Well, our first big event of the year has come and gone. Despite a poor opening round, my pick for the winner looked pretty good after day two, as Florida ace Peter Thliveros landed one of the biggest strings of the event. But, in the end, it was westside hammer Brett Hite who easily won.
In typical Okeechobee fashion, some big names rose to the top and, as I predicted was very possible, a two-tour pro won. It will be really interesting to see how Hite and the others fishing both B.A.S.S. and FLW do this year. It appears the tournament circuits might be considering this avenue for some of their best customers, and scheduling accordingly.
Despite Hite’s incredible performance, his Okeechobee win was a bit overshadowed by other headlines last week, most notably the disqualification of a few key players due to infringement of FLW rules that regulate practice partners. Brandon McMillan, a local Florida tournament pro and previous winner at Okeechobee, received the most attention, as he was practically a lock to finish high in the event. But McMillan practiced with a co-angler who wasn’t in the event, and therefore was DQ’d, joining Tour standout Anthony Gagliardi and relatively new pro Frank Clark (again, co-angler practice infringements.)
Press reports prior to and during the event spelled out very specifically what happened in the case of each pro's situation. Our senior editor here at BassFan labeled the impacted fishermen as “sacrificial lambs." FLW president Kathy Fennel called the events “tragic."
For lack of a better term, stop the presses.
When a fatal boating accident occurs, or a beloved tournament angler is killed in the parking lot of his hotel, that is tragic. When professional bass fishermen blatantly disregard rules that are spelled out so clearly they are almost annoying to read, and are then disqualified from the event, that is by no means tragic.
In the case of Gagliardi, he practiced for the Rayovac event on Okeechobee with a co-angler and was legit, yet that practice period also fell into the timeframe for the FLW event. However, this same co-angler wasn’t entered in the Tour event, and therefore was an ineligible practice partner. I wouldn’t be surprised if others made this same error and never came forward.
That one was easy to overlook, and it really is unfortunate that Gagliardi's entire year will be impacted, and, thusly, his career. But I’ve fished a few FLW events and remember going though the rules with a fine-tooth comb each and every time to prohibit a careless loss of my investment. I once went as far as calling the organization to determine if I could take a rowboat to my backyard sandbar for a quick swim during the off-limits period, and was told no. But you better believe I was going to check first.
In McMillan’s case, it’s evident some serious rumors were floating around, as FLW found it necessary to release a very direct statement in which tournament director Bill Taylor quickly pointed out that McMillan’s co-angler partner never entered the event in any way.
This is a case of pure stupidity and carelessness. When fishing a tournament with an entry fee of several thousand dollars, I would think it would be important to discuss this with your practice partner prior to heading out in the morning. Either McMillan was absolutely ignorant, or he and his buddy need to have a talk. Either way, I can’t feel sorry at all about his fate.
And save the “Oh, I didn’t want to practice with a local stick” excuse for someone else. Read the rules, bud. Everybody else did.
BassFan’s John Johnson made the sacrificial lamb comment, noting that such infringements and drastic penalties were necessary in the opening rounds of the season to prevent further infractions. I agree, and, although a few will suffer, this will certainly tighten things up in general.
What FLW is trying to prevent, it appears, is the constant squabble amongst pros who claim that others practice with, and get information from, local fishermen. Despite enforcement of new rules, this will never cease, as GPS numbers and map study in shady parking lots are far more valuable than anything. But it’s a continued valiant effort to bring the sport forward. Someday, I think we will see more and more “no practice” events with brief ride-throughs like we’re seeing in a few arenas. This is much easier said than done, however, with 150-plus fishermen.
Johnson further mentioned that Gagliardi was legal practicing for one event, yet illegal for the next, that both events are offered by FLW, and these variables need to be addressed. Prior to this season, I would have disagreed wholeheartedly. As many of you know, it’s my opinion that touring pros need to concentrate on the Tour, and not concern themselves with lesser events. They should read the rules and make decisions as applied to the Tour, first and foremost.
However, for 2014, things aren’t that simple. FLW just got done telling me, and therefore all of you, that they intend for their Tour pros to fill in the blanks in their schedule with Rayovac events. FLW further stated that the Rayovac Tour was richer and offered a championship; that triple-A was the answer to pros yearning for more tournaments.
Then FLW makes it more difficult for those pros to legally compete.
While it’s not mandatory for touring pros to practice with co-anglers, it’s certainly attractive, for both cost aspects and to get more lines in the water. If we’re all so concerned over level playing fields and no-information rules, this needs to be made cut and dry. A rule prohibiting practice partners altogether would work, but it would leave a lot of non-boaters on the bank. Remember, those non-boaters are a big part of FLW’s contingency and customer base.
I’m always amazed that, year after year, professional bass tournaments continue to evolve. Other sports seem to be so static, and have nothing to worry about in the rule books. Yet pro bass acts like it’s in its infancy, some 40-plus years later.
I guess that’s a good sign, that we’re all striving to do things better and make the sport better for all of its participants. In a way, we seem to all want one thing: to justify this as a true sport whose participants are professional athletes. I just hope, for everyone’s sake, those athletes take a little more time to review the rules of the game.
(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.)