Who owns the water?

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Even with a 10-pound,  2-ounce lead going into the final day of the Bassmaster Elite Series Diamond Drive, Denny Brauer wasn’t a happy man at Saturday’s weigh-in. Brauer, a 62-year-old B.A.S.S. veteran angler with $2.4 million in career winnings, felt that Elite Series rookie Jonathan VanDam had broken an unwritten rule of bass fishing etiquette.

That rule? If an angler has a chance to win a tournament, you are supposed to back off and give him the stretch of water he’s fishing, even if you’ve been fishing there too.

“We don’t talk about this happening,” Brauer said. “Maybe it’s time we started talking about it. Most of the guys are good as gold, and nothing like that would ever happen.”

Chief among Brauer’s complaints with VanDam, is the fact that VanDam didn’t weigh-in a fish on Day One of this four-day event. Brauer held the lead through the first three days.

“That’s a little misleading,” said VanDam, the 22-year-old nephew of six-time Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam. “I lost two big ones that first day there. It’s not a secret spot by any means. I found it in practice, and I’ve fished it all three days.”

“It” is a brushpile located near an underwater ledge in the Pine Bluff Harbor area. Adding to the tension there this week is the fact that fishing time is precious. By having to go through two lock-and-dams on the Arkansas River to get there from the Little Rock pool take-off site, your fishing day is essentially cut in half. Eight-and-a-half hours between take-off and check-in turns into about four hours of fishing due to the time it takes to get through the locks. And commercial barge traffic can cut into that time even more, as the lock schedules change to accommodate barges.

Even though several Elite Series pros think VanDam is in the wrong, he planned to fish right next to Brauer again Sunday.

“I’ve got nothing to worry about,” VanDam said. “I’m not doing anything wrong, so I’m going back there.”

Fellow Elite Series rookie Brandon Palanuik was in a similar situation going into Saturday’s competition, after which the field was cut from 50 to the top 12.

“I went up to Denny (Saturday) morning, and I said, ‘You’re fishing to win, so I’m not going back there,’” said Palaniuk, who dropped from 21st place to 32nd Saturday. “It will cost me a top 12 cut here, but I plan on being around for awhile.

“Denny has always been one of my favorites growing up. It was a decision I had to make. It wasn’t easy. I just felt like this will get me a lot further along in my career.”

Should Jonathan VanDam have made the same decision? Clearly, Brauer thinks so. On stage at the Little Rock Riverfront Amphitheater Saturday, Brauer said, “I won’t be joining the Jonathan VanDam fan club, I’ll tell you that.”

John Murray of Phoenix, Ariz., moved into second place Saturday with a three-day total of 34-11. He too is fishing an area of Pine Bluff Harbor near Brauer and VanDam.

“I really didn’t see where they were fishing the first day,” Murray said. “Usually if you go up to a guy and say that’s where I’m catching them, the guy will leave. He doesn’t have to, but what goes around comes around.”

“I’m an outsider looking in,” Jason Quinn said. “I think (VanDam) is in the wrong. This sport is all about making good impressions on everybody. That’s not a good way to end your rookie season.”

Skeet Reese was also willing to weigh-in on the situation, saying, “I’ve turned my boat around many times when I pulled into an area where there was somebody who was leading the tournament. The general sportsmanship etiquette of that is if somebody has got a shot to win, you give them that opportunity.

“I’ve been tournament fishing for 26 years, and I’ve been around and seen a lot and heard a lot. You’re going to get back what you give out.

“As far as I’m concerned, what’s going on is wrong. You at least have to ask the guy, do you mind if I fish here? If he says, OK, come on in, that’s fine.

“These younger guys don’t have that etiquette yet, and they are making bad decisions. Unfortunately, that’s part of being young.”

But there’s another aspect to this story. Unknowingly, Brauer touched on it backstage Saturday, saying, “Normally, when you’re leading a tournament, the other anglers really respect your water. That’s kind of an unwritten code. If you’re in first and a guy is in third or fourth and he’s got a chance to win, that’s different.

“But when a guy goose eggs (on Day One), then comes in on the leader, that’s just unheard of.”

While it’s true that VanDam zeroed on Day One, he did say that he lost two good fish on the spot that he and Brauer are sharing. And, amazingly, he put himself in contention for the title on Friday and Saturday by totaling 33-15 in that same spot. Going into Sunday’s finale, VanDam was in fourth place.

Again, to repeat part of Brauer’s previous quote, “If you’re in first and a guy is in third or fourth and he’s got a chance to win, that’s different.”

Well, VanDam’s in fourth place. So in Brauer’s own words, VanDam shouldn’t have to follow that unwritten rule of angler etiquette. And VanDam’s best chance to win is catching the biggest bass off the brushpile that Brauer is fishing too.

In conclusion, the unwritten rules of bass tournament fishing are unwritten for a reason: They are so open to various interpretations that no one dares put them in writing. If third or fourth place is close enough to the leader to allow for some competition in a fishing hole, as Brauer stated, what about fifth place and sixth place? Or should it be based on weight? If one guy is, say, 10 pounds behind the leader going into the last day, should he yield to the leader? How about 15 pounds? Obviously, writing down these kinds of rules would create more problems than they solved.

In other words, the debate about who owns the water will continue to boil.