For several weeks, the bass industry has been abuzz with nonstop chatter about the uncertain future of the BASS Federation. We've heard from BASS founder Ray Scott, FLW Outdoors chairman Irwin Jacobs, BASS VP and GM Don Rucks, officials from The Bass Federation Inc. and hundreds of grassroots anglers.

But the voices of one group have been conspicuous by their absence: the tour pros.

The relationship between tour-level pros and the Federation has sometimes been strained. Some pros have openly complained that the five (now six) Bassmaster Classic spots reserved for top finishers from the Federation Championship may deprive some deserving pros of the opportunity to make a decent living at their craft.

But for every pro who's critical of the reserved Classic spots, there's another who got his first taste of bass fishing's Super Bowl as a Federation qualifier. Most notable among those, of course, was the late Bryan Kerchal, who became the first Classic qualifier from the Federation to win the big sport's biggest event. He accomplished that feat at High Rock Lake in 1994.

The groundwork had been laid 8 years earlier, when Danny Correia of Massachusetts, now a veteran tour pro, made a valiant charge at the Classic crown before finishing 2nd to Charlie Reed. In 1997, a dead-fish penalty on the final day pushed Federation qualifier Dalton Bobo out of the winner's circle.

In order to fish the Classic, Bobo quit his full-time job, and then set out on a pro career. Others, like Correia, have used that initial Classic as a springboard to an eventual return to the event through the pro ranks.

BassFan talked to two pros who have been to the Classic as both Federation contenders and then tour-level contenders for their views on the ongoing flap.

Iaconelli: Classic Critical

Before Mike Iaconelli won the 2003 Bassmaster Classic at the Louisiana Delta, he'd already tasted victory in that state. He won the 1999 BASS Wrangler National at the Red River, which qualified him for that year's Classic, also at the Delta. He acquitted himself well with a 6th-place finish.

Prior to the his win at the Federation Championship, Ike had fished AAA-level events, including EverStarts and BASS Invitationals, but still worked a retail job. The victory was his big break.

"The role of the Federation is that basically, I owe my career to it," he said. "Absolutely, without a doubt, it was a steppingstone to get to the level that I'm at now. All of my success is based on what I learned up to the Federation National Championship and my first Classic."

Asked whether his career would have followed the same pattern had he pursued tournament success on a different minor-league trail, he was unsure. "It's hard to say, but it highlighted the opportunity. How could an average working dude like me make it to the Classic? It's built on that dream. I was working at a sporting goods store, not making much money, and I proved you could make it. The Classic was the key for me, for sure."

He admitted that he's somewhat behind on the fallout between the Federation and BASS. "I'm semi out of the loop," he said. "I've spent the last couple of weeks working really hard – I'm in Phoenix, Ariz. on business right now. But from what I've heard and the emails I've received, I know the issues have to be resolved.

"My take on the original conflict is that it boils down to a breakdown in communications. It's unfortunate, but it seemed that it snowballed from those initial poor communications. I don't point the finger at any one party. BASS did some things improperly and I'm sure the Federation did some things improperly. Now, how do we resolve the matter? I'll go on record – my hope for the Federation is that they stay with BASS, but they need to make the decision that's good for them."

He thinks it would be a shame for the weekend tournament angler to lose the brass-ring goal of the Classic. "It's built off of that dream, just like me, back when I did it. I don't want the Federation to lose that. They need to keep that alive."

O.T. Fears said that fishing in BASS Federation events made him realize he could compete at the sport's highest level.

Fears: ESPN Erred

Veteran Oklahoma pro O.T. Fears qualified for the 1983 Classic at the Ohio River through the Federation ranks and returned to the event in 1984, 1988 and 2002. Along the way, he garnered three BASS Invitational wins and a victory at the 1994 Bassmaster Superstars event, and he also won the Red Man All-American.

He's more than 20 years removed from his Federation days, but still remembers his roots. "It was actually the beginning of my career," he said. "It helped me realize that I could compete at that level. It was an eye-opener."

His All-American victory came only a few years after his initial Classic appearance, so a pro career was likely in the cards anyway. But he believes that had he not been in the Classic, his pro debut "would probably have been more delayed than it was."

In addition to the competitive opportunities the Federation provides, Fears pointed out that the organization gives BASS resources in the form of manpower. "All of those volunteers, at the Federation Championship, the Regionals, the Classic, the Junior World Championship – BASS miscalculated the effect that alienating its fan base and its support base as a whole would have. (If the Federation splits off), they're going to lose circulation of their magazine certainly and quite a bit of money, as well as their grassroots support.

"I was at Ranger last Thursday and Friday," he added. "We had some meetings with the Federation presidents, some with Irwin (Jacobs). I talked with some of the Federation presidents I knew before, and some of the ones I didn't know, and they said there were some proposals on the way. My feelings were mixed at the time (about a possible move to FLW Outdoors). "

He offered that there was speculation that the Federation and the Professional Anglers Association (PAA) would partner up, and it seemed to him that "the PAA would be a natural marriage for the Federation." Asked why that may not have been pursued further, he suggested that perhaps "most of the PAA members don't realize the importance (of the Federation) in the overall scheme of things."

The longtime BASS pro who made the move to the FLW Outdoors competition criticized ESPN and BASS for many of their recent moves. "I thought they were doing the wrong thing with the direction that they were going before this happened. To do this is one of the most miscalculated moves they ever could have made. I'm absolutely surprised at this.

"There's nobody there that understands the importance of the Federation, the grassroots. They are alienating people right and left. In the course of my travels and giving seminars, people have repeatedly told me that they don't like the format of anything they're doing – the TV show, the tournament series, and now this."