If you blinked, you might have missed a huge change in the way bass pros will fish, and the way we’ll watch. If you’re a sports fan and like following the free-agency moves made by pro teams, the offseason in pro bass fishing would’ve been right up your alley.
Here’s what happened:
Major League Fishing, a collaborative enterprise between the Professional Bass Tour Anglers Association and Outdoor Sportsman Group, announced an expansion last September and launched the Bass Pro Tour.
The Bass Pro Tour attracted 80 of the world’s best anglers from other leagues, and in the process turned the whole sport on its ear.
Bass Pro Shops threw its support behind the new events, and the Bass Pro Tour created a buzz never before seen in the sport. The sea change it represents on the tournament landscape cannot be overstated.
Fans of the cast-for-cash game will have more events — at least 30 total in the MLF umbrella — to follow. And recreational anglers will have more opportunities — on TV, live streaming and in magazines — to learn from the best of the best. (Full disclosure: Game & Fish magazine is part of the OSG family of outdoor programming and publishing.)
CULLING IS HISTORY
One of the biggest differences in the old way and the MLF way is the scoring. For decades, professional bass tournaments have operated under a format where competitors seek out the five biggest bass they can catch on a given day and cumulative weights over a span of three or four days ultimately determines where everyone falls on the leader board.
While that concept isn’t completely going away, the debut of the Bass Pro Tour this year will shift the spotlight to the catch-weigh-release format that has helped popularize MLF and place an increased emphasis on resource conservation.
No longer will the likes of Kevin VanDam and Mike Iaconelli be limited to the five biggest bass they can fit in their livewells to bring back to shore for a stage-based weigh-in. Instead, they’ll be playing a numbers game, hoping to convert a volume of fish catches into enough weight to outpace the competition. Every legal bass caught (1 pound or bigger) will be weighed in the boat, its weight recorded by an in-boat official, then immediately released back into the water.
While the anglers’ goals haven’t changed — they’re all still chasing wins and the accompanying big paydays — much of the BPT’s mission is centered on increasing bass fishing’s popularity as a pro sport.
“This partnership is all about protecting the future of the sport and taking it to the next level,” said MLF co-founder and BPT competitor Boyd Duckett.
While past MLF events have been produced solely for television broadcast — events have aired on high-profile outlets like Outdoor Channel, CBS, CBS Sports and the Discovery Channel — the Bass Pro Tour will look to leverage MLF’s popularity with a new tournament series chock- full of A-list anglers as a way to gain more exposure for the sport. To do that, it will feature plenty of tournament content aimed at audiences across multiple platforms.
As B.A.S.S. has done with its popular Bassmaster Live web show, the Bass Pro Tour will feature live online streams and a daily results show, and the 10 finalists at each BPT tournament will have a streaming camera in their boat, so fans can follow the action.
Legends, household names and rising stars are now part of the BPT field, including the top 17 finishers in the 2018 Elite Series Angler of the Year points, as well as every Bassmaster Classic winner since 2003.
BIG NAMES ON THE MOVE
Just a few months ago, the formation of the Bass Pro Tour sent shock waves through the bass fishing world. Many of the sport’s most recognizable names decided to sign on as BPT competitors. They left behind careers and legacies built with other tournament circuits.
The BPT asked for an initial three-year commitment from anglers, some of whom had grown increasingly frustrated with certain elements of how the other circuits were being run.
Rising entry fees and stagnant payouts were tops on the list of anglers’ beefs. The BPT’s arrival on the tournament scene offered them a fresh start and an empowering platform where competitors have more say in tournament operations than before.
One of the major selling points of the BPT was that the circuit will be largely angler-driven, meaning when it comes to decisions about payouts, rule changes, etc., the anglers’ voices will be heard as opposed to an organization setting the pace and anglers falling in line. This arrangement has already produced a significant outcome as the anglers voted in late October to adopt a no-entry-fee economic model for the inaugural season, making the BPT the first national tournament circuit where competitors do not pay entry fees.
The proposed entry fee was $48,375 per angler.
The total payouts for all BPT and MLF events will be nearly $6 million. It would have been close to $10 million had entry fees not been eliminated.
Among those making the move to the BPT are some of the all-time greats, including Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Mike Iaconelli and Andy Morgan, along with rising young stars like Jordan Lee, Jacob Wheeler and Justin Lucas.
Legends and rising stars are now part of the BPT field, including the top 17 finishers in the 2018 Elite Series Angler of the Year points, as well as every Bassmaster Classic winner since 2003 and every B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year since 2004.
The 80 anglers who joined the BPT have amassed career tournament earnings from B.A.S.S. and FLW in excess of $130 million.
“We picked 80 guys who we think can help us take this thing to the next level, and we probably could’ve chosen another 80,” Duckett told BassFan.com. “We did the best we could.”
Of the initial 80 anglers who received invites, seven declined or later opted out, clearing the way for seven other pros to gain entry into the BPT, where competitors will fish out of their own boats and be able to wear their own jerseys during BPT events. That’s similar to B.A.S.S and FLW tournaments. But during MLF tournaments, anglers must fish from MLF-supplied boats and wear MLF-supplied jerseys that may not have the angler’s sponsors on them.
MLF By the Numbers
A look at the numbers reveals another side ofMajor League Fishing.
1 — Minimum required weight in pounds for a bass to be considered legal in MLF/BPT competition
1.76— Average weight in pounds of all bass caught in MLF Cup competition between 2012-18
20.09 — Average weight in pounds per round in MLF Cup competition
8.3 — Weight of heaviest bass caught in MLF Cup competition (Bobby Lane)
22 — Number of BPT anglers who’ve won the Bassmaster Classic or Forrest Wood Cup
32 — Number of FLW Tour and BassmasterAngler of the Year awards won by BPT anglers
42.65 — Average age of the BPT field
130.2 — Combined career earnings — in millions of dollars — of the 80 BPT anglers
Of the 80 competitors on the BPT roster, 53 have participated in at least one MLF Cup or MLF Select event, giving them some familiarity with the catch-weigh-release format. All 80, however, were raised on the weigh-your-best-five mindset, so moving to a circuit where that way of thinking is no longer employed will take some getting used to. No longer will anglers be preoccupied with fish care — heck, the BPT could make livewells in bass boats obsolete — or taking time away from fishing to judge which fish needs to be culled or kept.
The consensus among the BPT recruits is that the change will take some getting used to, but the wholesale format overhaul will give the sport a much-needed shot in the arm.
“I’m pretty excited just from the competitive standpoint — the field is so stacked — and I’m looking forward to fishing against what might be the strongest field of 80 guys ever,” said Arizona pro Josh Bertrand. “I’m also excited to try the hybrid format. It’s going to be new for a lot of us, and change can be scary, but there’s enough similarities that I think we’ll all adapt. It will be very interesting to see if guys have to fish differently.”
MLF Pro Tips: Best Fishing Advice Ever
Added Californian Cody Meyer, who competed in the MLF Selects for a couple years, “We’ve fished our whole lives trying to catch the five biggest fish every day, and this is going to be different. I don’t know if I’m going to do any good with this format, but it’s going to be fun to try.”
Some critics of MLF’s format fear fans will tune in only to see many of the top anglers reel in 1-pounder after 1-pounder, a “dinkfest,” as someone commented on Facebook. While there may be periods or venues where that is the case, there will still be plenty of strategy and tactical maneuvering involved through the course of a day.
“My first MLF event was at Fort Gibson Lake, and I have a lot of history there,” said Oklahoma pro Jason Christie. “I remember getting out there and running to places where I’ve caught big ones in the past. Then guys start putting fish on the board, and I remember thinking I’d catch a few 5-pounders and pass them. Pretty soon, I’m in last place on a lake I’m familiar with.
By the middle of the second period, Christie realized it was about catching fish, not just catching big one.
“I’d been throwing a topwater bait, but I put on a squarebill and picked up a spinning rod and caught enough to qualify for the next day,” he said. “I could’ve been stubborn for the next period and a half, but in MLF you have to get bites. There have been a few events won by catching big ones, but they’re mostly won by a few big ones and by getting a lot of bites.”
Christie also said he prefers the release format. “I love the fact that we weigh them and let them go. That takes pressure off of us watching the fish through the day.”
With an 80-man field and a new tournament structure that will see no more than 40 competitors on the water at one time, BPT will be able to stage tournaments at venues of almost any size. Past tournaments required larger lakes and river systems to support field sizes ranging from 100 to 180 boats. Now, with this framework, there are tons of options.
OPENING NEW LOCATIONS
Another big difference is that, with an 80-man field and a new tournament structure, BPT will be able to stage tournaments at venues of almost any size. Past tournaments required larger lakes and river systems to support field sizes ranging from 100 to 180 boats. Now, with this framework, there are tons of options.
Theoretically, the BPT also could put on a tournament and utilize multiple fisheries in a general area as opposed to applying daily fishing pressure to just one body of water for several days in a row for an event. That’s been the model utilized for MLF Cups, which keeps the anglers in the dark about what fishery they’ll compete on until the morning of the competition.
The 2019 Bass Pro Tour schedule will consist of eight 80-boat tournaments, all between January and June, culminating with a 30-man BPT championship in late August, to be called Redcrest.
BPT competitors will vie for spots in the MLF Cups, of which there will be four in 2019. The BPT schedule will be broken into four two-tournament segments with the top 30 anglers after each segment (based on points) advancing to a corresponding Cup tournament. The top three finishers from each of the four Cups, plus the top two anglers in cumulative Cup points along with the Redcrest champion and defending Cup champion, will make up the 16-man field for the Cup Championship.
This year promises to be one of the most interesting years in the history of professional bass fishing. More tournaments will mean more opportunity to see our top bass anglers coax bass to the boat under intense pressure, all videoed from all angles to put us right in the middle of the action.
So buckle up. It’s going to be quite an exciting ride.
For more info on Major League Fishing, click here