Through the Opens door

PALATKA, Fla. — The 2019 Bassmaster Elite Series features a roster of 17 rookies, a record for the sport’s most prestigious big bass fishing league. Not so coincidentally most of those anglers qualified through the Bassmaster Opens.

Expect impressive things to come from this rookie class for a reason. Recent changes in the format, schedule and even the fisheries were deliberately chosen for a reason.

“Our goal is getting the Opens anglers conditioned and well prepared for transitioning into the Elite Series,” explained Chris Bowes, senior tournament manager.

He continued, “Qualifying for the Elite Series is their goal, and enabling them to transition immediately to the highest level of the sport is our goal.”

That plan was rolled out last season. Three geographical divisions were consolidated into the current Eastern and Central divisions. A fourth event was added to each division, along with a championship, to bring the total tournaments to nine. The championship is similar in significance to the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship, where the point champion is declared. The Opens championship has an AOY champ too, along with solidifying invitations to the Elite Series.

As a result of all the above the bar is now raised higher than ever before. Getting into the Elite Series is now more rewarding, as it should be.

Discontinuing the “win and in invitation” to the Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods was another move to up the stakes and skills required to get into the Elite Series.

“Making the Opens more competitive, where there are continued goals to make throughout the season, is the idea,” explained Bowes.

So is stretching out the locations this season spanning from New York to Florida for the Eastern division.

“The schedule gets them well groomed to what it takes for the travel at the Elite Series level,” Bowes added. “The schedule runs more north to south and with it, there are more diverse fisheries.”

That held true in 2018. The tidal James River, the largemouth and smallmouth loaded Lake Champlain, and the Florida bass rich Kissimmee Chain of Lakes added variety, challenges and opportunities along the way.

Greg DiPalma knows better than most just how well prepared the Opens can prepare anglers for the next level. He qualified in 2006 but was unable to sign. He kept trying, coming close from 2014-16, then finally got in last season.

“I will tell you something about the Opens that is fact, and that is there is no competition like it at that level,” he said. “If you want to step up your game then you’ve got to go through the Opens.”

Derek Hudnall is another rookie who came close in more than one try. His lesson learned is the stage provided by the Opens to develop the marketing skills necessary for gaining sponsorships.

“You’ve got to be good at the business side of the sport and that begins at the Opens,” said Hudnall. “The Opens gave me the opportunity to define my brand and set the stage for me to demonstrate that to my partners.”

“I’m really proud of our guys that are part of the strongest rookie class we’ve ever had in the Elite Series,” said Bowes. “They now very well versed in what it takes to compete at this level, and I expect great things to come from them all.”