By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

For the past few years, FLW has used ICAST as its stage for announcing the schedule for the upcoming year’s FLW Tour. It’s typically a late-afternoon event as the show starts to wind down for the day. Beverage and hors d'oeuvre stations were set up by the company’s booth to mark the occasion and prominent Tour pros have helped announce the locations and dates for the next season’s tournaments.

This year, there was a lot more to drink in and digest than just the when and where of the 2019 Tour schedule.

While the ’19 schedule is getting rave reviews for its legitimate big-fish potential, it was overshadowed by FLW’s announcement that co-anglers have made their final casts in FLW Tour competition. Instead, FLW is moving to a marshal program in 2019, a la the Bassmaster Elite Series, with a modest payout tied to the cumulative weight of the pros they’re paired with.

In addition, the organization announced it will transition to a merit-based qualification system for the 2020 Tour season rather than a priority-entry system that has seen field sizes fluctuate dramatically.

The elimination of co-anglers at Tour events and the stricter qualification standards are both significant and will reshape the future of FLW’s top competitive circuit, some feel for the better. It’s believed that FLW has wrestled with the topic of co-anglers in Tour events for several years, but according to a statement from president of operations Kathy Fennel, it was clear it was time for a change.

“It is an apprenticeship like no other,” Fennel said in the release announcing the moves. “But times have changed, and the co-angler program is no longer the stepping stone to the professional ranks that it once was.”

While co-angler participation soared in 2017 with 716 co-anglers competing in at least one Tour event, it was a sign that fewer were making the season-long commitment. This year, 695 co-anglers made a cast during Tour competition. By comparison, 233 co-anglers competed during the 2015 season, the last year co-anglers could qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup.

In addition, the continued inclusion of co-anglers at the Tour level was part of the reason several top FLW Tour pros departed the series’ ranks in recent years and opted to join the Elite Series after qualifying through the Bassmaster Opens.

Since B.A.S.S. dumped co-anglers from the Elite Series after the 2008 season in favor of a marshal program, FLW trumpeted its inclusion of co-anglers in its top series as a pathway to the big leagues. Co-anglers who finished at the top of the points standings received priority entry status to join the Tour as pros the following year. Some had taken advantage of it while others opted to remain in the back of the boat.

Of the top 15 co-anglers from the 2017 Tour points standings, only five opted to move to the pro side in 2018.

Last week’s announcement, while surprising, wasn’t totally unexpected. FLW has been slowly phasing out co-anglers at the Tour level in recent years. During the 2015 season, co-angler competition was reduced to two days rather than three at each Tour event. Also, the 2015 Forrest Wood Cup was the last Cup to feature co-anglers, a move that has seen the focus of the marquee event shift to those on the front deck.

Some pros contend that co-anglers have impacted the outcome of tournaments for better or worse. There are myriad scenarios to illustrate both sides of the issue, but ultimately the Tour pros’ preference to go it alone won out.

Some have wondered how the elimination of co-anglers will affect FLW’s bottom line. Based on field sizes from the 2018 FLW Tour season, FLW is believed to have generated $6,794,600 in entry fees at the Tour level from both pros and co-anglers. Co-anglers accounted for $1,025,600 of that total, according to BassFan research.

In an apparent attempt to compensate for the lost entry fee revenue, FLW announced the pro entry fees for 2019 will increase to $35,000 from $31,500. Applying 2018 field sizes (ranging from 180 to 187 boats) to project 2019 entry fee revenue, FLW could generate an additional $641,000 in pro entry fees, but still fall $384,600 short of recouping the total co-angler entry-fee revenue.

That shortfall stands to only increase in 2020 when FLW intends to cap the Tour field at 150 boats. At the end of the day, it appears Tour pros will be paying more to compete for the same or similar purses in 2019.

Last week’s announcement stated FLW Tour winners will still collect $125,000 (presumably $100,000 plus $25,000 Ranger Cup bonus) and payouts of at least $10,000 will extend down to 50th place with 51st through 60th receiving $5,500, depending on field size.

In the days since the announcement was made, several FLW Tour pros have posted their thoughts on the changes on social media. A few are embedded below:

Scott Canterbury

James Watson

Randy Blaukat

In addition, several other anglers contacted by BassFan offered their thoughts on the changes.

Dunkin Sees Both Sides

For Luke Dunkin, the elimination of co-anglers was a bittersweet development. Prior to moving to the pro side, he competed as a co-angler during the 2015 season – he won at Beaver Lake – and qualified for the last Forrest Wood Cup in which amateurs participated. He also works as sales manager for T-H Marine, which is the presenting sponsor of FLW’s grassroots BFL tournament series.

“It’s been such a huge and integral part of FLW’s business model,” he said. “It’s a major move and I know they didn’t make it lightly. I’m in a weird spot. It’s bittersweet. I made a lot of friends through it. When the Elite Series did away with co-anglers, my reaction was the same as what you’re seeing from people now that, ‘It’s not good’ and ‘We need co-anglers.’”

His perspective on it changed, though, during the ’15 Cup at Lake Ouachita. While he competed all season for the opportunity to qualify for the Cup, he admits there was an uneasy feeling about sharing the stage with the pros who were competing for a $500,000 payday, even if it were only for the first two days.

“When I fished the Cup as a co-angler, it was like a wake-up call that maybe co-anglers shouldn’t be here,” he said. “I work hard at it and try to represent my sponsors and fish to the best of my ability, but co-anglers do affect the outcome of that so for it to be truly a professional sport, this had to happen.”

Dudley: ‘Times Have Changed’

David Dudley remembers when co-anglers were introduced with the premise being their time in the boat was geared toward learning from the pro. The three-time FLW Tour Angler of the Year was in favor of the move and thinks technology will still allow for the learning aspect.

“I think we’ve all been on the same page as far as the pro side of this organization,” he said. “This was a needed change. Nothing against co-anglers at all. It’s a great learning platform, but there are still so many platforms that they can learn at and still reach this level.

“The whole background of co-anglers was about providing an opportunity for them to get in the boat because there was no other way to learn other than to be in the boat. It was an old-school thing. Our technology now has brought the same learning experience through the live coverage so everybody gets to see the story unfold whereas years ago, it was, ‘Hey come pay a fee and learn from the best and while you’re doing it you can fish a tournament yourself.’ Times have changed.”

Lee Will Miss The Camaraderie

Todd Lee has fished in 171 FLW tournaments, 165 of them as a co-angler. He was the co-angler champion at the first Forrest Wood Cup in 1996 and won it again two years later. He’s the quintessential co-angler with 16 Forrest Wood Cup berths who earned more than $260,000 out of the back of the boat over the last two decades.

Needless to say, last week’s news was a tough pill to swallow for the Jasper, Ala., resident, but he understood the motivation behind it.

“I’m pro-bass fishing and these are my heroes, but it’s impossible to please everybody,” Lee said. “There are so many great fishermen in the country and they are handicapped by co-anglers in the back of the boat. I sure understand the decision they made.

Photo: FLW

Todd Lee has competed as an FLW Tour co-angler for 22 years, but he felt the time had come for co-anglers to step aside at the top level of competition.

“Selfishly, I created so many good memories and lifelong friendships over the last 22 years, so I’m disappointed I won’t get to fish with them anymore. I think they made the right move for the pro anglers.”

Lee said he doesn’t foresee himself attempting to qualify on the pro side in the future.

“I don’t have the time and I’m not good enough to fish off the front and consistently be competitive,” he said. “If it weren’t for the FLW Tour, I’d never have seen any place outside of Smith (Lake) and (Lake) Guntersville and made the friendships with guys like Tom Mann Jr. and Mike Wurm and other guys I’ve fished with. I hate that I won’t get to see them all the time, but they’re going to catch them no matter what.”

Hunter ‘All For The Change’

John Hunter, Jr. has seen the co-angler and marshal programs from just about all sides. He won the FLW Tour co-angler of the year award in 2015 before jumping over to the Elite Series to compete as a pro in 2016-17. This year, he came back to the FLW Tour on the pro side.

“Personally, I’m all for the change,” he said. “When someone is doing this for a living, they should have as little interference in trying to do their job as possible. I’m not saying co-anglers are a bad thing because that’s how I made my way into fishing. There are still other co-angler opportunities through the Costas and Opens, and FLW has the grassroots programs like the BFLs.”

Hunter said he had the same feeling as Dunkin at the 2015 Cup as he didn’t want to interfere with the pro he was paired with, but he also knew he’d earned his way there.

“I still felt like if I caught a good fish, I’d be stepping on someone’s toes,” he said. “You don’t want the guy in the back feeling that way or the guy in the front feeling that way. The co-anglers aren’t fishing for a living while the guy in the front of the boat is fishing to pay his mortgage and feed his family. I think this is the best move FLW could’ve made.”

Reese: Move Had to be Made

Jimmy Reese has had numerous big fish caught by co-anglers in his boat during tournaments

“As a professional, to get where we need to be, it’s the right move for FLW,” Reese said. “It’s going to be better for marketing impressions and everything. Nobody likes change and change is always hard, but to me, it’s the right move moving forward and it will make their name a better brand.”

At the same time, Reese has to square the aspects of the move that he thinks will benefit him with not having two close friends on the co-angler side on the road with him. Reese has traveled with Gary Haraguchi, who has finished 1st or 2nd in co-angler of the year points each of the last three seasons, and Chuck Kavros, who owns Top This, which is one of Reese’s main sponsors.

“It sucks that they won’t be there to enjoy the moment and share the experiences,” he said. “For Chuck, it’s hard, but he’s a strong guy and he knows new and bigger and better challenges are out there. It’s a matter of finding where they’re at. I know he’ll miss it. He loved fishing the Tour.”

He said it’ll take some adjustment to not having another competitor in the boat for practice, too.

“There have been a few times over the past 4 years where they’ve enlightened me to some things, either a pattern or a depth,” Reese said. “That’ll be missed, but I also know there are some advantages to fishing alone, like being able to focus more. In the long run, that hopefully will make up for anything lost.”

In terms of the stricter qualification guidelines, Reese said the pressure will be turned up next season as pros will be focused on finishing inside the top 100 to ensure a spot in the field for 2020.

“This was my worst year and I finished 66th,” he said. “For guys that this is their livelihood, this is the wow factor. You’re going to have to be in the top 100 or top 10 in the Costas. If you’re not in there, you might have to move on. For a lot of people, that means having to figure out what they’re going to do for their future.”