If you're a tournament angler, you're familiar with creel limits — the number of bass you're allowed to keep in your livewell and bring to the weigh-in scale at the end of the day. For most modern tournament circuits, the daily creel limit is five bass measuring 12 inches or more.
But the five-bass creel limit (despite being almost universal today) hasn't always been the standard. When B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott put on his first tournament at Beaver Lake in Arkansas (1967), the daily limit was 15 bass. That number wasn't dropped until 1970, when he made it 10. In the '80s it became seven, and it wasn't until the '90s that it fell to five.
There were several reasons for the reduction in creel limits — better public relations, reduced tournament limits were more in line with dwindling state creel limits, they were more conducive to catch-and-release principles, etc. — but the one thing that cannot be accurately said about smaller creel limits in bass tournaments is that they more accurately reflect angling talent and ability.
In fact, all they really do is alter tournament strategy. Probably the best thing you can say about smaller creel limits is that they're a reasonable response to conservation demands (both real and perceived) and a valuable adjustment to the capabilities of livewells and the goals of catch-and-release.
Honestly, if you wanted to have the best test of angling skill, you'd bump creel limits back up to whatever the state or fishery allows. By reducing them, you increase the role of strategy, but you also increase the role of luck.
Right about now I should tell you that I'm not advocating a change to creel limits in most bass tournaments. Five is a reasonable number, and what it adds in the luck department it probably counterbalances with strategy, though it would be impossible to measure that.
If you don't think the five bass limit brings more luck into the equation than a 10 or 15 or 50 bass limit, think it through. What if you reduced the creel limit to three ... or two ... or even one. With a one bass limit, it's a big fish contest. It will be won with a single cast! Sure, there's some skill there, but there's also quite a bit of luck — perhaps too much.
Well, for every fish by which you reduce the creel limit, you add a little more luck to the mix. A 10 bass limit demands more skill than a nine bass limit, and a five bass limit demands more skill than a four bass limit. It's pretty basic.
I love big fish tournaments by the way, and wish we had more of them. In waters where there are some truly big bass, I'd love to see contests where professional anglers are challenged to bring in just one fish after a full day on the water. I think that kind of fishing requires special tactics and strategies that are currently not employed on any circuit.
Of course, there are some waters where tournaments don't make a lot of sense to me — where luck is just too big a factor to make them meaningful. The best example of that comes from waters with small creel limits and a slot limit.
When you've got a two-bass daily creel limit where one fish has to be over the slot (e.g., 20 inches) and the other has to be under the slot (e.g., 14 inches), all you're really testing is an angler's ability to catch a big fish quickly so he has the rest of the day to catch a fat bass that measures 13 7/8 inches. Derbies like that are hardly a test of the best.
There are lots of things to recommend a five bass creel limit. First, it aligns nicely with state creel limits over much of the country, which have been getting smaller over the past 40 years. Second, unless you're talking about gigantic strings of bass on a handful of public waters, five bass can be adequately handled in a modern livewell. Third, after being the standard for more than 20 years, the five-bass limit now has tradition on its side; so much of how we measure tournament success or failure is based on that standard, so changing it would also change the way we evaluate performance and keep records.
The five-bass limit has even helped to change the face of bass fishing. Flippin' found the spotlight in 1975 when its inventor, Dee Thomas, won the B.A.S.S. Arkansas Invitational on Bull Shoals Lake, but it wasn't until a few years later — when creel limits fell — that it became a part of every tournament angler's arsenal. Reduced creel limits and the brief increase in size limits from 12 to 14 inches effectively ended the tournament careers of successful finesse anglers like Billy Westmoreland and Roger Moore. Instead of getting 20 or 30 bites a day and culling down to 10 good fish, they found themselves getting beat by anglers looking for six to eight bites a day from bigger bass.
If there are any drawbacks to the five bass limit in tournaments (other than increasing the role of luck), it's that smaller creel limits dramatically decrease the chance of a big comeback on the final day of an event. With fewer bass to weigh in each day, there's simply less opportunity to make up a lot of ground. In the days of 10- and 15-bass limits, comebacks from 20th place and even farther back occurred with some regularity (though they were never commonplace). Now they're all but impossible.
Creel limits are — and always have been — game changers.