By Todd Ceisner
In one corner, Chris Zaldain fielded questions about fishing jerkbaits in all kinds of conditions, which knot he likes to tie, when and why to use a leader and how long (6 feet is usually sufficient, but he prefers a 15-foot leader on the Great Lakes).
In another corner, Ott DeFoe answered follow-up questions from inquiring anglers who'd just listened to him do a presentation about breaking down new water.
With his son's Spider-Man tackle box stocked with baits he used during his morning presentation on a nearby table, Pete Gluszek was hemmed in along the side wall of the room talking about a ChatterBait and under what conditions he favors it.
A little while later, during the lunch break, footage from the 1979 Bassmaster Classic was being shown on the projection screen at the front of the room.
Welcome to Bass University, where the learning is a 24/7/365 deal. Yes, even in January in snowy and cold Niagara Falls, N.Y., where it'll likely be months before anyone can even consider flipping a jig or casting a tube in open water in pursuit of bass.
For the instructors of Bass U. and the 40 or so students who attended the most recent 2-day course in Niagara Falls, the clocks always seems to read bass-thirty.
Whether it's re-discovering an old technique that's maybe been pushed aside by a newer approach to catching fish or picking up pointers on how to fish inside grass lines and trigger strikes in ultra-shallow water, there was a plethora of information to gather and absorb across the two 9-hour sessions that included classroom presentations, informal Q&A sessions and up-close looks at some of the tools the top pros use on the water.
As The Bass University hits the home stretch of its 5th year, it's apparent that the thirst for knowledge from everyday anglers or aspiring tournament pros is as robust as ever. Judging by the response and furious note-taking that took place inside the Niagara Falls Conference Center last weekend, Bass U. continues to deliver a top-notch education for its students.
Chris Zaldain said he used to attend seminars when he was a young angler and now he feels privileged to share some of his knowledge as an instructor with Bass University.
"The thing I've learned the most is that there are a lot of people out there like us, the instructors," said Gluszek, who along with Mike Iaconelli co-founded The Bass University in 2010. "Not everybody is as passionate about the sport as we are. The people that come to our classes are. We call them 'Bassheads.' They're a lot like us. They're dedicated to the sport."
Are they ever.
From Far and Wide
The Bass University has held classes on both coasts and at many stops in between since its inaugural session in Philadelphia in December 2009.
Jana Crawford, who lives just outside Toronto, Ontario, was at the first event in Philly and since then she's attended eight other Bass University classes. Gluszek joked that she's achieved honorary graduate status.
Through the knowledge she's gained at the classes, she's joined a fishing club and now serves as a field staff member for several manufacturers.
"All because of Bass University," she said. "It's where it all started. I'm often asked back home by people who don't fish, 'Why do you go to these? What is Bass University?' I equate it to how a lot of my friends like to golf. It's like hanging out with Tiger Woods or whoever else for the day. It's kind of like an opportunity to spend a day on the course with a pro. It's the same type of deal."
Despite some ugly winter weather in the northeast, the Niagara Falls event drew students from over the border in Canada as well as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Joe Pillitteri, who lives in St. Catherines, Ontario, has fished his whole life, but just recently got into tournament bass fishing. He said he learned about Bass University through his fishing club, the St. Catherines Bassmasters.
"I'm behind a lot of the guys in the club who've been at it a long time," he said. "I co-fish so I can learn from them, but I wanted to learn from these guys, too. I read the books and watch the shows, but like I found out (Saturday), you'll learn one or two things that can help you."
For instance, he's going to start throwing a Carolina rig with a small creature bait more often now since it's not a popular presentation on Lake Erie or the lakes he fishes.
"None of the guys I fish with do it anymore," he said. "I'm going back to it. Just because they don't do it doesn't mean I shouldn't. I'm going to give it a rip."
Pillitteri said the informal feel of the classes and the accessibility of the pros impressed him.
"This is really good," he said. "These guys are down to earth and they're not afraid to tell you stuff."
Dave and Jo Ann Kreutzer made the 5-hour drive from Finleyville, Pa., about 20 minutes south of Pittsburgh, to soak up all they could about Great Lakes fishing, especially any tips for Lake Erie smallmouths. They fish together in one club while Dave also fishes in two other clubs.
It's not often anglers in the Great Lakes region can ask Ott DeFoe questions in a face-to-face setting.
"The people that were on the menu for the seminar had subjects that are of complete interest to me," said Dave Kreutzer, who is the secretary for the Pennsylvania B.A.S.S. Nation. "I'm gaining a lot of information on how to improve my fishing on Lake Erie that I do."
He likes to target walleye, but as he said, "There's just something about 5-pound smallmouths that really keep you interested."
Learning in a face-to-face environment is a far cry from sitting at home on a weekend morning and trying to pick up pointers from Jimmy Houston or Bill Dance.
"Being able to get face to face with the best guys in the business and ask them questions directly and see the exact lures he may be talking about, there's a tremendous value in that," Gluszek said.
State of the U.
When Gluszek and Iaconelli launched Bass University, their initial aim was to build it into a web-based service with a television component. While those mediums remain part of the master plan, they've found that the classroom setting is where they can gain the most traction – and what they're best at.
The up-close-and-personal experience and interaction with some of the top pros, not to mention Iaconelli's engaging presence, is hard to beat, especially for the hardcore "bassheads" who try to siphon as much information as they can so it can benefit them on their home water.
"I'd say maybe half of our group are tournament anglers and the other half doesn't tournament-fish at all," Gluszek said. "We have a diverse group that are devoted to the sport, much in the way we are and they're always trying to think of ways to become better at it. Whether they want to compete at it or just want to be more consistent, they understand it's an evolving thing and you're constantly having to learn to stay in front of the game and become better at it.
"That's the thing we all share, even at the top level. Guys are constantly trying to get an edge and learn the next thing. The weekend anglers are the same way. They want to be better this year than they were last and we all enjoy that process of getting our hair blown back by some concept that we hadn't heard before."
As much as the students can learn in a given weekend about specific techniques or seasonal patterns, Gluszek said running the business side has been an education in itself.
"You hear about businesses and the trials and tribulations they go through and until you dive in with both feet, you don't realize it," he said. "We've made a lot of mistakes and have learned a lot and we're better off for it. I'm happy to be seeing year number 5. We're just a lot better at doing what we do now.
"We've always been real proud of our product and what we deliver to the students – that's what we're good at. It's the behind the scenes stuff … you spend 10 years in a bass boat and you don't know how to do some things and the business catches you blindsided. We had to figure out a few things, but we're happy to be through year 5 and we're excited about the future."
Gluszek said they've had success with stand-alone sessions, but recently they've had good attendance numbers when Bass University partners with an outdoor show in a particular city or region.
"It's helped us to partner with outdoor shows for a few reasons," he said. "It helps us increase traffic and we help them increase traffic. It's been a win-win. We make the promoter's job easier and they make our jobs easier so it's been a pretty good relationship."
There are two remaining events this year – one in early February in Worcester, Mass., which will be part of the New England Fishing & Outdoor Expo, and the other a stand-alone event in Tulsa, Okla., in early March.
"We do just fine working our programs all by ourselves," Gluszek added. "With the sport shows, it seems like that's been a good combination for us over the years. We've been helpful in increasing attendance at some of them. Being able to help out at the gate, that works good for everybody."
Bass University has made return visits to several markets and the plan is to add new locations each year.
"We've been all over the country and we get requests to go all over the country," he said. "I don't think there's a region that we've not been to, generally speaking. One of our goals is to get to as many places as we possibly can.
"We'll visit certain places every few years in a row and then we switch to try new places. We've been doing five shows a year. It's a big country so we can't be everywhere and we hope to have been in every state by the time we're done."
> There are two remaining Bass University events for 2014 – Feb. 8-9 in Worcester, Mass., and March 1-2 in Tulsa, Okla. For more information, click here.