I'll always be very hesitant to advocate that the Bassmaster Elite Series go back to the co-angler format, for the simple reason that professional bass fishing is more professional without it. Though it's usually no fault of their own, a co-angler in a tour-level boat is like having somebody in the passenger seat of a NASCAR rig who may or may not occasionally give the steering wheel a little tug or the brake pedal a minor tap.
Their actions can and do affect the outcome on the pro side of a tournament, and thus they un-level the playing field. A sport striving for legitimacy within the realm of pro competition as a whole should be devoid of such inequities.
Now that being said, amateurs fishing with pros is better than some pros fishing with no one else in the boat, as was the case recently when the 2011 Elite season got under way in Florida. That's the worst scenario of all, and it can't continue.
For the past 3 seasons, B.A.S.S. has used non-fishing marshals as its "eyes on the water." For a $100 fee, a guy or gal can spend 2 days in the boat (and sometimes 3) with a different pro each day and get a firsthand look at how the best in the business go about that business. Marshals also receive a Columbia fishing shirt, a cap and a Bass Pro Shops gift card.
It's a nice setup – provided there are enough marshals to go around. There weren't in Florida.
As far as I know, there were no controversial incidents that arose from this unfortunate circumstance. If it continues, however, it's only a matter of time until one does. It's absolutely inevitable.
The Florida situation might have been at least somewhat unique. Even months ago, it was a good bet that the tournaments at the Harris Chain and St. Johns River would be sight-dominated events, and who wants to sit in a boat and watch somebody sight-fish all day for fish that they (the marshal) probably can't see? I know I don't.
Ironically, however, sight-fishing events are the ones in which marshals are needed the most, due to B.A.S.S.' s rule that fish caught in such a manner must be hooked inside the mouth. Letting an angler go out by himself on a body of water that has lots of big fish on the beds is the ideal scenario for tempting him to cheat, and also a prime opportunity for someone who doesn't like him for whatever reason to accuse him of underhanded tactics.
The vast majority of Elite anglers are high-ethics people who would never consider going outside the rules. But to believe there isn't one out of nearly 100 who'd never try it under any circumstance is foolhardy, to say the least. We all have our moments of weakness.
There are other factors in play that are present across the country, having nothing to do with the local bass reproduction ritual, that also might reduce the potential marshal pool. For instance, gas prices have shot up once again, and they're altering people's travel plans. When all expenses are totaled, a guy who has to drive a good distance to an Elite Series venue might have to shell out $500 for the 2- or 3-day experience, and some might decide it's not worth it.
In a phone interview late last week, B.A.S.S. tournament director Trip Weldon said the marshal rosters for the six remaining Elite Series events are full and in most cases there are short waiting lists. No-shows have been a minor issue since the program's inception, but that's never consisted of more than a small handful of people at a single event.
There's never been anything like the situation that occurred in Florida. At the St. Johns, there were 20 anglers who were without marshals after the pre-tournament registration meeting, and there were "six or eight," according to Weldon, who fished alone on day 1. The organization scrambled around and rounded up observers for the other dozen or so, and that group included some B.A.S.S. staff members.
"I don't know what else could've been done," he said. "We made every effort we could and at the end of the day, we were still a few short. About the only thing left would be to pair pros with other pros, and we all know how well that would go over.
"We did discuss when the program originated the level of financial commitment/obligation that should be required from the marshals. We thought if there was no obligation, then it was possible that out of a hundred, we could get 50 no-shows (in cases of inclement weather or other adverse circumstances). We decided that the threshold of $100 was the right way to go, and by and large it's worked out great."
We can only hope that it continues to work out and that the events in Florida were anomalies, for whatever reason. In order to maintain the level of professionalism that's been achieved to this point, somebody's butt needs to be in the back seat of every boat – all 99 of them.
It's not that the organization needs a bunch of anal-retentive "fishing cops" out there policing the action on the water. The real purpose of a marshal is much more akin to a trial witness than a law-enforcement officer. If a reasonably intelligent human being with a working grasp of the organization's rules and regulations spends a day in the boat with an Elite angler and attests afterward that the angler played by the rules, that should be good enough for everyone.
As 38-year veteran and four-time Classic winner Rick Clunn (a proponent of the co-angler system) emphasized in a BassFan story a couple of years ago, the anglers need that witness. If a pro is accused of a rules violation by another competitor or even someone not affiliated with the event, he needs somebody who was in very close proximity at the time the alleged infraction occurred who can testify as to what actually happened.
Think about the six or eight Elite anglers who launched at the St. Johns on day 1 last week with nobody else in their boat. Like the other 90-plus other competitors, they had to hope they were in for a good day. But in the back of their mind, there had to be a voice saying, "Man, I hope I don't go out and have the day of my life and absolutely wreck fish. If I do, what's to stop somebody from claiming I cheated?"
That's a heck of a way to start a day of work, isn't it?