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'The 50-Year Evolution' of Tournament Bass Fishing

'The 50-Year Evolution' of Tournament Bass Fishing
Mike Iaconelli

When you see this year's Bassmaster Classic winner lift a trophy in the falling ticker tape, it's good for us to put it in perspective and remember that competitive bass fishing hasn't always been a global phenomenon.

It all began as an idea in the head of an Alabama salesman and showed up in the form of a low-key event on a Missouri River impoundment exactly 50 years ago. From those humble beginnings, a world-class sporting spectacle evolved. Would we want to go back to those days? Well, maybe just to visit. ...

The big time: Bassmaster Classic Champion Randy Howell in 2014. (B.A.S.S. photo)

Humble Beginnings

Ray Scott & the Originators

Tournament bass fishing, and the multibillion-dollar sportfishing industry it spawned, would have not come into being were it not for Ray Wilson Scott, Jr., founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.).

Scott has a uniquely American story that mixed guts and brains, and resulted in the fascinating, competitive and engaging sport we enjoy today.

Scott was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1933. He held many odd jobs by the time he was 8 years old. The industrious boy also loved fishing, particularly bass fishing.

After stints in the Army and college, Scott became a highly successful insurance salesman. His ready smile, Southern drawl and sense of humor put folks at ease. His sales pitch was pure showmanship.

Friend and former bass pro Rodney Honeycutt once said, "Ray doesn't sell you anything. He just tells you what you bought."

Scott was also honest and tireless, two more traits that were essential to the success of B.A.S.S. At the time, many bass derbies were loosely run and cheating was rampant. Scott envisioned a tournament with ironclad rules that would attract ethical anglers. He intended to raise the status of bass fishermen from second-rate rowdies to respectable sportsmen.

Tournament Bass Fishing Start


Operating on a shoestring budget, Scott founded B.A.S.S. in 1967. Not one to waste a second, he orchestrated his first event, the All-American Bass Tournament, on Beaver Lake, Ark., in June of the same year. Scott had convinced 106 bass anglers from 13 states to put up an unheard of $100 entry fee. Stan Sloan won Scott's maiden bass tournament, $2,000 and a trip to Acapulco.

Tennessean Bill Dance finished second in that event and went on to become B.A.S.S.'s first superstar and host of one of the most popular and longest-running fishing shows on television.

Thanks to Scott's drive and promotional skills, B.A.S.S. caught on like a brush fire after a long drought. Membership fees piled in, and B.A.S.S.-affiliated clubs sprang up across the nation.

The year 1970 is significant because this is when living bass legend Roland Martin fished his first B.A.S.S. event: the Toledo Bend Invitational, in which he finished second.

The first Bassmaster Classic, held in 1971, was a winner-take-all affair with a purse of $10,000. The top 24 anglers from the regular season qualifying tournaments were flown to a mystery lake. Lake Mead was the destination, and Arkansan Bobby Murray became the first Bassmaster Classic Champion

Over the next decade, the membership of B.A.S.S. grew exponentially. Weekend bass warriors competed in B.A.S.S. Federation tournaments or in tournament circuits across the country that had been inspired by B.A.S.S.

When Mike Whitaker founded Operation Bass, the predecessor to FLW Outdoors, weekend anglers got their first shot at a huge payday. Whitaker and the Pinkerton Tobacco Company partnered in 1983 to introduce the Red Man Trail. That year, anglers from 10 regions competed to qualify for the Red Man All American. The entry fee for the qualifying tournaments was $50. Indiana angler Dean Starkey won the first All American and its $50,000 prize. The stage was set for bigger things to come.

Is this the future of bass tournament fishing? Major League Fishing is a made-for-TV format that brings fans into each angler's boat. You see every catch and each decision they make. It gives fans unprecedented insights into the personalities of the top B.A.S.S and FLW pros and how they fish. It's been called the most intense tournament ever. (Photo by Josh Gassman)

Zero to 60

New Lures, Outboards & Electronics Fuel the Sport

Prior to B.A.S.S., the typical bass boat was an aluminum flat-bottom powered by a small tiller outboard. A hand-controlled electric motor was fixed to the transom. The first essential innovation came immediately: MotorGuide's bow-mounted, foot-controlled electric motor. When Forest Wood built his first six Ranger bass boats in 1969, he had the foresight to design them with bow space for an electric motor.

Bill Dance demonstrated the need for speed at the initial B.A.S.S. tournament in 1967 on Beaver Lake in Arkansas. Dance's boat sported a 65-horse outboard that dwarfed his competitors' engines. Mercury introduced their first 150-hp outboard in 1972. Nicknamed "the Tower of Power," its six cylinders were stacked vertically, an extravagantly tall outboard.

Skeeter Boats took advantage of those horses in 1975 when it introduced the first V-bottom fiberglass bass boat, the Wrangler. It astonished anglers with speeds of more than 60 mph.

A major game-changer came in 1979 when Humminbird and Lowrance introduced their first Liquid Crystal Graphs (LCGs). Images of the underwater world drawn with pixels were far easier to interpret than the red flickerings on the dial of a flasher depthfinder. An equally important technological advancement arrived in the mid-'90s: chartplotters that display contour maps. They made it easy to locate points, ledges and other deep bass hangouts, and to drop waypoints on sweet spots.

Side-imaging came along around 2009. We now have sonar units that show what is in front of the boat. Bass no longer have any place to hide.

Another substantial breakthrough is the Power Pole, which was the brainchild of John Oliverio in 1998. Minn Kota has since developed their effective Talon mechanical anchor. Any bass pro would be severely handicapped without a pair of these shallow-water anchoring devices.

The Texas-rigged plastic worm was a proven bass-catcher before B.A.S.S. was founded, and it continues to be one of the most productive lures ever. The indispensible overhead spinnerbait soon followed.

Topwater plugs have always been a staple for bass anglers, especially poppers and walking baits. Square-bill crankbaits caught on in a big way in the early '70s when Fred Young of Oak Ridge, Tenn., began selling his hand-carved wooden Big O's. The Big O preceded the Bagley Balsa B and the plastic Cordell Big O and Norman Big N. Bass anglers referred to these early square-bill crankers as "alphabet baits."

For years, the Texas rig and the Carolina rig were the primary tools for structure fishing. Deep-diving crankbaits didn't become must-have lures for all bass anglers until David Fritts began dominating Red Man tournaments with Poe's crankbaits in the late 1980s. Fritts now designs crankbaits for Berkley.

In the late '70s, Californian Dee Thomas created the flippin' tactic, which changed bass fishing forever. Pitchin', an offshoot of flippin', was refined and popularized by Oklahoma bass pro Tommy Biffle. These techniques lead to the punch rig, which lets anglers present baits to bass under matted vegetation.

More recently, significant advances have been with finesse tactics. Top among these is the shaky-head worm, the drop-shot rig and Gary Yamamoto's sleek variation on the plastic worm, the Yamamoto Senko, introduced in 1995.

Scott Suggs was the first pro to win $1 million in a tournament. (B.A.S.S. photo)

Big Money

Million-Dollar Stakes

Low entry fees were necessary in the early days of modern bass-tournament fishing to attract participants. But low entries meant low payouts. In 1968, Bill Dance won a Bassmaster Rebel Invitational on Ross Barnett Reservoir, Miss., and was awarded a record $2,265.

It is unlikely anyone at that time envisioned full-time bass pros making six-figure incomes and being supported by a host of sponsors. Or, that a guy named Kevin VanDam would eventually amass over $6 million in B.A.S.S. winnings alone and bank even more than that from sponsors.

When did these big payouts begin? The first Bassmaster Classic in 1971 paid $10,000 to Bobby Murray. When Rick Clunn won his first Bassmaster Classic in 1976, he collected $25,950. Clunn won the Classic for the third time in 1984 and earned a $40,500 payday. His fourth Classic victory took place on the James River in 1990. It paid Clunn $50,000. Things were looking up.

A watershed moment happened in March of 1983 when Oklahoman Ken Cook won a Super B.A.S.S. tournament on Florida's St. Johns River. The high-entry-fee event handed Cook the first $100,000 check ever won by a bass angler.

The following year Shaw Grigsby also claimed $100,000 for winning the Red Man All American at Florida's Kissimmee Chain. The achievement anchored Grigsby's long and successful career.

Million Dollar Club

The FLW Tour was the first to award $100,000 to the winner of a regular season qualifier for a championship event. That happened in June of 1996 on Kerr Lake at Henderson, N.C. The enriched winner was Tennessean Mike Terry. Today, the FLW Tour and the Bassmaster Elites Series pay $100,000 to the winner of each of their qualifying tournaments.

In August 1996, B.A.S.S. upped the first prize for its Bassmaster Classic to $100,000. Arkansan George Cochran won that tournament, at Lay Lake, Ala.

The Forest Wood Cup made a quantum leap in 1998 when it put a $250,000 check in the hands of Davy Hite. The South Carolinian won the Cup Championship on the Mississippi River. Now things were really looking up. Fans began to wonder about the possibility of a bass angler winning a million-dollar purse.

The Forest Wood Cup got halfway there in 2003 when it awarded $500,000 to Virginia's David Dudley, who won the Cup Championship on the James River, Va. The first Bassmaster Classic winner to receive $500,000 was Washington State's Luke Clausen. He bested his competitors in 2006 at Florida's Lake Toho.

The million-dollar miracle became a reality in 2007 at the Forest Wood Cup on Lake Ouachita, Ark. Scott Suggs of Alexander, Ark., claimed the top prize of $500,000, plus an additional $500,000 for winning in a Ranger Boat. Are even bigger payouts in the future?

Mike Iaconelli represents a new breed of bass pros who are taking the sport to a larger, more urban audience. (B.A.S.S. photo)

Social Age

MLF's Unique Format

As Dance, Martin, Clunn and other pros became stars in the early years of tournament fishing, bass fans wanted to see these celebrities in action. A weigh-in is fun to watch, but it amounts to seeing the score after the game is over. An excellent first step toward on-the-water coverage was Bassmasters TV show, which first aired in 1985 and is hosted by Ray Scott.

Since then, bass fishing shows have multiplied dramatically. Websites that cover bass tournaments, such as, have also made substantial gains in tournament coverage. Some sites include same-day blogging, photo galleries and live web streaming of tournament weigh-ins. The web site streamed live action during the 2015 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell, S.C.

Major League Fishing, which initially aired on the Outdoor Channel in 2012, allows fans to watch a bass tournament as never before. The format puts a camera in every angler's boat, so you see every catch as the tournament progresses. It gives fans unprecedented insights into the personalities of the top B.A.S.S and FLW pros and how they fish.

And, for the first time in bass-tournament history, each angler is informed immediately when one of his competitors catches a bass. This "scoreboard" lets them know where they stand at all times, from first to last place.

The scoreboard greatly impacts the anglers. Early leaders sometimes make the mistake of playing defense and lose ground by not changing tactics when they should. You listen to the pros discuss what they are doing and what adjustments they think they need to make, and see how they react under stress. You keenly sense their thrill and agony and get to know them like never before.

To make matters more challenging, the pros are driven to an unknown destination on the morning of the tournament. They are allowed only 15 minutes to run the lake and look it over with their eyes and electronics before making the first cast.

The pros who fish MLF, to a man, state that it is the most intense bass-tournament format ever.

Besides a cameraman, every pro has a boat official in his boat who weighs each scoreable bass and enters it on the scoreboard. Every bass over the lake minimum size counts. It is released immediately after it has been weighed.

The onboard boat official also enforces the rules by inflicting time penalties — from 2 minutes to 5 minutes —  for violations. Common infractions include breaking off a bass and allowing a bass to touch the boat. During a penalty, the angler may not tend to tackle, use his electronics or relocate.

MLF's unique format is all about getting into the heads of the world's best anglers to see how they catch fish under pressure. In that way, it's not much different than Ray Scott's original contests that brought bass pros into the living rooms and magazine pages of American sportsmen 50 years ago.

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