Room for Two…

Vance McCullough –


“Welcome to the Elite Series, where the fish are the stars of the show.” – Bassmaster emcee Dave Mercer.

The statement probably wasn’t meant as a shot across the bow, but it was interesting in a year when many of Bassmaster’s (and a few of FLW’s) top pros departed to join the newly-formed Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour.

Mercer made the comical quip as an angler encouraged the quick release of his fish before talking about the day’s events on stage. Fish care has always been a priority for the folks at Bassmaster who can point to an outstanding live release rate among the fish.

The release rate among anglers on the Elite Series was also high in 2019 with a field of 75 pros, down from the usual 100-to-110 contestants of recent years.

But if anything was amiss at Bassmaster this season, you couldn’t tell it by the thousands of fans who flocked to the shores of the St Johns River to watch another Elite Series showdown in Palatka. Weights were solid again. Rick Clunn won again. As he hoisted the trophy it was as if nothing had changed since the last time the Series visited the north-flowing river.

As for star power, there is still plenty on the Elite Series. And more coming.

“They’re just guys you haven’t heard of – yet,” said Mark Menendez, following a tourney wherein 95 pounds and an ounce earned him a 3rd-place finish behind Clunn (98-14) and young Canadian Chris Johnston (95-2).

The FLW Tour also went on as usual. Until Major League Fishing finalized a deal to purchase FLW. The acquisition answers questions about how MLF will recruit new talent, as the FLW organization has long had the strongest grassroots system to groom the stars of the future.

FLW boasts some of the top anglers in the world, Bryan Thrift having won the Cup this year and David Dudley taking Angler of the Year honors. Those guys, among others, will fit right in on the Bass Pro Tour. Eventually.

The difference is that the BPT is “for the anglers, by the anglers” said Gary Klein when I spoke with him after a competition day in Florida.

But is it ‘for the fans’? According to Shaw Grigsby, when we spoke after the first BPT event, “The viewer numbers, on the internet, are unheard of!” And that’s where the BPT excels – TV and internet viewership.

As for the in-person experience, there were scarcely 150 people scattered along the fence to watch ‘The Postgame Show’ – MLF’s answer to a weigh in.

Having watched the action on small screens and knowing how it all went down, fans didn’t show up to look at sponsor’s booths and talk with anglers. And these are the best-known names in the sport.

No live fish, no live audience.

I was a bit shocked.

Back to Mercer’s playful contention that the fish are the star of the show, B.A.S.S. has released it’s 2020 Elite Series schedule. This will be a return to the formula that made so many BPT pros famous to begin with – TV and internet coverage, yes, but also live interactions with fans and bunches of BIG bass.

It almost appears to be a direct attempt to be the anti-BPT by rewarding anglers who sack ‘em up big instead of the death by a thousand papercuts style at MLF where a guy can weigh 80 fish in a day and win, even if not one of them weighs more than two pounds.

Unlimited catches and winning weights that average less than 2 pounds per fish seem to be a turnoff for purists who are used to the 5-fish system that rewards anglers who catch fewer, but bigger fish.

Is this a legitimate gripe? “I have not changed one way that I fish,” said Wesley Strader, a veteran pro who has seen all the formats under B.A.S.S., FLW and now, MLF on the BPT. “Larry Nixon told me years ago, ‘you just keep catching limits, and the big ones will come’.”

Have the big ones come for BPT competitors? Perhaps, though you have to sit through a bunch of smaller catches to see them. Strader contends that anglers have to sort through a bunch of small ones in order to find the big ones under any format but because every catch counts on the BPT, viewers are shown all the fish, not just the ones that allow anglers to cull up and make a move on conventional 5-fish trails such as the Elite Series where such big fish are highlighted during Bassmaster’s live internet coverage. Fish that don’t make a difference are, understandably, not newsworthy under the 5-fish format.

“If you go back and look at the guys who did good in the Bass Pro Tour,” explains Strader, “9 times out of 10, the guy that has the heaviest 5 fish ends up winning the event anyway. When you see a guy with 25 pounds, you don’t see how he struggled all day long. He may have only gotten 5 bites. That really ain’t fair to the guy who caught 50 that day but just never had the big bites. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it’s 5, 10 or 100 fish.”

Fellow MLF Pro Brandon Coulter agrees, “I need to go catch every fish I can catch every time I go fishing, whether it’s a 5-fish tournament, an every-fish-counts tournament, whatever. I tried to change this year. I thought I had a good strategy. Man, I got beat. There were techniques I put on the back burner because I thought ‘that’s a 5-fish technique, I’m never going to catch enough to do well on that’. That was the worst mistake I made.

“I like to research stuff. I’m a student of the game. Bobby Lane won in this format, the world championship, on a frog. Greg Hackney won the world championship flipping a jig. Andy Morgan won Chickamauga with a long rod in his hand, and put it to us, flipping. Now, you look at his average weight and you say, ‘he only caught a 2-pound average and he’s on Chickamauga’. Well, his best 5 that day probably went 26 or 27 (pounds). You don’t see that on the scoreboard, but he put a hurting on us. He would have beat us in a 5-fish tournament, a 10-fish tournament or an every-fish tournament.

“When I see guys win, they fish their strengths. When Brent Ehrler wins people go ‘see – he’s a drop-shotter and that’s what you have to do to win’. He’s going to beat you on a drop shot in a 5-fish tournament too. Listen, when guys win, they fish their strengths.

“I think I turned a corner. I had couple of good tournaments toward the end of the year and started fishing the way I’ve always fished and making adjustments quicker and it’s helped me a lot.”

One of the stated objectives of MLF is to broaden the viewing audience beyond the existing fan base of diehard tournament fans. Some format changes are designed specifically to help the casual viewer follow the action. “When I go to the chiropractor,” says Strader, “his wife doesn’t fish; doesn’t care nothing about fishing, but when he was watching an episode of (Major League Fishing) she came by and saw it and said, ‘that’s pretty neat’. Now every Saturday she watches it.

“We’re gonna be on TV 52 weeks next year. 52 weeks. That’s unheard of. A solid year, every Saturday. The Discovery Channel, the Outdoor Channel, CBS. 52 weeks.

“We’re going to introduce a lot of people to the sport.” says Strader. “For our sport to become a true sport, everything has to count.”

Coulter, with a strong background in athletics, enjoys the new format. He has won an MLF tourney, but his initiation to the league was humbling. “When I fished my first tournament with Major League Fishing, I finished almost last, but driving home, I called my wife and said, ‘I don’t ever want to fish another way again’.”

Coulter has fished all the ‘other ways’ during nearly 15 years on the various pro trails. He was instantly drawn to MLF competition with its live virtual scoreboard on which everything matters.

“It had brought every memory, every aspect of sport back – or not back, but into – fishing, for the first time where I knew the score, I knew I was down, I knew I had to catch up. I knew I was getting beat. It’s something that, in fishing, we have been missing.

“People don’t like getting beat, but when you come back, that’s a high,” says the former multi-sport high school athlete whose son is now a college football coach at Birmingham Southern.

“Fishing is becoming a spectator sport, an on-TV sport,” says Coulter, noting a disparity between other sports fit for mass consumption versus bass tournament formats of old, “To get spectators involved, every fish has to matter. Name a sport – any sport – that only counts the 5 best plays. There isn’t one. Every play counts in every sport.

“You know how most football games are won? Not with Hail Mary’s. Football games are won on third-and-one with a minute-and-a-half left and the other team is out of time outs and you need a first down and you get a yard-and-a-half and it was the best play you had all year. A two-yard run.

“In every sport, every play during the day counts. Except for fishing.”

To Strader’s point about attracting new fans, Coulter shared a story. “I was talking on the phone with a writer. I was waiting in the parking lot at my daughter’s school. I said ‘In these 500 cars in this parking lot, how many people do you think watch Discovery Channel? (which is where we will air the show). Maybe 400?’ I said, ‘now if I knock on every one of their windows and ask, ‘what’s the standard format of a bass fishing tournament?’ how many of them are going to say ‘a 5-fish limit’? Maybe two. 398 of them don’t even know that. They want to be entertained’. That’s my goal.”

From the perspective of a longtime fan this writer is happy to, once again, have two tours to watch, but each with its own twist on the sport. Certainly, there is room for both.

As for the relationships among anglers on the different tours, Coulter was clear, “The industry has changed for the better across the board. I don’t want anybody to think MLF is the only way. I’ve got really good friends at B.A.S.S. and at FLW. In my opinion, the changes this year have benefitted every league and I just want to give a shout out to those guys. For the fans out there who think there are hard feelings, these are still some of my best friends and we wish them nothing but the best. Always have. I know social media likes to make it ‘B.A.S.S. vs. MLF or FLW’. I don’t wish ill will on any of them.

“The guys in this sport, we’re still buddies and we wish nothing but success for the other league. But we’re going to do our thing and we’re going to do it as well as we can.”