With the arrival of the Bassmaster Texas Fest, a new chapter in the history of tournament bass fishing begins this week. To the best of my recollection, this will be the first time that a regular-season, full-field event will be carried out without a traditional weigh-in, the result of which may change tournaments forever. Instead, competitors will weigh and record all but one bass (provided that specimen is over 21 inches) and release the fish immediately. But could the consequence prove fatal to the game as we know it?
For starters, letís take an investigative look into the birth of the modern weigh-in, follow along as it matured, then consider what life would be without it.
Though I wasnít there at the time, Iíve read enough about tournament bass fishing to get a pretty good idea of the purpose behind its creation. True, there were derbies and tournament-like events prior to Ray Scottís invention, but, for the most part, the slick-talking insurance salesman from Alabama is given credit with creating our modern system. Without question, it was Scott who envisioned the sportís potential for advancement more than anyone.
Key to his structure, I believe, were three components: competition, money and spectators. Professional sports as we know them are based on some form of these principles. In the United States, athletes are judged by their wins, their contracts and by how many people come to watch them. For bass fishing, it would be no different.
For the most part, weigh-ins in the early days attracted fans simply out of curiosity. As the sport matured and its participants became household names among the outdoor culture, the weigh-in also became a way for fans to rub elbows with their angling heroes.
Through the 1980s, and during a major building era for pro fishing, Scott took the idea of fan interaction further with the introduction of the B.A.S.S. Megabucks event. Again, speaking from historical reference rather than first-hand knowledge, itís my understanding that a primary theme of Megabucks was to draw the competitors into a series of holes, where spectators could watch from both the water and the shoreline, very much like a golf tournament.
I always loved the Megabucks event, not only for the superhuman feats of Larry Nixon, but for the course layout and the challenges it presented. The format, however, never really created more fan interaction than a standard tournament.
In any case, weigh-ins continued to evolve into the primary spectacle of a bass tournament. During the same period as the Megabucks events, the Classics were beginning to draw huge weigh-in crowds. Who could forget Richmond in the late '80s, or Kerchalís win on High Rock a few years later? Iíve never seen fans so passionate for a bass tournament.
Fast forward a few years, and we saw the rise of FLW, bringing with it a new weigh-in format, creating even more drama. Here, weights were zeroed out after each cut day, allowing any remaining competitor a shot at winning. In addition, fish were weighed one at a time, back and forth between anglers, until a winner was determined. Often, the entire event balanced on the weight of one little bass, keeping the fans on the edge of their seats.
During those early days of FLW, before any live feeds or updated leaderboards, the weigh-in was an event truly anticipated by fans, and often attended by thousands. Irwin Jacobs was our sportís version of P.T. Barnum, putting on his show under the big top, outsiders wondering just what was going on in there.
Throughout history, the weigh-in has continued to be the biggest thing in tournament fishing. Former tournament anglers, TV celebrities, even politicians have tried their hand at jazzing up a sometimes mundane event. Theme music was added. Videos. Fireworks. Confetti.
But then a funny thing happened. Convinced that the future of the sport resided more in television viewership than audience participation, Major League Fishing was formed as a way for fans to cheer on the sportís best without leaving their living rooms. Sure, both B.A.S.S. and FLW had their own television shows for years, but those were more of a summary of past tournaments than the in-your-face version of MLF.
Along with this change in thinking came a recollection that fans would rather watch a fish being caught than weighed. For that reason, the point of MLF was to capture as many catches on film as possible, and simply use the weighing process as a means of keeping score. Just as in golf, weíd know every player's score immediately, at all times.
Without question, the MLF model has caught on, but it probably wouldn't have without the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, a yearly one-off tournament that utilized the catch-weigh-release format in conjunction with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Many organizations are considering adopting the system and now, it appears B.A.S.S. is dipping its toe into the water.
So what does all of this mean? Well, first off, itís an admittance that the biggest game in town is now television and, even more so, Internet viewership, rather than live interaction with fans. While this isnít viewed as a big deal, it does present potential challenges.
First off, how will it change the major events centered around weigh-ins? I, for one, am not going to show up to an event to watch fish-less fishermen get interviewed on stage. Therefore, Iíd be one fan who would also miss the associated outdoor show, festival, etc., and wonít be spending money with vendors, or absorbing advertising from sponsors. Without fish, look for those events to die.
The exception could be the ďBASSFestĒ theme being incorporated, where pro anglers give seminars and interact with fans. Sure, this is a good idea on paper. However, stretching your professional athletes even thinner, and insisting they hang around events for a week regardless of their finish, can prove a little daunting. Remember, the next tournament is often a thousand miles away.
Finally, fish care must be considered, in favor of the new immediate-release format. I've preached this principle for years. However, it must be understood that weigh-ins donít kill fish, as science has proven. Instead, waiting for weigh-in kills fish, as they suffocate in under-aerated bags. However, weíve seen this addressed in major national events, B.A.S.S. leading the way with its mesh-bag system that keeps bass frisky.
Personally, Iím worried about the loss of weigh-ins, if nothing else for the loss of initiating new fans. Weíre not going to turn anyone on to bass fishing if they have to dig deep on the Internet to find it.
Remember, nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.
(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.)