LAKE GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — In the formative years of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, building one's career was all about winning, or at least finishing in the money. Getting handed a check before heading home was the goal, and a boat that could be sold to the highest bidder at a tournament site might be part of the package.
When the 80s rolled around, it was all about claiming some walking-around cash, collecting a few sponsors to pay for boat fuel and to supply tackle, qualifying for the Classic and getting your name and face in Bassmaster Magazine. Television coverage came along in the mid 80s; spiff up a bit and say something clever on the weigh-in stand, and you might wind up in front of the cameras while they're rolling.
All of that is still important, but the nature of professional fishing, and the ability of the contestants to promote themselves and the fishing industry, has changed. Nowadays, anglers with the acumen of MBAs use words such as "synergies" and "cross-promotions." Winning is still essential, but it's not the only thing. Face time, and showing your sponsor colors in every available media, is the key to sustained success.
Small wonder, then, the announcement that there would be two post-season Elite Series tournaments to decide who is the best of the best among the pros has generated so much buzz here this week at the Southern Challenge. Collectively titled the Toyota Trucks Championship Week, the event will begin with a two-day tournament on Lake Jordan near Wetumpka, Ala., on Sept. 12-13, followed by the two-day Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph on the Alabama River out of Montgomery on Sept. 17-18. Each round will be preceded by two days of practice. The top 12 pros in the Angler-of-the-Year race after the Aug. 13-16 Champion's Choice on Oneida Lake near Syracuse, N.Y., will be eligible to compete.
In the big-picture scheme of things, earning a berth in the Toyota Trucks Championship Week is tantamount to winning a place in the Classic, though traditionalists would argue that nothing compares with a Classic, except the ones before and the ones coming up.
"The Classic has such an aura around it that it's always going to be the big show," opines Shaw Grigsby, who's been in 11 Classics. "You could compare it to only a few other sporting events that represent a lot more in people's minds than just being competitions of one sort or another."
Boyd Duckett of Demopolis, Ala., who won the Classic in 2007 on Lay Lake (and where the 2010 Classic will take place) shares Grigsby's appreciation for the Classic, but sees the Toyota Trucks Championship Week as a giant step toward nudging professional bass fishing up the ladder as a competitive sport for the masses.
"As I understand it, they're going to make a two-hour television show (Sept. 27 from 2-4 p.m. ET on ESPN2's The Bassmasters) associated with those postseason tournaments," notes Duckett. "So, you've got 12 guys who are going to have all the cameras on them and their sponsors for that one show. That's huge. That's a lot of TV time."
More opportunities, but also troubling doubts, are presented. Where does an angler need to be in the standings on Sunday evening to give him a legitimate shot at the postseason spectacular? What about the last three Elite Series tournaments? Is it all or nothing? Fish smart for a decent stringer or roll the dice for a big bass or two? What will gambling in an Elite Series event to come do for your chances of making the Classic field? What about playing it too conservatively?
In part, being a modern professional bass fisherman is about making such business decisions. Part, but not all, as Ken Cook observed at the Southern Challenge. Seeing the world through the eyes of a pro retiring this year after a 28-year-long career, Cook's perspective focuses on the human equation in competitive fishing.
"Making the 12-cut in a tournament or a season is huge for a fisherman and his sponsors, but the most pressure we feel is the pressure that we put on ourselves to win," says Cook. "One of the reasons that a fisherman gets to this level is that he has tremendous pride of purpose. That's not the only factor that makes champions, but you sure can't be a champion if you don't have that determination to always do your best."
In tournaments, or anything else.