Skip Walden served as a Bassmaster Marshal for Russ Lane, Morizo Shimizu, Brandon Palaniuk, Boyd Duckett, Fred Roumbanis and Kevin VanDam, among others. See his photos here.
I have served as a Bassmaster Marshal in four tournaments over the past three years. Often, one of the first questions people ask me is, what does a Marshal do?
Each time I’ve served as a Marshal, tournament director Trip Weldon says, “You are our eyes and ears on the water.”
Frankly that entails a lot of things. For starters, Marshals are there to protect the integrity of the sport. Bass fishing in general is known as a sport of less than truthful participants. Guys will fudge on the size of a fish, not exactly tell you what they really caught them on, and surely not willingly reveal their secret fishing holes. If you have fished tournaments for any period of time, you have heard of people being caught cheating.
When you get to the Elite level of the sport, you cannot have a lack of trust among the competitors, the sanctioning body and the fan base. I have met many of the guys who fish on the tour and I can tell you truthfully, I have yet to meet one who I think would attempt to cheat to win a tournament. I just don’t think cheaters have the ability to reach the top level of the sport.
Still, there is that segment of the population that isn’t as familiar with the guys on the circuit and will claim this one or that one cheats. There are two ways tournaments have found to ensure the integrity of the sport — co-anglers and observers. In the Elite Series, the choice has been an observer-type model because it has been determined that co-anglers would detract from the pro’s performance, and the desire at that level is to showcase the talents of the professional angler.
The marshal is akin to a referee in many other sports. Obviously the sport has rules that have to be followed and, while I really don’t think any of the professional anglers on the tour would intentionally violate the rules, things do happen. More than one angler has accidentally accumulated more than five fish in his livewell. That mistake is against the rules and results in a penalty to the angler. It’s not much different than a football player jumping offside.
The Marshal is also supposed to watch for anglers who catch a fish outside the mouth during the spawn. The Marshal’s job is to verify the fish is legally hooked in the mouth and not snagged on some other part of its body.
The Marshal often helps the pro launch his boat and put it back on the trailer at the end of the day. Some pros have traveling partners or wives who handle the vehicle for them; others don’t. Some will want you to drive the truck while others want you to drive the boat. There’s no set system. However, if you have fished any length of time, you know it helps to have a buddy with you to help out from time to time.
There is more to being a Marshal than being a referee or a launch assistant. The big thing that separates the Bassmaster Elite Series from a club tournament is the fact that the Elite Series is on a national stage. It’s broadcast on ESPN, covered in Bassmaster Magazine, streamed live on Bassmaster.com and reported on by dozens of other websites, magazines, broadcast media and newsprint — local, national and worldwide. B.A.S.S. and its affiliates that produce the web content and other media content only have so many resources to cover the action. They can’t possibly have professional crews covering 108 anglers or even the 56 that were in the classic. They depend on the Marshals to assist them in assembling the content. Photographs, short video, BASSTrakk scoring, and stories from the water are all needed to promote the sport, and the Marshals supply the majority of it.
Some marshals take this part of the job more seriously than others. I do my best at it. On the water, I carry an SLR still camera. Cell phone cameras are nice but the SLRs can take rapid shots allowing you to capture action on the water. I can email or text those photos back to the Lowrance War Room, where they can use the material at will to promote the sport. This year, B.A.S.S. has a deal with GoPro. The Classic was a test run with the system, and frankly for me, a test to figure out how to get the content to them.
A guy asked me, “Do I need to be technically inclined to operate that stuff to be a Marshal?” The simple answer is no. It adds to your experience if you are active and participating with the photos and web content. To me, it gets boring sitting there watching someone else fish if you aren’t doing something yourself. The day I rode with Kevin VanDam, it seemed like there was never any down time. He caught four fish before I got finished entering the second one on BASSTrakk. I believe he caught in excess of 60 fish that day, but we lost count because we wore the battery out on the BASSTrakk by 11 a.m.
I have noticed Marshals sitting in one place in the boat for the entire 10-hour day. That would drive me absolutely nuts. I also think it wouldn’t be of much benefit to B.A.S.S. as they thought it would work. In the three years I’ve ridden as a Marshal, it has been very noticeable how technology with communications and the ingenuity of Marshals has really ramped up the coverage of individual tournaments.
Remember, at the Elite level, it is very much about “the show.” Those green and brown fish do not have dollar bills taped to them. The dollar bills come from sponsorship revenue. The sponsors want publicity, and that means media coverage. I’ve asked more than one pro as a curiosity, “How much does it cost to participate at this level, and what does it pay?” There are 108 Elite Series pros; only 50 get paid at each tournament. You have to finish north of 12th place to get more than $10,000 and above fourth to get $20,000 or more.
The guys I’ve asked say it takes about $170,000 to be on the tour for a year. That counts boats, trucks, gas, tackle, motels, meals and all the expenses associated with the sport. There are eight tournaments per year, so if you only won $10,000 per tournament, you’d lose about $90,000 per year. Sponsorship is the driving force that keeps the wheels going. Most of us fishing lower levels aren’t spending near that kind of money to participate and can barely comprehend the idea of fishing for a living.