Robbins: Will the Sunshine State step up?

The bass fishing world, at least those members of it from outside of Florida, have a weird relationship with the Sunshine State.

Some of the most famous anglers, the most revered waters and the biggest fish reside down there, but in many cases they’ve been overshadowed by other places. A few examples:

  • Texas and California have become more renowned for trophies;
  • More tour level events are held in Alabama;
  • Since the last time a Florida angler won the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title – Roland Martin, with his record ninth in 1985 – the states of Michigan, California and New Jersey have claimed a total of nine of them;
  • The last time a Bassmaster Classic was held in Florida, an angler from Washington, in the most distant corner of the lower 48, claimed the title; and
  • The last (and only time) a pro associated closely with Florida – Chris Lane – won the Classic, he was by then living in Guntersville, Ala.

For every out-of-stater who loves Florida fishing – think pros like Ish Monroe and Chad Morgenthaler – there is a corresponding member of the caste who hates it. Additionally, despite the fact that Bassmaster Elite Series pros including Shaw Grigsby, Randall Tharp, Terry Scroggins, Bernie Schultz and the Lane brothers have proven that they can be competitive anywhere that bass swim, there’s still a prejudice in some corners that Floridians are only going to be in the hunt when they’re flipping shallow grass.

Part of the problem may be that we haven’t had a new influx of Florida talent at the Elite level in recent years. In 2015, Koby Kreiger was the only Elite rookie with a Florida address, and he’s more closely associated with Indiana. In 2014, Glenn Browne and intermittent Floridian Randall Tharp joined the tour, but they had already established themselves on the FLW side of things. There were none from Florida in the class of 2013. In fact, of the six who’d been rookies between 2009 and 2014, only Tharp and Cliff Prince remain. That might add fuel to the belief that Florida doesn’t create well-rounded anglers in the same way as a more geographically diverse state like Arkansas or Alabama.

That creates a special challenge for the would-be rookies of the 2016 Elite Series seasons. Three of the Top 4 finishers in the Southern Open standings – Brandon McMillan, Trevor Fitzgerald and Drew Benton – have Florida mailing addresses. If two or more of the Top 7 decline the Elite Series invite, then J.P. Prouty, who finished ninth, may also get the call. That could create the greatest influx of Florida rookies in a long time, and a chance for the new pros to establish not only their own careers, but also to bring some additional credibility to their state as a hotbed of national angling talent.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on a group of comparatively untested anglers. Yes, those four anglers have all fished a bit on the FLW Tour. McMillan fished a full year there, and also has a tour-level win with them on Okeechobee. Fitzgerald fished a smattering of tour level events. Prouty fished a few as well. Benton, who fished three years on the tour, won his first FLW Tour event (on Okeechobee) and made the Forrest Wood Cup once, is probably the most nationally seasoned of the crew, but it’s not like his name carries the cache of a Randall Tharp, who moved to the Elites with a Forrest Wood Cup trophy on his mantle. Benton is still in his mid-20s.

If those anglers try and fail, the naysayers are going to claim that it’s because two of the three Southern Opens were held in their backyards, even though Toho and Seminole are 300 miles apart. If they succeed, however, it could be good for B.A.S.S., and good for the sport overall, to see a group of young, lesser-known anglers come in and make a splash. It won’t quite be a latter-day “Hemphill Gang” since McMillan’s home in Clewiston is 500 miles from Benton’s home in Panama City, but it would bring a new story line, and a new challenge for the established competitors.

I don’t necessarily have any energy invested in any one angler or group of anglers succeeding, but I do care about this sport, and I fear that the state that gave us Jack Wingate, Roland Martin (albeit with earlier stops in Maryland and South Carolina) and the Bass Professor (via the long road from Canada), is long overdue for some recognition. Perhaps a group of young anglers will give their home state the shot in the arm of Vitamin C that it seems to need to regain its position on the national stage.