If you follow the sport of professional bass fishing much, you couldn’t help but notice the 8.0 earthquake that shook the sport last fall as a number of the game’s greatest anglers left the Bassmaster Elite Series for greener pastures.
Specifically, the greener pastures of Major League Fishing’s new Bass Pro Tour, a 2019 circuit comprised of eight regular season events and a championship derby.
All of those BPT events feature the Tulsa-based MLF group’s no entry fees, a field of only 80 anglers, big winner’s checks, the SCORETRACKER LIVE! leaderboard, and a catch-weigh-release format, all with the backing of Johnny Morris and his Bass Pro Shops empire.
That apparently was more than enough to cause a mass defection of anglers from the Elite Series last fall, and to a lesser degree, from the FLW Tour. When the original 80 BPT invites were issued, most were snapped up quickly leaving only a few open slots for the second round of invitations.
I’m not exactly sure what co-founders Gary Klein and Boyd Duckett had in mind when they brought the MLF format to life in November 2011 when Brent Ehrler won the first MLF Summit Cup on Texas’ Lake Amistad. But whatever they were envisioning a few years ago, clearly, the sport of bass fishing will never be the same after last fall’s seismic activity on the aquatic playing field.
By the time the smoke had cleared in late 2018, the fledgling BPT had lured away a shocking amount of professional talent, many in the upper echelon of the bass tournament angling game.
That game, of course, is something that B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott started back in 1967 with the first All-American Invitational Tournament on Arkansas’ Beaver Lake, an event that eventually birthed the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.
With a regular season tournament trail, the Bassmaster Classic championship, and a membership of more than 500,000 — including Texas, long the top state in B.A.S.S. memberships — the result was the rise of tournament angling and a slew of household fishing names like Bill Dance, Roland Martin, Jimmy Houston, Rick Clunn, Hank Parker, and Kevin VanDam.
So powerful was the rise of B.A.S.S. and the fishing industry around it that ESPN would eventually purchase the organization and its tournament trail, airing Classic highlights on the long-running Sports Center television franchise right next to the day’s football, baseball, basketball, and golf highlights. One minute, there’s Tiger Woods dropping a birdie at Augusta, the next, there’s Kevin VanDam hoisting up a seven-pounder to claim fishing’s biggest competition.
Which is why the events of last fall were so fascinating to watch, almost like seeing the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, or the NHL unravel and give way to a new-on-the-scene competitor.
All told, the end result was several dozen anglers leaving the Elite Series including every Bassmaster Classic champion dating back to Mike Iaconelli in 2003. Those Classic champs include the legendary VanDam (2001, 2005, 2010, 2011); Takahiro Omori (2004); Luke Clausen (2006); Boyd Duckett (2007); Alton Jones (2008); Skeet Reese (2009); Chris Lane (2012); Cliff Pace (2013); Randy Howell (2014); Casey Ashley (2015); Edwin Evers (2016); and Jordan Lee (2017, 2018).
Also gone were a number of winners of the season-long B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year award, a list that included seven-time AOY winner VanDam; three-time winner Aaron Martens; two-time winners Gary Klein, Mark Davis (who also won the 1995 Classic), and Gerald Swindle; and one-time winners Timmy Horton, Mike Iaconelli, Skeet Reese, Brent Chapman, and Brandon Palaniuk.
Add in some of the sport’s young rising superstars — including Palaniuk, back-to-back defending Classic champ Jordan Lee, and his brother Matt Lee — and some observers opined that it was easier to note who was left on the Elite Series than it was to figure out who had gone.
All of that led to even more scrambling last fall as the Elite Series worked to fill it’s own reduced field of 75 - interestingly enough, with no entry fees for tournaments this year - and the FLW Tour kept most of its anglers home like Van, Texas own James Niggemeyer, the runner-up in last year’s Forrest Wood Cup Championship event.
Some of B.A.S.S.’ heavyweight anglers like Seth Feider, John Crews and Keith Combs stayed behind while some FLW Tour regulars like former Texan Jay Yelas (the 2002 Bassmaster Classic champ and 2003 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year) and three-time FLW Tour Angler of the Year Clark Wendlandt of Leander, Texas made the switch to the Elite Series.
Since the three circuits kicked off their 2019 schedules earlier this year, things have thankfully settled down a little bit as another season of professional bass fishing gets underway. So far, so good as fan support has been strong for all three circuits.
And the on-the-water action — so far, at least — has been highly entertaining as the FLW Tour has watched as Terry Bolton (who won with 91-pounds, 3-ounces) triumphed in the season’s first event on Sam Rayburn Reservoir in southeastern Texas while Buddy Gross (85-12) captured the second event on Florida’s Lake Toho.
On the Bass Pro Tour, rising superstar Jordan Lee continued his winning ways, capturing the first ever BPT event on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes near Orlando, Fla. while former SOSU angler/student Edwin Evers took home top honors at the BPT event on Lake Conroe near Houston.
And on the Elite Series, there were some amazing fireworks in February as legendary B.A.S.S. pro Rick Clunn — a former Texan who is a four-time Classic champ, a one time AOY winner, and a sixteen time B.A.S.S. tournament champ — ignored Father Time and wowed the bass fishing world at 72-years of age by winning the St. Johns River event in Florida.
In capturing his latest tournament win — and the $101,000 top prize — Clunn had a successful run over the event’s four days. He eventually weighed in a total of 98-pounds, 14-ounces of bass, a four-day tally that was bolstered by the catching of not one, but two nine-pounders on the final day of competition when he brought an amazing 34-14 to the scales.
After last week’s Elite Series stop on Georgia’s Lake Lanier — an event that was won by Paul Mueller — it’s now time for the most anticipated event of the professional angling season thus far, the 2019 Bassmaster Classic.
With all of the back-story mentioned above, a fascinating Classic derby is set to unfold next week on the Tennessee River system near Knoxville, Tenn.
Fascinating because for starters, many of the contenders in the field of 52 anglers are fishing in the 2019 Classic despite no longer fishing on the Elite Series. With this year’s Classic field set thanks to Elite Series competition in 2018, there is sure to be plenty of tension in eastern Tennessee next week during the March 15-17 derby.
The event will also be fascinating because it will be wide open and then some, thanks to the river system’s lakes offering superb fishing for largemouths, smallmouths, and spotted bass and for the wild card of the weather, which has inundated the region with more than 10-inches of rain in recent days.
With the lakes in the system running high and muddy, whatever anglers may have discovered in pre-tournament preparations could be rendered totally useless now thanks to the swollen fisheries in the land of Rocky Top. Meaning that whoever wins the 49th Classic will likely figure it out as he goes, something that should make for an exciting derby.
Among the story lines to be played out next week are whether or not Lee can become the only angler in Classic history to capture three-straight titles; whether VanDam can capture his fifth Classic crown, establishing a most Classic wins record that may never be broken; whether hometown favorite Ott DeFoe can use his local knowledge to capture the event; whether perennial Classic bridesmaids Aaron Martens, Gerald Swindle, and Jason Christie can capture their first titles; and whether the Elite Series anglers can somehow get the best of the flown-the-coop BPT pros.
All in all, the 2019 Classic may be the most intriguing fishing event ever staged, one sure to capture the attention of virtually anyone who thrills to the sport of professional tournament angling.
And with any luck, hopefully, the finish to the 49th Classic will be as interesting as the buildup to bass fishing’s Super Bowl event already has been.