One of the really cool aspects of tournament bass fishing is the extent to which the top pros will go to win a tournament. I remember reading a story in which George Cochran actually jumped his Ranger into a secluded pond. Randy Blaukat comes to mind for two insane events that resulted in his two B.A.S.S. wins.
Blaukat's first claim to fame was the boat-flooding incident at Buggs Island in which he purposely filled his boat with water, thus partially sinking it, in order to gain access under a low bridge. Later in his career, Blaukat made a historically long run at the Mobile Delta to claim another crown. This was following an FLW event earlier that year in which several competitors, Blaukat included, made round-trip runs in excess of 300 miles to reach oxbow lakes on the Mississippi River. Boy, I bet his outboard had a few hours on it after that season.
In any case, reaching fish inaccessible to other competitors has always been a potential winning strategy for national bass tournaments. Sometimes the point is to get away from fishing pressure, other times it’s to reach an untapped source of bass.
We saw a bit of this last week at the Elite event on my home waters of St. Clair. All 12 finalists fished locations other than the publicized tournament waters. Due to currently unknown reasons, St. Clair hasn’t been kicking out the big bags, so top competitors were forced to run to Erie or lower Lake Huron. I use the word “forced” here on purpose, as the tournament's winning strings were certainly 50 miles or more away from the launch. And that scares the heck out of me.
Let me start by taking you back in time, to a period when the Great Lakes smallmouth fishing was untouched and invincible.
In the early 1990s, Lake Erie was beginning to make headlines as the premier smallmouth fishery in the world. At the time, all of the Great Lakes had big bass, as they do now, but Erie was first to gain attention due to its “fisherman friendly” atmosphere. The islands of the Western Basin were a big draw, as they allowed bass fishermen in boats far less seaworthy than the monster rigs of today to remain safely out of the wind when things got nasty.
Like anywhere else bass fishermen gather, Erie quickly became a tournament destination, and the big bags of bronze soon made their way to the scales.
Throughout the decade, I remember fishing the famed Erie locations: Ruggles Beach, West Reef and the Airport at Kelley’s. Some still hold bass today, but one event from yesteryear vividly remains in my mind.
Back in the early days, during a major event in the spring (this was prior to any catch-and-release periods during the spawning season), I vividly remember counting 100 boats fishing the same reef, about a mile square in size. Local ace Jim Bensch won the event and reported “two bottoms” on his graph, as there were literally hundreds of smallmouth below him. The fishing was fantastic.
Years went by, with big stringers being cranked out time and time again. Then myself and other locals started noticing something: We were being forced to run farther and farther to find good fishing. Local hot spots started drying up and entire reefs seemed void of bass. Most blamed environmental factors or catch-and-keep fishermen. I wasn’t so sure.
Throughout my time on the Great Lakes, I have heard every excuse around for the rise and fall of the fisheries. Chemical spills, cormorants, zebra mussels, gobies. Native American netting, commercial boats, charter captains, muskies. Without question, one thing bass fishermen never blame are themselves.
Several years ago, In-Fisherman published the findings of a study on relocation of bass caught in tournaments. The study found that, while some bass return to their original home range following release, this is a factor of distance, and most never make it back. The thought that the bass on the Great Lakes could be moved dozens of miles and then somehow make it back to their ancestral spawning areas is ridiculous. Numerous studies are available today relating to this, including this one done on Lake Winnipesaukee.
In the very latest events held here on the Great Lakes system, we have seen the publicized triumph of competitors running incredible distances to reach their chosen fishing locations. What do you think happened to those fish?
Luckily, way back in time, Ray Scott or one of his buddies had the idea that we needed to release bass caught in tournaments. Otherwise this whole thing would be over by now, given the relentless pursuit of bass in this country. But to think that the fish taken dozens, if not hundreds, of miles to remote weigh-in locations, after sustaining the relentless beating in a livewell while crossing the Great Lakes, to think those fish survive is ludicrous.
I’ve always felt the Bassmaster Tournament Trail does an outstanding job of handling the fish brought to weigh-in. Their mesh-bag system and treated holding tanks are far superior to any other weigh-in method, as it’s been found that fish kept in non-perforated bags often die. However, what it takes to get those fish to the scales, considering current rules, is out of their hands.
I chatted with a few Elite anglers as they waited to weigh in on the final day of competition at the recent St. Clair event. One said he made the big run because, as he put it, he "had to." He then mentioned the thought of tournament boundaries, placing all competitors on a fair playing field. I thought I was the only crazy one…
Think about it this way: We just saw an event held on a 430-square mile lake (that’s 20 percent larger than Kentucky Lake and Barkley combined), and none of the top finishers fished in it. What is going on here?
The topic of fish care is one I get quizzed about regularly. Here on the big waters, locals (myself included) have resorted to drastic measures to keep big smallmouth alive, including live oxygen tanks, boat compartments filled with ice and the use of non-iodized salt solutions. We can’t expect that from all tournament anglers, and the rule simply states fish must be brought in “alive," That term can be interpreted rather loosely, medically speaking.
Either way, if the fish being brought to the scales are from another time zone and will never make it back to their home range, and often die within a few days of weigh-in, what do we expect?
Again, the sport has grown by leaps and bounds on its quest to lessen the impact on the resource. Live-release boats play a huge role in the prevention of “bass stockpiling” at weigh-in areas. And B.A.S.S. recently had Gene Gilliland, one of the most knowledgeable scientists on bass care today, give all of its Elite anglers a tutorial on fish care and swim-bladder decompression. But I’m afraid we may be putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.
I love the “crazy” aspect of bass tournaments, I really do. I remember when Great Lakes legend Steve Clapper was one of the first to cross Lake Erie in a bass tournament and fish the opposite shoreline. At the time, it seemed supernatural.
But nothing is impossible, it seems today, as pros will do whatever it takes to capture the winning fish.
Maybe it’s time, however, to consider what happens to the stars of the show when the lights go out and the curtain falls.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)