This week, the final event in the 2023 Bassmaster Opens will take place at Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes, bringing a unique qualifying bracket to culmination. This season's Opens included an Elite Qualifier division – requiring Elite Series hopefuls to fish all nine events across three divisions in order to gain an invite to the big leagues. Following the final weigh-in at Harris, nine men will have qualified.

My first impression was that of a money-grab. Forcing participants to fish all of the unprofitable Opens was unfair.

However, after watching the qualification process play out and doing a little math, I reconsidered. Really, my entire focus shifted.

Let me explain. For several years, competition on the Bassmaster Opens has been a lesson in financial defeat. Not long ago, when compiling detailed payout percentages for this column, I calculated the Opens below 70 percent. That compared to at or over 100 percent for the top tours in each league.

At the time, I viewed the triple-A circuits as a way for tournament anglers to earn significant income – possibly a living – from fishing. The leagues themselves promoted this concept with championship events and lucrative purses to winners, without needing to take the plunge into the Elite or FLW tours.

However, this season, Bassmaster has shifted the focus of the Opens events from “semi-pro” to “pro qualifier”, and done so quite well.

Back to my initial criticism. Not long ago, the triple-A tours were seen as an alternate choice to the massive travel and financial commitments of national fishing. A shorter, closer schedule, divided into regional divisions, allowed anglers to invest less while still chasing the dream. Requiring participation in nine events all across the country, though, wouldn’t follow that concept.

I decided to do some math. Based on an advertised 150-boat field, today’s Bassmaster Opens will pay out over $2.25 million in prizes, after collecting $2.43 million in entries. This equates to nearly a 93% payout. Also included will be a $10,000 prize to the Opens AOY. These represent monumental increases in recent years that competitors can get behind.

But the real change is the Elite Qualifying (EQ) focus. Here, we’ve got a concept that completely accomplishes its intended goal.

Let’s look more in-depth at the current Top 9 anglers. JT Thompkins, John Garrett and Trey McKinney sit in the first three positions, a fairly substantial distance from the other six. Each has four Top-10 finishes in the Opens this year, and each has won over $60,000 from the circuit. Comparably, entries for all nine events totaled $16,200.

Of the group, McKinney is the youngest, at 18 years old, and also the top money winner, surpassing $80,000 in Opens earnings for 2023 with one event to go. But here’s the real eye-opener:

Of the Top 9 anglers, only one is over 27 years of age. Kenta Kimura, the lone Elite Series competitor in the group, is 41. Nine competitors against all others, including veterans like Bobby Lane, Joey Nania and Casey Scanlon, sit atop the standings, and eight are 20-something kids. That speaks volumes for the new wave of anglers interested in becoming professionals.

It also illustrates the effectiveness of the new EQ program, and the level to which hopeful anglers are taking the plunge. These are committed young men extremely focused on their goal. With increased payouts, that focus no longer has to be a path to bankruptcy.

So what does it take to make the list, in terms of performance? The Top 3 have had remarkable seasons. Remember, many of these events had field sizes topping 200 boats, so four Top-10s is Herculean. But it’s not necessary to achieve the goal.

South Carolina’s Kyle Austin has placed no higher than 25th in any Open event this season, yet currently holds down eighth place in the EQ standings. He’s won about as much as he paid in entries, equating to a loss when considering expenses and travel, yet he’s on course to achieve a goal that hundreds of others have aimed for and missed.

Quite the change from the circuit’s top money winners, or his other cohorts in the Top 9. Two of those have won single events and large payouts. Another, Logan Parks, is a former winner of one of the richest bass tournaments in history, certainly the richest taken down by a college-aged kid.

Instead, Austin has plugged away and put in his time. He’s had to figure how to pay his way, time and time again. The big payday, always on the horizon and recognized by his peers, still evades him.

Yet Austin’s plight, along with that of the more successful others, demonstrates the multiple sides of the new EQ system. Rewards for awe-inspiring performances, as well as for hard work and dedication. Consistency and mastery both recognized.

I have to admit, at first, I doubted the Bassmaster Opens EQ format. Now, eight months later, I see I was wrong.

A full-scale shift was accomplished. The Elite Qualifying method has allowed a group of dedicated, focused young men an opportunity to look ahead to a career in professional fishing, all while separating themselves from the pack. Such helps to fill a much-needed space between college and regional competition and the professional ranks.

I should have known. First impressions are always wrong.

(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.)