ďIím not denying myself some great things, I just donít have expensive hobbies.Ē
- Bill Gates
Among all of the excitement, I overlooked an important detail in last weekís column. Sure, we talked about tour changes, rule modifications and indicators of things to come, but one of the biggest changes was left out. Thankfully, I was quickly made aware of my error by several readers. Itís a trend that can no longer be dismissed, and one that will potentially impact pro fishing forever, for better or for worse.
Itís the downward spiral of co-angler opportunities in the pro ranks.
This subject is certainly two-sided. While most professional anglers would much rather fish without consideration to their partner, participation, tournament revenue and recruitment within the sport must be considered. Because of that, there has been two strongly opposing views within the business of tournament fishing for the past two decades.
FLW, often advertised and portrayed as a business built on equal opportunity, has long played the co-angler card, oftentimes transforming their dominant performers into team pros. B.A.S.S., on the other hand, recognized the need for the pro anglers to be the center of attention in its business model and has since utilized non-fishing marshals as observers in the pros' boats.
For the upcoming season, however, it appears both organizations may be working toward the same goal of lessening the involvement of non-boaters.
FLW has reduced its co-angler events to 2 competition days across the board, and, beginning in 2016, will omit co-anglers altogether from the Forrest Wood Cup.
Certainly, nearly all FLW Tour pros are breathing a sigh of relief, but I question the impact as well as the trend. To back up a bit, letís be clear of one underlying source of disagreement: Co-anglers definitely impact the outcome of many Tour events. As a frequent competitor in triple-A level tournaments, I can honestly say I nearly always consider my co-anglers when faced with a day of fishing. Many pros simply do not. Neither approach is entirely correct.
In addition, every fan of pro fishing has heard the story of the co-angler who throws well ahead of the boat to the sweet spot and catches a key fish, or hits the right surface-boiling schooler before the pro can reel in and re-cast. Conversely, many pros have also been benefactors to those same co-anglers uncovering unknown schools on the ďwrong side of the boatĒ that later led to a fat payday for the boater. Letís face it: if that guyís not in the back of the boat, the event changes.
If the purpose of our sport is to determine the best pro anglers and reward them with fame and riches, perhaps the aspect of co-angler influence needs to be eliminated.
But we also need to consider the original intent of co-angler brackets: opportunity and recruitment.
For years, many industry executives have complained about tournament bass fishing becoming cost-prohibitive, most notably at the entry point. What this means, in laymanís terms, is that itís simply impossible for the average American household to support the purchase of products necessary to compete in major bass tournaments.
In this day and age, a used bass boat worth of competition at the pro level costs upwards of $50,000; rods, reel and tackle tip the tally into six figures. Remember, to be competitive requires having all the advantages the top-level pros do: side-imaging depthfinders, shallow-water anchors, 250-hp outboards and an endless supply of lures.
In order to combat this disastrous trend, co-angler brackets give a guy with a half-dozen rods and some gear the opportunity to travel, compete and win decent money. For many, itís an opportunity to visit a handful of new fisheries each year, have a few beers at dinner with buddies and possibly break even. For others, itís viewed as a real opportunity to graduate into a pro career, with the potential of wining a dream rig, or possibly networking within the industry.
In any case, the idea is that many co-anglers will become boat-purchasing tournament anglers as their involvement increases.
However, what we are seeing is the acceptance of the disregard for this marketing model. The general theme in todayís pro fishing, it appears, is that the ultimate ďvalueĒ lies in the pros' abilities to become household names, and their marketability will then be tied to endorsements that could very well be outside of the industry, or even have nothing to do with fishing whatsoever. In other words, they will be more like professional athletes in other sports.
However, unlike other professional sports, thereís no waiting list a mile long to get in. For instance, for every PGA golfer who's making the big bucks, there are 25 young, hungry scratch players trying to step into their shoes. In fishing, itís really just a couple hundred guys, and the list fluctuates very little each year.
This is due, in part, to our earlier discussion: itís nearly impossible for many interested anglers to get in, due to cost. You see, in our sport, you donít just buy a set of clubs and call it good, and no one gives you a car to race in. Here, potential competitors must spend a fortune to get equipped prior to their first day on the job.
So itís obvious that the co-angler advancement model is not working at any level. Here in Michigan, the list of co-anglers for a regular season BFL tournament is so long many donít even bother to enter. The interest in fishing from the back of the boat certainly hasnít dwindled, again due to cost. For that reason, there simply needs to be a better way to get these guys in boats and competing other than forcing them to spend a fortune, or purchase a boat thatís 20 years old and be expected to fish against sponsored Tour pros.
Iíve made mention of this theme before and will do so again: The industry has gotten out of hand with the ďaccepted model." Not unlike the auto or housing industry once were, I believe we are at the tipping point of a potential collapse. The bass industry must look deep inside to realize must step back, rather than continuing to push the envelope past what consumers can afford.
Itís time for mandated horsepower limits far below 250 in tournaments. Itís time for boundaries to be placed in events to reduce the need for competitors to burn outrageous amounts of fuel and travel hundreds of miles to remain competitive. Itís time for mandatory fuel-efficiency requirements and a complete switch to four-stroke outboards. Itís time we re-enacted the theme of making tournament fishing feasible and not just a dream.
Possibly, the answer lies in a tiered approach, where state-level events require moderately-sized and priced rigs, and Tour-level events allow larger, more expensive boats. That may help get guys started, and then allow them to upgrade if their competitive interest moves in that direction. It may also satisfy the industry that's so anxious to sell monster rigs. Regardless, itís time for a competitive bass boat to not be worth more than a guyís daily vehicle, his home, or the college education of his child.
I mean, how else are we going to continue to build this sport into one enjoyed and adored by the masses? Co-angler competitions will continue to live and thrive in the lower ranks, but their days appear to be limited at the top. Gone with them will be the dreams of many, unable to find any other way in.
(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.)