Years ago, at one of my stops as a journalist, I received some disturbing phone calls on a Monday morning from tournament anglers who were absolutely irate.
There was this weekly derby on a nearby lake with a minuscule entry fee and a modest payout. It had always been a winner-take-all format — just one winner, just one check.
The previous Saturday, the guys who ran the tournament had caught an impressive five-bass limit that topped 23 pounds. They came to the weigh-in early, obviously believing they had it won.
But a pair of big local sticks came in with 24 pounds and broke their hearts.
Guess what happened next.
For the first time, a prize was awarded for second place.
Guess who it went to.
Somewhere on that tournament’s rule sheet, there should have been a line that read: “Winner-take-all (unless the tournament organizers finish second).”
Of course, that rule wasn’t on the sheet. It was made up on the fly by people with something to gain.
That tournament died an unceremonious death — as it should have.
If we all walked around skeptical of every fishing tournament organizer on the planet, we’d never have any fun competing. I think the assumption in most cases should be that tournaments are on the up-and-up until they give us a reason to believe otherwise.
But once we’re armed with that reason, we should bail out like our plane is already on fire and headed straight for a volcano.
Rules simply have to be enforced equally — even when it’s the most unpleasant thing in the world.
I’ve covered disqualifications that cost top-level pros a shot at the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. Bass Fishing Hall of Famer Trip Weldon was the tournament director for those incidents, and I saw how he agonized over the decisions. But he made the rulings anyway.
I know Executive Tournament Director Hank Weldon well enough to know it broke his heart to disqualify up-and-coming Alabama pro Trey Swindle at the recent St. Croix Bassmaster Northern Open at Upper Chesapeake Bay presented by Mossy Oak Fishing — especially since Swindle hadn’t done a thing to give himself a competitive advantage. The young man simply didn’t have enough liability insurance to meet requirements set clearly in writing by B.A.S.S. before the season.
I don’t know Trey Swindle at all — only his uncle Gerald Swindle — and even I hurt for the young man in that situation, though I have no say-so at all in rules or rule enforcement.
I only know that rules are rules — and for integrity’s sake, they have to apply to everyone.
In a heartfelt video after the event, Gerald Swindle suggested respectfully that B.A.S.S. should look at its rules and consider checking the insurance of everyone in the field instead of just the top few places. I don’t know if that will happen, but no angler should ever feel uncomfortable expressing concerns like that.
Likewise, no angler should fish an event where clarification isn’t offered in moments of confusion — like the situation Alabama angler Keith Poche experienced during the recent Southern Open on the Red River.
Poche arrived on the final day at the place he’d been fishing only to find someone had attempted to block his entry with rocks. He jumped on the phone with Hank Weldon for clarification about what he could and couldn’t do.
He got that explanation, entered the spot and won the event, earning a berth in the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic and solidifying his invitation to fish the 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series.
He received clarification — and most importantly, he received the same clarification that anyone in the field would have received.
When you’re fishing a regular tournament trail, ask yourself a few questions.
1. Are the rules the same for everybody?
2. Are there a chosen few who will be treated differently?
Then, perhaps most importantly…
3. Even if I am part of that chosen few, do I really want to win that way?