As we head into the final stretches of this season’s professional bass tours, without question the biggest event of late was the recent BASSFest at Lake Chickamauga. There, FLW regular Jacob Wheeler came in through the Bassmaster Opens to snatch the crown from the Elite Series pros. I’m sure they were thrilled.
Wheeler is the real deal, for sure. Whereas some may have attributed his early success as a fluke, or just a shining moment from a kid who didn’t know any better, his latest triumph is anything but. In the short span of a few years, Wheeler has won the BFLAll-American (the youngest angler ever to do so), took home the Forrest Wood Cup title and its riches (again, youngest champ ever), then almost won the Cup again (2nd in 2013), and is now an Elite Series champion. Pretty stout for 23, huh?
B.A.S.S. had a perfect script for its inaugural BASSFest event: an outsider in the form of a young kid, clawing his way to the top against the organization's version of Godzilla, Kevin VanDam. Or maybe veteran Matt Herren would sneak in and steal the title in his Southern smooth way, giving the old-school fans something to cheer about.
But in the end, Wheeler prevailed, thanks to an admitted wealth of knowledge of the BASSFest venue. I’m sure he was licking his chops way back when the announcement was made to allow select Open anglers a chance at the B.A.S.S. big show, and to do so on a lake Wheeler had fished numerous times.
Through the BASSFest format, Wheeler was one of 30 or so Open anglers who decided to pony up a big ante and play cards at the high-stakes table. Not surprisingly, many of his cohorts were other FLW Tour standouts and known big-money fishermen.
From what I can see, I’d bet this won’t be the last time B.A.S.S. presents this type of format. As we’ve discussed here, and is evident in this summer’s rosters, more and more FLW pros are fishing Bassmaster Open events. And, believe me, they’re not doing it for the money; on the contrary, they’re doing so specifically for the opportunity to qualify for the Elite Series.
We’ve already seen an incredible spike in the number of two-tour pros this season and will likely witness even more next year as the number of events being offered by each tour is falling below what many fishermen consider necessary to make a living. More formats like BASSFest will allow more anglers from outside of the Elite tour the chance for an immediate entrance into the B.A.S.S. title event – the Bassmaster Classic. Just ask Wheeler.
Sure, in order to fish the entire Elite schedule, anglers will still have to qualify through the Opens, but just getting a crack at the Classic is going to be enough to incite pros from all over the country. And besides, about the top half of the field at BASSFest earned $10,000. That’s not too shabby.
In addition, the event was played out like a “mini-Classic," complete with a festival/expo format and a bunch of interaction between the pros and fans. The third day of the event featured seminars throughout the venue – another perk for touring pros hoping to make a good impression under the watchful eyes of sponsors.
Seminar day was held in conjunction with a “second chance tournament” for those anglers who didn’t make the initial competitive cut at Chickamauga. But, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what the purpose of the second chance tournament was.
The premise was that, for those anglers who didn’t make the initial Top-50 cut at Chickamauga, another tournament would be held at nearby Lake Nickajack. The Top 10 in that event got back in the Chickamauga tournament, although their weights really prevented them from moving up very far in the standings (remember, they didn’t make the Top 50 in the first place). But those competitors got a check, so good for them.
Still, I have no idea how this is relevant, or how it can possibly be considered fair. A guy does lousy at Chickamauga, then has one good day at Nickajack and gets paid for his performance at Chickamauga. What?
The whole time this second-chance event was happening gave B.A.S.S. the opportunity to hold its seminars and fan interactions. That part of the festivities is a great idea. But what does it have to do with sending the leftover anglers to Nickajack? B.A.S.S. should just have its seminars and a rest day, regardless.
I would imagine we’ll see a tweak here and an elimination of the out-then-back-in idea, not unlike we did back in the days of the boat-racing portion of WCF, or other bizarre formats. Regardless, no one can blame B.A.S.S. for trying new things, as this is one thing that helps move the sport forward.
B.A.S.S. has gone to great lengths to accelerate its athletes to the forefront of the public’s eye. Examples date much further back than we can consider here, from the foresight of the current owners and management, to ESPN, to indoor weigh-ins, to MegaBucks, and all the way back to Ray Scott and his initial “crazy visions” which started it all. BASSFest appears to be on the right track to add to such a legacy of progression. Who could argue with an inexpensive, family-friendly event, where dad can catch a quick seminar by one of the best in the world, all the while knocking down a hot dog and a cold one?
While both major tours have struggled in recent times to find a way to increase interaction between the athletes and the fan base, often putting more emphasis on social media impressions than a real world handshake, the BASSFest model looks refreshing and strong. Hopefully, for the fans' sake, such formats are here to stay.
(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.)