My work as a journalist allows me the pleasure of interviewing all walks of life in the world of bass fishing. Well, it’s usually a pleasure. In any case, I often find myself captivated by a theme I see reported elsewhere, bound and determined to get the inside scoop and find out what really makes fishermen successful.
In fact, one of my primary purposes here with you has been to uncover the intricate details driving the world’s best anglers and attempt to define that magic in terms we can all understand, and hopefully duplicate.
Now, as many of you know, this isn’t my only PR gig, and I find myself busier than ever, often with a list of phone calls long enough to fill the day. Subjects range from Bassmaster Classic champions to aspiring teen pros, with a mix of biologists and lunker-hunters thrown in.
This week, I found myself interested by the story of college fishing’s most successful team in 2019, McKendree University.
Compiling points from the B.A.S.S., FLW and BoatUS leagues, as well as various Opens staged throughout the country, McKendree (a liberal arts university in Lebanon, Ill. with an undergraduate enrollment of less than 2,500) amassed the most and captured the Bass Pro Shops School of the Year Award. It was their first win after a series of near-misses.
Wanting to learn more, I interviewed the coach and was quickly impressed when I heard of the team’s unique approach to, well, unity.
Sure, the athletes travel together, as in nearly every college sport. And they stay together, and cook together and eat and hang out and the whole bit.
But the method in which the team approached each tournament, and how they continued to work together come game day, got me really thinking. “It’s been a real team effort all around,” the coach told me, even in terms of fishing patterns, locations and lures. It seems what’s good for one is better for the group.
We’re seeing more of this. Many of you may recall my interviews with FLW standouts around the 2017 Forrest Wood Cup, when a group of young guns seemed to be taking the tournament world by storm, laughing in the face of convention.
And we’ve seen more of it this year on the Bassmaster Elite Series, where traveling anglers – some from as far away as Canada – are doing all they can to ensure success of their companions.
It’s quite a different feel from the traditional tournament mentality, where close friends became arch rivals once blast-off sounded. I mean, I once watched two brothers race each other to a prime fishing spot and almost collide at 70 mph. Such could have proven catastrophic, yet was all in the name of competition.
So tournament bass fishing was never a real warm-and-fuzzy team sport. In fact, if my recollection is right, the only true professional team event occurred in the late '80s on the St. Lawrence River, where Larry Nixon teamed up with Chet Douthit, Stanley Mitchell and Ken “Dusty” Pine to take a Bassmaster Team Championship title (believe it or not, I didn’t look that up).
Anyway, what we’re seeing now is quite the opposite; “team” bass fishing is becoming an accepted model for success. Understood in the sense of scholastic fishing, where high schools and colleges strive for group awards, but also acknowledged in individual events, where the “us vs. them” mentality assures everyone in the group lives to fight another day.
My question is easy: Will we see this expand? Will a format someday be adopted pairing top pros, as in the case of college fishing, creating a two-man team? Will several of these teams, then, compete toward a goal of winning a group award? Perhaps it will be a sponsor-run team, where each angler represents the same brands. In some cases we’re not far away from that, and have seen numerous anglers under the same sponsor umbrella, in terms of major pro-staff pushes.
Seriously, manufacturers love this, and have gravitated toward the concept for decades. You see, they’re guaranteed brand awareness at nearly every event if they can gobble up the top 10 percent of performers.
Getting back to the example at hand, after some contemplation, I’d wager that the key variable to McKendree’s success, and those of similar teams, is the true openness expressed by the members. While it evidently took some adjustment in the approach, by truly working together, team members are succeeding far better than they would on their own. They validated making the original shift by chasing awards like School of the Year, and are now reaping the benefits all around.
Will others recognize this and form their own secretive groups, determined to take down a sport thought to be based on individualism? Have they already? Who’s working together, and is it already working?
(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.)