By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
(Editor's note: BassFan will suspend feature publication during the holidays as it does each year, although important breaking news will still be reported. The staff wishes everyone a joyous and safe holiday. We'll resume feature publication on Tuesday, Jan. 3.)
Whether the MLF Bass Pro Tour opted to continue with its every-fish-counts scoring format in 2023 or switched to a more traditional five-fish system, Jacob Wheeler was good either way.
Wheeler, the No. 1 angler in the BassFan World Rankings and the two-time defending BPT Angler of the Year (AOY), has obviously experienced overwhelming success in the four seasons of the circuit's existence. On the flip side, it's not like he struggled during his days on the Bassmaster Elite Series or the FLW Tour, either, when hauling a bag containing five fish to a scale at the end of each competition day was the standard routine.
"To me, the format doesn't really matter," he said. "I've been fortunate to make the Top 10 every year since 2016 and fishing is fishing. You will have to make some adjustments in strategy, but I think you'll see the same guys toward the top, for the most part.
"I could've gone either way. I think there's a case to be made for both sides."
Appeals to Different Audiences
Wheeler said television viewers who aren't competitive bass anglers themselves likely prefer the every-fish-counts format. With sheer numbers of keepers as the focus, the scoring (and thus the action) is virtually non-stop.
The format didn't resonate with the sport's most passionate fans, however. Perhaps the retention of the ScoreTracker, which keeps competitors abreast of their place in the standings at all times, and a switch to scoring only an angler's five heaviest catches will strike a balance that appeals to both sides.
Plus, the conservation advantage of immediately releasing all fish after they're weighed and not stuffing them into a livewell will remain the status quo.
"The advantage of counting every fish is you could get bigger separation (on the standings sheet)," he said. "It took some of the luck out of the scenario. In two days of practice, guys who are good at finding fish could find a bunch of 2 1/2- to 2 3/4-pounders and you could compete that way as long as you could generate enough bites.
"With five fish you have to figure out how to get the 4-pounders, but the guy who lucks into a 7- or 8-pounder is that much better off. It's very much like restrictor-plate racing – things are going to get tighter. You'll see adjustments made on the water and we'll find out what it's like to have the ScoreTracker in a five-fish-limit tournament."
Influenced by Polls
Wheeler said the results of polls conducted by himself and others on social media caused him to lean a bit toward the five-fish-limit side as the best way for the BPT to proceed.
"I never saw a poll where every-fish-counts won – there wasn't a time that five fish didn't get the majority," he said. "When I added up all the polls it was about 63 percent for five fish, so that's what really weighted it for me.
"I have to take my own personal agenda out of things. MLF had to make a decision and I commend them for doing it. Nobody who signed up for this thought things weren't going to change – that's one of the things that will help elevate the sport of bass fishing, no matter how you have to do it. We have to try to make it better for everybody involved."
He said one group that will significantly definitely benefit from the switch is current high school and college anglers who aspire to join the professional ranks.
"One of the biggest things was that those guys couldn't dream about fishing on the Bass Pro Tour because they couldn't compete that way (presently). They'd have to go through the Toyota Series or the Invitationals without competing in (the BPT) format.
"It's kind of like wanting to be a pro football or basketball player, but not being able to play the same game in high school."
> Wheeler hasn't run all the numbers, but he thinks he would've fared well on the BPT this year even if the five-fish-limit format were enacted retroactively. "I caught some of the biggest five-fish stringers that I ever have – I just never got credit for that and it was hard for people to notice it. At Caney Creek (in the first event of the season in Louisiana), my best five weighed 32 pounds."
> He said one venue on the 2023 schedule where strategy will definitely change under the five-fish format is Lake St. Clair. "I think it'll be a lot more entertaining. The largemouth will come into play and not everybody will be throwing a dropshot."