One of the most popular topics of conversation at the annual ICAST fishing trade show back in July was the new format for the St. Croix Bassmaster Opens presented by Mossy Oak Fishing. It had just been announced, and it seemed every time I shook hands with someone new, he or she had something to say about it.
There was no middle ground. Everyone who voiced an opinion either loved the new format or hated it — and with the ones who hated it, I had to wonder how many of them truly understood the reasons for the changes.
In case you missed it, instead of having a chance to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series by fishing just three Opens in one division, as they have in the past, anglers will now have to fish all nine Opens in all three divisions to qualify.
The idea behind the new rule is that anglers who fish nine tournaments in varied regions of the country will be better prepared to fish the nine-tournament, cross-country Elite Series schedule.
That’s not a knock on the guys who just fish three tournaments. Plenty of talented anglers have qualified through three events, and many of them went on to have fantastic careers.
Others simply slipped through a loophole and then fell off the face of the Earth, losing houses and marriages along the way.
As one Elite pro told me at ICAST, it’s possible in a three-tournament format for a guy to do well in one event because he lives on that lake and then do well in a second event because his best friend lives on that fishery.
That essentially cuts the challenge down to one tournament to qualify for the most prestigious bass fishing circuit in the world.
At that point, an angler might be qualified but totally unprepared — and sometimes the consequences of that combo can be devastating.
When I first came to work for B.A.S.S., I wrote rookie profiles for the website — and believe me, there were times when I wanted to say, “Kid, do youself a favor. Decline the invitation. Save another year or two. If you’re good enough, you’ll qualify again.”
I didn’t, because I didn’t want to crush their dreams. Instead, I watched as the weight of the sport crushed them over the next 18 months.
What B.A.S.S. is doing with this change is saying what I wanted to say to those anglers back then. B.A.S.S. wants to know anglers are ready — physically, financially and emotionally — to tackle the rigors of the Elites.
Those who don’t like the changes say the new format is unfair to the working man. But think about this: The price tag to fish all nine Opens is about $16,000. The price to fish all nine Elites is upwards of $40,000.
If you can’t afford $16,000 in 2023, what makes you believe you’ll be able to afford $40,000 in 2024?
One of the biggest misconceptions in the sport is that sponsor money just starts rolling in as soon as you qualify for the Elites. It’s simply not true — and if you’ve ever tried to pay off $40,000 in credit card debt, you know what a dangerous strategy it is to finance one year on tour that way.
The dream of qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic is still there for those who fish only three events.
That’s a whale of a dream — and one that’s far less likely to turn into a nightmare than embarking on an unbelievably demanding career you’re simply not ready for.