With the 44th Bassmaster Classic not far in the rearview mirror, the air in the bass fishing world is electric with positive energy. Everyone is getting amped up for the their next day trip to their local lake or prepping their rigs for a week-long excursion to their next tournament.
In my book, the Classic is one of the strongest morale boosters in the sport, and is capable of keeping the enthusiasm alive throughout the year, with the promise that you just may be on the roster for next year’s “big event.”
There are other events that provoke a similar sensation as well, like the Forest Wood Cup and the Toyota Texas Bass Classic. These events keep a healthy dose of vitamin C pulsing through the veins of the sport.
Aside from single championship events, college fishing has arguably been, in recent years, one of the best platforms for growth within the sport, and it is still showing notable growth.
To begin our BassFan college fishing feature, it is important to understand the basic structure of this level of comeptition that is still considered to be in its infancy.
College fishing, to be completely honest, can be hard to follow, due in part to its somewhat fractured nature. Since its humble beginnings, there have been many different small groups and organizations offering college-level tournament competition at regional levels, and a few bass clubs were born.
Now, there are clubs in practically every 4-year college in the country, and though the smaller regional tours still exist, today the backbone of collegiate angling is comprised of three primary tours – FLW College Fishing, the Bassmaster College Series and the Association of Collegiate Anglers (ACA), which operates the BoatUS Collegiate Bass Championship.
Each of these tours are very different as far as structure and tournament offerings, but they all bring unique things to the table, giving college anglers ways to improve their skills and advance to higher levels.
FLW College Fishing
Some may argue that FLW had the largest part in college fishing’s rapid growth due to the initially massive paybacks for their events, offering as much as $100,000 to be split between the winning team’s club and school in the championship event.
Today the paybacks are quite a bit deflated from the days when the National Guard backed FLW College Fishing, but it's nonetheless still offering a tour that finds several teams on the waiting lists at each event, and it still awards the champion team a berth to the Forest Wood Cup.
The format consists of five divisions, or “conferences." From 1-day derbies, the Top 15 two-person teams advance to their conference’s Invitational championships. The Top 15 teams from each of the 2-day Invitationals then move on to the FLW College Fishing National Championship, where they compete in the 3-day, televised championship. The winning team wins a Ranger boat and punches its ticket to the Forest Wood Cup.
At the Cup, one member of the winning team fishes from the boater side, and the other in the co-angler division.
Though the format has evolved quite a bit since the circuit's initial year in 2009, it has been a key player in offering college anglers opportunities to advance to the upper echelon through college competition.
Bassmaster College Series
Of all the collegiate fishing tours, the Bassmaster College Series is possibly the most misunderstood when it comes to the event structure. But make no mistake, it has taken college fishing to new levels, offering a college angler a berth to the sport’s premier event – the Bassmaster Classic.
The College Bass Series schedule is much less extensive than FLW’s, but it has taken care to cater to all regions of the country, offering five regions, or “conferences.” Within each conference, in order for a team to advance to the National Championship, it must compete in its conference’s regional event and finish in the Top 10 (based on 50 entries). There is also a single Wild Card event that all conferences can participate in, assuming the teams compete in their respective regional events, which also offers 15 berths to the National Championship.
At the National Championship, the field competes for the title of College Bass National Champions, but the winning team doesn’t automatically go to the Bassmaster Classic. From the National Championship, the Top 4 teams advance to the College Bracket Championship, pitting the eight individual competitors against one another until finally there is an overall champion. The champion of that event receives a berth in the Bassmaster Classic.
Since offering a spot to the Classic to a college angler, Bassmaster has achieved an impressive amount of attention for college fishing that other organizations have not been able to duplicate.
The Association of Collegiate Anglers (ACA) is a collection of college clubs and is an official TBF Federation. The ACA itself only puts on a limited number of events, but it sanctions many events put on by individual schools and regional groups.
Though the ACA runs only a handful of televised events, such as its Collegiate Bass Fishing Open and the Cabela’s Collegiate Big Bass Bash, it too offers a major championship that enables one team to advance to some of the sport’s premier events.
The BoatUS Collegiate Bass Championship is the ACA’s flagship event, which gives the winning team a berth to the TBF National Championship, where they in turn have a chance to potentially qualify for the BFL All-American and the Forest Wood Cup.
The biggest difference in qualification structure for the BoatUS Championship is that it is up to the individual clubs to decide how a team may qualify to represent them at the ACA championship. Though this is known to be the easiest championship to qualify for, it is arguably the most difficult to win, since in recent years there have been almost 200 teams in the field. It is safe to say that the BoatUS Collegiate Bass Championship is one of the most popular of all the single events in the sport of college fishing, and is by far the largest event as far as participation.
When a team wins the 2-day BoatUS Championship, the team members get passes into a random division in the TBF National Championship – one as a boater and the other as a co-angler. From there, they have the opportunity to move up to the BFL All-American and ultimately the Forrest Wood Cup.
The ACA also offers a School of the Year program, where it recognizes events from B.A.S.S., FLW and some other events in deciding which school takes home the title.
Doing it Together
It is truly amazing how fast college fishing has grown into what it is today. Some may argue that one organization can take the majority of the credit for its massive growth, but in my opinion, they have all done their part to make it a legitimate level of competition in the sport.
Though the individual organizations may have their own agendas regarding why they decide to put so much time, money and energy into college fishing, the end result is the same – we have a very special platform in place today to continue growing the sport by getting younger generations excited about tournament bass fishing.
College fishing is good for all.
(Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is a graduate of the University of Central Florida and was the winner of the 2011 BoatUS Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship.)