Robbins: Questioning the wisdom of crowds

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.
-Yogi Berra

I read with great interest Greg Hackney’s recent column about his “sharing water issue” with another pro during the recent BASSFest event on Kentucky Lake. It sounds like it was handled without harsh words or actions, but nevertheless left a bad taste in the reigning Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year’s mouth. I’m sure there is now at least one Elite Series pro who will not be getting a Christmas card from the Hackney family.

While I appreciated the column, in some respects it is old news, the bass tours’ version of a broken record. It seems like just yesterday we were all witnesses to a Chickamauga-based debate between KVD and Ike about who is and who is not part of “the community.”

Every summer big tournaments take place on the TVA lakes and every summer we have squabbles among every permutation of pros, recreational anglers and spectators.

You would think on a body of water as monstrous as Kentucky Lake, the anglers would be able to spread out and each claim a little slice of water for themselves, but that’s not how it works. These guys are too good, using past experience, modern electronics and in a limited number of cases some local help to zero in on the same little spots. The result is that you rarely if ever have the “juice” to yourself. It’s not limited to the TVA lakes – the same crowding occurs on even bigger bodies of water like Champlain, Okeechobee and Erie, resulting in take-a-number games of bumper boats and more than a few hurt feelings – but it seems to be particularly bad when the majority of the fish are offshore, using a minority of the available cover and structure.

In most cases, no rules are violated, just gray areas of “sportsmanship” and “ethics,” which seem to mean different things to different people. Confusing the situation even more, a single angler may have different standards for the same act depending on who is in involved, giving his buddy a little bit more legroom while cinching things tighter on someone he doesn’t like or respect. Just about every pro seems to have a story of how he was punked early in his career by someone who didn’t show him the “proper” or reciprocal deference. Similarly, if there had been 10 other boats there instead of just one, does that somehow change the dynamic?

I wasn’t present for Hackney’s issue with the other angler, and I didn’t discuss it with either of them, so I have no idea if Hackney is overstating, understating or properly representing his grievance. I don’t know if most of his colleagues would view it the same way. What I do know is that these occasions of head-butting seem to have become frequent, or at least more publicized. They occur everywhere, from Florida to California, from Wisconsin in the north to deep South Texas. The TVA tournaments, despite the waters’ size and the fertility of their fisheries, just seem to have more of them.

I’m not quite sure what the solution to this problem may be. I suppose we could keep the schedules operating according to the status quo, allowing the pros to work out these gray area issues on their own, through negotiation, intimidation or whatever other (legal) means they deem necessary and appropriate.

One other possibility would be to avoid venues where these turf battles seem to occur most frequently, but I’m certainly not prepared to argue that the Bassmaster Elites and the Opens should never again go to Guntersville or Pickwick or Chickamauga or Kentucky Lake. While I’ve been an unabashed supporter of B.A.S.S. visiting new and “non-traditional” venues, I also recognize that you have to support those communities that have supported the sport – and the TVA region is the longstanding breadbasket of bass fishing. To remove top tier tournaments from those venues would be unjust to longtime supporters of the sport and unjust to the sport itself. After all, many of our developments, from big crankbaits to flutter spoons to television-sized electronics, have either been developed or refined on those venues.

While I’m definitely not advocating a boycott or an abandonment of those lakes, maybe it’s time to move away from the summer ledge derbies. B.A.S.S. could visit Kentucky Lake in April when it’s flooded and primed for flipping. They could go to Guntersville in March, when the fish are chewing the paint off a lipless crank. And they could go to Chickamauga at just about any point in between, as it’s been one of the hottest springtime lakes in the country over the past several years. Yes, the ledge events give up lots of fish and big weights, but they’d be just as big at other times – or even bigger.

Maybe that’s a Band-Aid solution to a bigger problem, just allowing us to put off the resolution of these gray area disputes when we should be confronting them head on at the earliest possible opportunity. On the other hand, maybe it’s time that we work to minimize the opportunities for conflict. When you add the fuel of tightly-packed schools of bass to the twin fires of big paychecks and competitive personalities, someone always seems to get burned.