I recently had the opportunity to conduct a very special interview. Now, I don’t want to give too much away and ruin the surprise, but just know the featured angler is a veteran who's been at the top of the game for over 30 years.
His perspective on the sport was understandably mature and reflective. He’d been there through it all, a generation that cut its teeth on Guido Hibdon and Hank Parker, and has seen the rise of individual anglers repeatedly through the years.
This seemed to intrigue my guest, himself an angler who's climbed to the top of the mountain many times. “A student of the game,” as he put it, always trying to gain perspective on what it takes to be the best.
I’d guess he knew my fascination with the same. For years, I’ve been trying to figure out what causes the peaks in competitive ability we see so often.
“You can’t manufacture that,,” my source insisted. I’ve heard both sides of the argument.
In any case, the topic led to an in-depth conversation about these magic periods of competitive bass fishing, as seen from the front line. Names came up, of course including Rick Clunn and Denny Brauer, and moving through the modern-day dominators we see winning multiple events in a season.
For the first time, I heard an interesting concept behind the achievements. Perhaps, in addition to the superior skill level these champion anglers possess, maybe timing is involved. Timing that can be boiled down to transitions within bass fishing itself. In some cases, even, timing based on technology.
Let’s dive deep into a bit of nostalgia and dig out the facts. Back in the day, we often heard major tournament winners credit a new lure or technique for their success. I remember Jimmy Houston telling seminar attendees that, during his heyday of the late '70s, he made a living throwing a spinnerbait. Houston took the effectiveness of that lure in its infancy and ran with it, often dominating the field with one rod. We’ve seen that from time to time with new lures, most recently the ChatterBait.
We’ve seen a mastery of technique dominate. Brauer stubbornly flipped his way to numerous wins by just being better. Later, Fritts did the same by deep-cranking. We’ve seen jigging spoons and Carolina rigs take center stage. There was the era of the frog. The shaky-head. More recently, Neko-rigging and subtle swimbaits seem unbeatable in the hands of the right anglers.
Refined techniques in which an angler gets the maximum gain due to superior ability.
Occasionally we see lure innovation pair with technology – a shift that appeals to more bass or makes a lure more efficient. These are used to win, then quickly gobbled up by the competition. Advancements in hardbaits were noticeable, like Japanese jerkbaits in the 1990s, followed by long-casting crankbaits that always ran true. We could put the Alabama rig in this same category, though it was quickly eliminated.
Technology then moves across many fronts, and is often a major factor in performance. This one stands out the most, especially today.
Throughout the history of competitive bass fishing, there have always been shifts in technology that get capitalized on by a select few who come out in front. We don’t hear a lot about the history of this subject, being so obsessed with what’s going on today. But there was a first to everything.
The first LCD graphs took the places of flashers. Savvy anglers took more to structure fishing as a result, opening the doors to an entirely new world of offshore fishing.
Believe it or not, for a time, there was a debate over what was better for bass fishing: hand- or foot-controlled trolling motors. Really. In the 1980s many of the best anglers were holding onto their hand-controls, though steered by foot, spending the day perched on one leg. Technological advancements changed all of that, giving the advantage to shallow-water anglers who quickly mastered the use of foot-controls. Later, 36-volt systems allowed power fishermen the upper hand by covering more water.
Power-Poles gave a technological advantage to select anglers, most from Florida, before quickly going mainstream. But, for a brief time, shallow-water anchors were helping a few fishermen get paid.
Mapping chips drove competitors with the earliest models. Lakemaster made a big push a decade ago, giving select pros a more advanced, detailed view, resulting in domination out on the ledges. Quickly, the rest of the field bought their own, often with Humminbird graphs to power them.
Those same graphs brought us Side Imaging, and it wasn’t long before the best offshore anglers had separate units dedicated strictly to the technology. Once dialed in, pros found it best to simply spend practice time side-scanning rather than casting, something that baffled me at the time. Sure looked boring, but later proved profitable.
Of course, today, all the conversation revolves around forward-facing sonar. Take it or leave it, FFS is the latest technology driving wins. And what we’re seeing from the most successful competitors is the complete dedication to its use.
A few select individuals have jumped ahead of the pack using FFS. This is noticeable as we watch the big names constantly trolling around, able to distinguish between bass and other species, even tell how big the bass are, without making a cast. They’re eliminating water faster – the same way a great sight-fisherman can do while many of us have a hard time just spotting the bass. The way a master flipper can breeze through cover, or a supreme power fisherman can somehow fish on high-36, or a good dock-skipper never hits a post.
These guys are the best; the top 1 percent for sure. But it’s their adaptation to technology that is, and always was, keeping them ahead of their cohorts.
Manufacturing wins. Just as they always have.
(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.)