Last month, Keith Poche’s catch was disqualified at the Bassmaster Open at Toledo Bend, a decision that was later upheld after appeal. The rule infraction and subsequent DQ have never been fully clarified, leading to the usual rumor mill and social media chatter surrounding this type of thing. While I offer no ability to solve the mystery, I see this as a good time to reflect on the direction of the sport in terms of fairness.
Those of you familiar with Poche’s approach to tournament bass fishing understand that he is one of a few anglers bucking the trend of techno-angling. While the boats of most competitors continue to grow more specialized and scientific, Poche and others have moved in the direction of smaller, more agile crafts.
It’s easy to jump on the old-school bandwagon of these anglers. For many, myself included, they represent a simple, more authentic form of bass fishing. Up close and personal, shallow-water power fishing the way we all learned to play the game. Such a drastic difference from anglers investing thousands in military-like sonar to seek out every blip on the screen.
But make no mistake: in each case, the end goal is to get a leg up on the competition. Whether that be through more space-age gadgets or the ability to access secret honey holes, the intention is to have equipment that increases the chances of catching bass others miss. It’s very important to remember that; the two methods represent the same motive.
All of this represents ingenuity in competitive angling. Through the years, we’ve seen it time and again; savvy competitors coming up with a better mousetrap.
I remember the first time I saw a bass fisherman use a push-pole. Gosh, I thought that was a brilliant move, especially when he accessed a place no one else could. I also remember watching Roland Martin construct a sight-fishing platform on the front deck of his boat. A crafty move as well, but later outlawed. It seems he’d gone too far.
The first jackplate came to the bass boat market around 1980, after much use on race boats. Original intentions were to offer faster boats with quicker hole shots, but another benefit included increased access to shallow water. Soon after, I would watch in awe when a tournament competitor performed something he called the "Okeechobee Slingshot", whipping his boat up on plane in knee-deep water thanks to a new hydro-jack. I was forced to idle endlessly.
I remember the first long-shaft trolling motors used by bass anglers in the late '80s. They allowed for fishing – access, some might say – to rougher waters.
And I vividly remember a former Bassmaster Classic champion once constructing a ramp to jump a full-sized Ranger bass boat over an earthen dam in competition. Years later, I asked him about it at a sport show. He laughed and laughed.
I remember the first uses of Side Imaging sonar, and the overwhelming advantage it offered, over the traditional 2-D imagery of the time.
I’ve seen dozens of times when competitors jumped over logs in backwater creeks. It’s a skill you can actually get good at. I remember a few savvy river rats coating the bottoms of their boats with a teflon material used on airboats, allowing them to slide over a log in a split second. Smart.
Everyone remembers David Dudley using a chainsaw to win the M1 Tournament – the richest at the time. This, again, brought on a new set of rules. And Randy Blaukat once modified his boat to access a remote area. He sunk it, though, rather than jumping it. This was never outlawed, as far as I know.
These examples likely got you thinking. What is too far, and what is an unfair advantage? Where do the need for rules come into play?
Let’s look at it another way. In the not-so-distant past, we’d all hide from the wind when things got nasty. There was simply no way to effectively fish main0lake areas, forcing us instead to pound the bank. Today, competitors have 36-volt trolling motors capable of holding their boats over submerged structures in 4-foot swells, as they watch bass 50 feet away react to their lures. Those competitors are utilizing modern technology to gain access to bass.
Forethought, followed by advancement, increasing the chances of catching the bass others miss.
In the Poche situation, I think what we’ll see here are modifications of rules. The same way we saw it with chainsaws and jump ramps. Original rulings call for boats to remain in tournament waters at all times, yet I can show you volumes of photos of airborne bass boats, even videos on tournament hype reels. So where does that leave wave-jumpers and log-sliders? How about levy-breachers?
Further clarification will be necessary. This will fit neatly into the same group as poling platforms, winches and come-alongs. But I wonder, will there ever be additional categories?
There always needs to be a movement toward uniformity in this type of situation. It’s the only way to keep things fair. Today, that uniformity is toward unlimited advancement of devices used to find, follow and catch offshore bass. In order to compete, the vast majority of competitors have found it necessary to develop that skill.
A few, however, have taken a different approach, leading them to find other ways to get ahead, most often by accessing areas impossible in today’s version of a bass boat.
It seems one group has an open-ended policy on what’s fair-game, while the others are shut down in the name of fairness itself.
(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.)