FLW events. This is a very good sign, but there’s no indication to believe that the number of tournaments available to touring pros will be increased anytime soon. In fact, the feeling by many competitors is that event numbers will remain the same.
It’s no mystery to BassFans that I’d love to see pro bass fishing be the next big thing. I think, in order to further propel the sport, there needs to be an “awe factor” involved with the pro bass tours.
Over the previous 20 or so years, we’ve seen each major tour rise and fall to the other, with changes in management, television coverage and format. Currently, I think B.A.S.S. holds an upper hand in the eyes of most fans for one major reason: Not just anyone can compete; anglers must qualify. This gives the feeling of a true professional sport. No PGA card, no golf.
Getting back to the point at hand, whether an angler fishes the FLW or B.A.S.S. tour, the number of events needs to keep the grinders employed. To think that touring pros would travel to fish Open or EverStart events just doesn’t make sense in their business plan: Payouts just don’t match expenses. We’ll look into this in-depth in the near future.
I’m sure it’s a much larger venture than I realize to coordinate a major bass tournament. But it must be fairly lucrative, as well. Perhaps, some day in the future, we’ll see a trail with more events. Maybe a dozen, maybe 15 or even 20. There won't be any pre-fishing because there won't be time to. Just show up and fish. Make no mistake: Such a schedule would never be for the average tournament guy, but the pros are the enigmas. Besides, I’d love to follow it as a fan, and I doubt I’m alone.
Then golf wouldn’t be the only thing on TV every weekend.
(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.)