A lot of Bassmaster Elite Series competitors were nearly overcome with glee this summer when BASS announced that co-anglers would be removed from their boats in 2009 and replaced by non-fishing observers. Four-time Bassmaster Classic champion Rick Clunn was not among the celebrants.
"I was kind of opposed to it since the issue first started stirring between the anglers and BASS, and I saw where it was coming from – it was mostly from the younger anglers," said the 62-year-old Missouri legend. "Then I realized that they didn't really have a good historical perspective about what they were trying to do, and that's very unfortunate. And with the exception of (BASS tournament director Trip Weldon), the people in the organization didn't have that perspective, either.
"Why did we have a co-angler in the boat in the first place? I do remember why."
It's certainly not unusual for Clunn to take a position that differs from the majority of his fellow competitors – his holistic philosophies on catching bass, and other topics, have set him apart for decades. But on this issue, he spoke more as a veteran who was around when the co-angler became a part of the game rather than an outside-the-box thinker.
Over the past two decades or so, he said there were perhaps two or three co-anglers out of out of the hundreds he fished with that caused him significant headaches. And having been in the boat with observers in the now-defunct Majors during the 2006-07 seasons, he thinks they'll be inadequate replacements.
"To me, the co-angler was an incredibly positive part of our sport. Sure, there were a few who were (jerks), but there've been some pros who were (jerks), too.
"I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid for our credibility. I think it might be vulnerable because of the observer we may or may not have."
Keeping it on the Level
When Ray Scott founded BASS more than 40 years ago, he had enough forethought to recognize that credibility would be a major obstacle to its potential growth. He did everything possible to keep shady characters out of the initial events and realized that competitors couldn't be sent out on massive lakes with no one else in the boat without raising the specter of deceit.
Clunn said that when tournament bass fishing was in its infancy, the federal government actually classified it as a lottery instead of a sport for purposes of taxation.
"Ray knew he needed some way of policing a sport that fell into one of two categories – luck or cheating," he said. "Bass fishing was considered a luck thing, and anybody who was unusually consistent was considered a cheater.
"That was a heavy deal to take on as anglers – to be looked at in that light when you were trying to make a living at something. Ray realized that, so he put somebody in the boat."
For quite a few years BASS employed a format that was similar to the way competition is conducted on the Ultimate Match Fishing TV show today. Pros were paired up for each tournament day, and each had decision-making powers for half the day. It's only natural that there were frequent disagreements over whose boat would be used, whose fish would be targeted first, etc.
The introduction of the co-angler – who would compete only against other co-anglers and not against the pro he shared the boat with – was welcomed heartily.
"Some other organization came up with it first, but when it came to BASS, everybody was almost giddy," Clunn said. "After that the pro could take his own boat and do what he wanted to the whole day. It was looked at as the best thing that ever happened to tournament anglers.
"Now what's happened is enough time's gone by that people have forgotten the purpose of that guy in the back of the boat. They might think the credibility of this sport came naturally, but believe me, it didn't."
Active Participants vs. Passive Observers
Clunn sees a couple of problems with the observer concept that'll be employed next year. For one, he thinks there will be events where there won't be enough of them to go around. For another, he's convinced that their competency as witnesses to what transpires during a day on the water will be far below the level of the co-anglers.
"In the Majors we had a 50-man field, and every day of every event somebody was fishing by themselves because they couldn't get that many guys," he said. "I don't know how BASS plans to seduce them (for the Elite Series), but I seriously doubt we're going to have a hundred or more for the first 2 days of every event. That's my major concern – that all of a sudden we're going to make ourselves vulnerable to lose what we've worked so hard to achieve by allowing anglers to fish by themselves.
"And there'll be some (observers) who are anticipating a sweet boat ride on a nice, sunny day, and we all know that it isn't always that way. A good example would be at Lake Erie this year. When those guys got to the mouth of that gap and saw the waves out on the lake, half of them would've bailed out right there and started swimming back to the marina. And out of the ones that did go out there, a lot of them wouldn't have been back the next day."
He said he drew observers in the Majors that had no background in competitive bass fishing and no clue as to the rules.
"Serving that function, would they even recognize it if somebody was doing some sophisticated cheating?" he asked. "I'm not worried about the guys we have now cheating – I know them. But I don't know who's going to be coming up from the Opens and how desperate they are and all of that.
"We might get lucky and never get a cheater, but in this case the perception of cheating is just as bad. I'm worried that one incident could push us back 30 years."
It always pleased Clunn when a co-angler got into his boat and discovered that he actually used the products he endorsed.
Co-Anglers were Kindred Souls
Clunn said he was comfortable with co-anglers because most were passionate fishermen themselves, and many competed in tournaments on those same bodies of water.
"A fisherman understands another fisherman, and that guy was my witness," he said. "You need somebody who understands the nuances of the sport, and bass-club guys fit that bill. They could handle rough water and they could tell whether a fish caught off a bed was hooked in the mouth.
"Again, I don't think anybody we have right now would deliberately cheat, but we deal with gray areas constantly. Like when we went to (California's) Clear Lake and found out that all fish had to be hooked in the mouth year-round, well, there was a big gray area right there. Does it mean the inside of the mouth, or just the mouth area? If you throw a crankbait a lot, you'll catch a lot of fish that are hooked on the outside of the mouth.
"You need somebody in the boat to control those gray areas," he continued. "You could tell a co-angler to make eye contact with that fish as you were bringing it out of the water, and then he could testify as to whether it was hooked in the mouth or not. But if they're not an angler, it's a lot harder for them to do that."
He said another benefit of co-anglers was that they also frequently protected the personal integrity of the pros they fished with.
"I used to love it when one would get in the boat and say, 'Hey, you really do fish with all that stuff you promote.' Then he'd go back and tell his buddies in his club, and that was a great source of credibility for us, not just the sport. And it was of incredible importance from a marketing standpoint.
"Now, is the observer going to be that same guy? No, in most cases I can guarantee you he won't be."
Are co-anglers gone for good? Clunn's not betting on it.
"I think we've hurt their feelings and I regret that, but I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't go back to them at some point. Especially if we take a hickey on the credibility issue."
> Observers in the Majors paid for the privilege and were randomly paired with the pros, and one of the inducements was a drawing that awarded one of them a boat. BASS communications director Doug Grassian said the method for selecting Elite Series observers has not been determined, but a similar process will likely be used. "They will serve much like golf marshals, with an emphasis on enforcing the rules," he said.
> While discussing the perception of cheating in tournaments, Clunn recalled the 1984 Classic at the Arkansas River, which he won by a margin of more than 25 pounds over runner-up Greg South. "The very first day of that event a boat was on me, a local boy, and he stayed with me for the rest of the tournament," he said. "When it was over, he came up to me and said, 'I have to tell you this. I've fished this river all my life, and so have my father and my grandfather. And if I hadn't watched you catch every one of those fish, I'd have swore you cheated.'''
> He added that the old pro-on-pro format had one advantage – anglers were often treated to a seminar on a style of fishing they might not have been familiar with. Both anglers usually fished from the front deck, so the view of the action was up close and personal. "I remember drawing Shaw Grigsby a couple of times when bed-fishing was just getting big, and I got to see how he manipulated those fish. I learned more about (that technique) just by watching him than I have in all the time since."