The basic purpose of a bass tournament is to measure the skills of finding and catching bass among its competitors. We, as competitors at any level, long ago recognized that tournament success is dependent upon just that: skill, rather than luck.
If the outcome relied solely on luck, as many casual anglers initially believe, results would be random and each contestant would have an equal shot at winning. This, as proven by results since the inception of tournament fishing, is simply not the case.
But what type of tournament decides the greatest skill level of the competitors – an incredibly tough grinder or an all-out smash-fest?
Pro tournament headlines lately have focused on the upcoming Delaware River Bassmaster Elite Series event and the predicted tough fishing. While weights aren’t forecast to be catastrophically low, aka Pittsburgh low, it’s said that a 10-pound bag will be impressive.
However, speaking a bit with anglers on the inside, I’ve learned that a few Elite pros traveled to the Delaware prior to cut-off and found the fishing to be dreadful. One reported catching less than one keeper per day. While anything can happen, and the B.A.S.S. version of the best in the world will likely uncover overlooked patterns, will this throw a wrench in the plans to reward the best?
That thinking led to a debate, of course, among my peers as to which type of event really determines the best fishermen. A cohort argued that “anyone can catch them on a place like Kentucky Lake.” Therefore, he said, winners lately are determined by the pro with the best local help and hole-sitting on a school with the best quality fish, and that tough events focus more on the pros' intricate ability to squeak just one more fish out of seemingly fish-less water.
My dispute against this theory pointed to one of my own experiences:
Back when I was aggressively fishing events all across the Ohio region, I fished a major tournament on the Ohio River. Fishing was horrendously tough, as is often the case there. Over the course of a 3-day practice period, I located one small backwater where I thought I could get several bites. The area was so secluded that I needed to push my boat through several rocky riffles just to access the deeper sections of a remote creek.
In the tournament I fished well, landing six fish, four of which were 12-inch keepers. They were giants for the day, combining to weigh right at 4 pounds. As I weighed in, I was surprised to learn I led the large field and was the only competitor to weigh in more than two keeper bass.
As the weigh-in drew to an end, my dream became a nightmare when one of the final contestants brought a single bass to the scales weighing 4 pounds, 2 ounces. He won the event, later expressing tremendous surprise and delight on the stage, as he had caught the kicker fish in a known release area just outside of the host marina on one of his last casts of the day. I’ll never forget his story, the fortunate angler exclaiming that he had stopped there simply because his boat ran out of gas just a couple hundred yards away from check-in, so he figured he might as well fish his way in.
While my paltry example pales in comparison to the set of circumstances regularly experienced by pros fishing for the big bucks, it brings up a good question, and one that may not have an easy answer.
What type of venue is best for major bass tournaments? Are we determining the anglers with the greatest skill?
In modern times, it seems as if major events are more regularly scheduled on big-catch venues. Places like Okeechobee, Guntersville, Chickamauga and Falcon have been all the rage. The dominant pros of today have learned to forego mediocre limits, once the calling card of the successful touring pro, and instead seek out big fish right from the get-go. It’s been argued that many once-successful pros have lost their competitive edge, as the focus on tour now is entirely different.
In addition, the major trails often visit the same bodies of water frequently. FLW takes this to the extreme each year with its Beaver event. Veteran pros have transformed from traveling pool hustlers to fishermen with more knowledge than many locals. Is this what we, as fans, want to see?
Finally, here we are down the stretch in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race and the Top 2 contenders are separated by a single point. All season, the focus has been on Mark Davis and his return to stardom. Should an unknown, tough fishery play a vital role in determining the outcome of the race?
Proponents will say it determines the best angler across the board. Opponents will argue that the tours just aren’t about that anymore.
In any case, I continued to debate with my buddy, mentioning that I disliked when the tours made the obvious attempt to cram pro bass fishing down the throats of Northern communities who couldn’t care less, forcing their fishermen to dreadful urban environments that lack quality fish, all in the name of progress. But my opponent rallied with one final point:
“Remember the Classic at Pittsburgh?” he said. “Remember who won? Now ask yourself if that showed us who was the best.”
“Hmmm,” I replied. “Touché."
(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.)