As the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, I've been asked to review the state of our sport. That's no small task, and it's one I do not take lightly. In my opinion the state of our sport is mostly positive, but there are a few challenges we need to keep in mind.
On the positive side I just returned from a great Bassmaster Classic. The crowds were huge, enthusiastic and, overall, bought as much product as could be expected.
Immediately after the Classic I made a number of appearances at Bass Pro Shops in Michigan and Ohio in connection with their Spring Fishing Classics. (And, in case you aren't aware of it, they also have a joint venture in place with BASS that should really help the sport of bass fishing.) I was encouraged by what I saw — again, huge crowds, lots of enthusiasm and reasonable spending.
At the same time, however, there are storm clouds over us. The economy is hurting and may not recover for some time. Many anglers are facing enormous problems. Some have lost their jobs, others are fearful of losing theirs. It's tough to think about fishing when you're worried about making your house and car payments.
We shouldn't minimize either one of these factors. We have a strong fan and recreational base that wants to fish and spend time outdoors. But that same base is hurting. In my opinion how this all shakes out will be determined by how we respond to it.
Here are some of the details as I see them:
The 2009 Bassmaster Classic
I don't know that I've ever seen a better one. I've never been more encouraged after a Classic. The crowds were huge — overflowing in fact — and the enthusiasm was overwhelming. I signed autographs on Sunday until I had writer's cramp — and loved every minute of it.
Nitro gave away my boat at a drawing on Sunday. But before that happened we raffled off several smaller items. You had to be present to win. All but one of the winners was there. That's impressive. And as I got ready to draw for the boat I was struck by the size of the crowd. It must have been 10,000 strong, a virtual sea of humanity stretching as far as the eye could see.
I also took notice of the composition of the crowd. It wasn't just fathers and sons. Whole families were in attendance, including lots of women and girls. I think much of that was generated by Kim Bain-Moore, 2008 WBT Champion and 2009 Classic Qualifier. She helped us expand our fan base. That's a good thing.
I have more thoughts about the 2009 Bassmaster Classic in my blog on BASS Insider.
As I said, immediately after the Classic I made a number of appearances at Bass Pro Shops in Michigan and Ohio. I couldn't help but notice the pent-up demand to go fishing. Everybody was talking about it, waiting for the first sign of spring. That's a real positive for our sport.
Let's not forget, this has been a tough winter. In many parts of the country it's been cold and miserable. Add to that unemployment — or the fear of unemployment — and you can see why guys, gals, families and kids want to go outside and do some fishing. There's no better way to relax and spend quality time with your friends and family.
The demand is there, no doubt about it. Our job as industry professionals and serious anglers is to encourage that demand without denying reality.
You don't have to buy a new boat — or have a boat at all for that matter — to go fishing. There are a lot of fish caught from the bank every year. Sure, a fancy bass boat is nice, but it isn't a necessity.
The same thing is true of tackle and equipment. You don't need to throw a $30 lure with a $500 rod, and a $500 reel to catch a bass. They'll bite last year's lures thrown on modestly priced tackle.
You can fish close to home, too. Again, it's nice to go to an exotic location where big bass grab every bait you offer them. But it isn't a necessity. Fishing close to home is still fishing. In fact, it'll give you more days on the water at the end of the year for the same number of dollars. In truth, it's a good investment of time and money.
But the most important thing of all is attitude.
Fishing as a Bassmaster Elite Series pro is about catching weight. If I don't catch big bass I don't eat. But for recreational anglers fishing is about getting away from the troubles and hassles of ordinary life. It's about enjoying the experience.
Recreational anglers should never define a good day on the water by how many fish they catch or how big they were. We should encourage everyone to enjoy the outdoors for what it has to offer, natural beauty and a chance to relax and spend time with those we love. Catching bass is a bonus.
It's more important to laugh and have a good time than it is to keep score. Telling the old stories that have been told a dozen times before is fun. As you listen, pretend it's new. When you hear the timeworn punch line, laugh as if it caught you by surprise.
Now, none of this is intended to discourage anglers from buying new products. We need sales to survive. If they have the money there are good deals to be had. We should encourage them to take advantage of bargains they find at their local Bass Pro Shops, their favorite tackle shop or their favorite online retailer. In many cases last year's inventory is selling at clearance prices and even some of this year's products are being offered at great prices.
At the same time, however, we don't want to lose anglers because they think they must have things they can't afford. If we lose them now, they may be lost for a long time. We need to take the long view.
We're All Paying a Price
Every angler from a local club semi-pro in his hometown to an Elite Series veteran has been hurt by the economy. Product is harder to come by; some pros have been cut from sponsorship contracts; and nearly every professional angler has watched his or her income drop over the past year.
Those troubles aren't limited to us anglers, either. Companies, manufacturers, importers, sales staffs, publishers, advertising executives, writers and BASS are all feeling the pain. Every one of them has been hurt financially in one way or another. That's a fact. There's no point in denying it.
Still, we need to keep our perspective. Our country has faced worse and ended up the stronger for it. It may take a while, but the tough times will pass. Our economy will grow strong once again. It's a matter of hard work, perseverance and faith.
We need to convey that thought every hour of every day by our words and deeds. Generating pessimism and complaining will accomplish nothing except to generate more pessimism and more complaining. It won't help us spend one more day on the water or catch one more fish.
Now's the Time.
As I think about all this it seems obvious that now's the time for everyone to step up and go above and beyond the call of duty. That includes professional anglers, guides, recreational anglers, manufacturers, publishers, writers and BASS.
We all have to get on board the positive-bound train and do what we can to help our sport. It's been good to most of us; now it's our turn to be good to it.
As professional anglers we can give our sponsors an extra mention or two, even if they've cut or eliminated our payments. After all, most of them didn't do it out of meanness or greed or spite. They did it out of economic necessity. They're trying to survive just like you and me.
Guides, writers and companies can help, too. Most of them have tackle and equipment they don't use. How about donating it to a kid who needs it to go fishing? You're not hurting sales when you do this. The kids who need it aren't the ones who can buy it.
And hey, how about you recreational anglers? Do you have a neighbor who's caught a tough break lately? If so, have you asked him and his wife and kids if they'd like to go fishing next Saturday? That won't cost you a penny and it'll help ensure the future of our sport.
Publishers can play a role as well. Articles about fishing close to home or about how to save money are topical and useful. Let's get some of them published and help guys stay in the sport despite the difficult times. Bassmaster.com is doing that. They're publishing a series of articles titled "The Frugal Angler." (Search: Frugal Angler) Each one offers a few tips on how to save money and still spend lots of time on the water bass fishing.
Finally, there's BASS. They revamped the Elite Series schedule this year in recognition of the difficult economy. Are we all happy with everything they did? No. But at least they've recognized the problem and are trying to do something about it. That beats sitting on your duff doing nothing. I have no doubt they'll continue to help.
This is just a sampling of what each of us can do to help overcome our current difficulties. If we put our imaginations to work, the sky will be the limit. And, as a result, future generations will continue to spend time in the outdoors fishing.
A Parting Thought
When I look over the sport of fishing — specifically bass fishing — I see good and bad, positives and negatives. But if we keep our heads on straight, do the right things, and remain loyal to our sport, the positives will quickly outweigh the negatives. Fishing's the real deal. It's not going anywhere. It's all about the attitude.