The recently-concluded BASSfest at Chickamauga Lake provided a window into what “borderless” fishing might look like, with competition featuring the full field of Elite Series pros, a handful of FLW Tour pros and a smattering of self-selecting Open-level guys. No points at stake, no real home-water advantage for anyone, everyone starting on equal footing – what a great laboratory for some of my ideas.
The question that interested me most is how the true Open-level guys would fare against the Tour-level field as a whole – especially when forced to fish multiple days with limited practice.
I know that B.A.S.S. claimed there were 33 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens anglers competing in the field, but for my purposes I’ve got to exclude anglers like Luke Clausen (prior winner of both the Bassmaster Classic and the FLW Championship), eventual winner Jacob Wheeler (past All-American and FLW Championship winner) and other active tour-level pros. I subjectively narrowed it down to 26 of them, including some like Michael Murphy (past FLW Tour pro and FLW Championship qualifier), Steve Sennikoff (past tour-level Classic qualifier) and David Kilgore, who it appears could compete at the tour level if ever he elected to take the bait.
I’d assume that most of this group of 26, if given the opportunity and the financial backing, would give up their first born or their favorite flipping stick to fish the Elite Series.
Besides that, what else do these Open anglers have in common? They, by and large, got their butts kicked at Chickamauga (and in most cases at Nickajack).
I recognize that it’s a single tournament, which does not quite prove anything definitively, and established superstars like Aaron Martens finished in triple digits, but it’s another nail in the coffin of the story of how hard it is to compete against the best of the best. Did they fish less conservatively because there were no points at stake? Maybe, but the numbers tell a tale:
After the two days of full-field competition, none of them were in the top 20. Murphy was the highest-ranking member of the group at 24th. Steve Mui (30th) and Jared Knuth (33rd) were the only others in the top 50. Meanwhile, 18 of the 26 were in 80th or worse, including 11 in triple digits.
At Nickajack, Skylar Hamilton (84th after two days) and Brock Mosley (52nd after two days) managed to fish their way back into the field, bringing to 5 the number of “strivers” fishing on Chickamauga going forward. After four days, Mui finished 18th, but none of the rest of them cracked the top 30.
Again, it’s a limited sample size and an imperfect survey, but it confirms my thoughts about two things: (1) It’s exceptionally difficult to qualify for the Elites; and (2) If and when you get there, it’s even tougher to be consistently competitive. So here, at the intersection of “lot of people who want to fish the Elites” and “not many can consistently compete with the Elites,” we come to the question of how one goes from being an adequate Opens level angler to someone who can go toe-to-toe with the likes of KVD on a weekly basis.
Part of the answer, of course, is to perfect your skills. But tournament fishing is not quite like basketball, where you can practice your free throws, or golf, where you can make a trip to the putting green, or baseball, where time in the batting cage can simulate the real thing. Perhaps more than any of those sports, the only thing that really prepares you for tournament fishing is….more tournament fishing. Of course, you can work on perfecting certain skills on your home water, or even in the backyard, but nothing fully substitutes for a finite practice period on a new lake with changing conditions, with 100 or more other boats looking for the same thing.