Professional fishing is a sport undergoing evolution…again.
Call it ProBass 4.0. The fourth generation.
It brings about another comparison between NASCAR and the major professional fishing circuits that are today BASS, FLW and the Professional Anglers Association, all three of which provided fishermen for last weekend’s Toyota Texas Bass Classic.
Professional bass fishing started with names like Dance, Martin, Houston and Murray. They were a bunch of guys who were just naturally good at bass fishing in the same way the bootleggers of the Southeast were good at racing cars.
When the money jumped up, about the time of Ray Scott’s first Bassmaster Classic in 1971, in rushed a new group, Rick Clunn, Gary Klein, Paul Elias, Larry Nixon, Denny Brauer, and Guido Hibdon, and they transformed the sport. These were really the first generation of pros that could make enough money to fish for a living.
Eventually they were replaced by Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconnelli, Peter Thliveros, Takahiro Omori, Larry Nixon, Kelly Jordon, Alton Jones, Terry Scroggins and Jay Yelas. They not only fished for a living, but they became millionaires doing it. They learned that courting sponsors was just as important as winning tournaments.
They were the big names just eight years ago when the TTBC first came to Lake Fork. Last week it was all about guys like Keith Combs, Stetson Blaylock, Justin Lucas, Russ Lane, Randy Haynes and Brandon Coulter.
This isn’t to say VanDam and his contemporaries are ready for the retirement home. It is just that they are the cagey veterans on a pitching staff watching the young rookies coming on fast.
In pro fishing today it is the 20- and 30-somethings that are stirring up the water and winning tournaments.
As a friend of mine said, for these guys finding the fish and catching them isn’t that hard. There is something else going on that makes this a younger man’s game.
A glimpse as to what that might be could come from something Nolan Ryan said after his retirement and when he was on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. Still in excellent shape, Ryan had no doubt that he could go out and pitch a game and still get hitters out.
What he could not do is recover in time to come back and pitch on three or four day’s rest.
Talking to Combs before the tournament, I asked the Texas native why he moved from Del Rio and Lake Amistad to Huntington and Lake Sam Rayburn. He said it was because living in East Texas saved him a month’s time in travel over the course of a year’s fishing season. That is the vagabond life these guys live.
Watching the TTBC was fascinating. These young guys feared nothing. Not rain. Not wind. Not even going up against VanDam who has earned almost $6 million in tournament winnings, more than double what Combs, Blaylock and Lane, Sunday’s top three finishers, have won combined.
I mentioned to one of the fishermen Friday that the wind was supposed to be above 15 miles per hour on Saturday and Sunday. He smiled and said, “Bring it on.”
The changing dynamics is what makes all sports good. No one wanted to see Roger Staubach retire, but if he hadn’t there would have never been Troy Aikman.
If pro bass fishing wasn’t evolving we may not have seen two guys catch over 100 pounds and five others with over 90 in a tournament. Actually the entire top eight at the TTBC beat what is considered the record for a three-day event. The old mark being 83-5.
Maybe the next thing to change will be tournaments themselves.
Professional tournament officials have always said they couldn’t have a tournament at a lake with restrictions like Lake Fork because without fish at the weigh-in the crowds won’t come. There were only eight fish brought on stage over three days at the TTBC, although Combs last-day 8-8 was the most important because it won the tournament for him.
The truth is even at the Bassmaster Classic the crowds come for the industry show and concerts, and stay for the weigh-in.
That is also what happened at the TTBC. Sitting at a computer watching the lead change constantly Sunday, the tournament was as exciting as any sporting event. Getting the results at the weigh-in, not so much.
Here is what was neat about this year’s TTBC. Other organizations are starting to pay attention to it. BASS’ website last week was covered with pictures and stories from the event.
Major League Fishing, a made-for-television circuit, also put out press releases on the tournament, trying to take credit for its format. However, the TTBC format is four years older than MLF.
Unfortunately, there is no official word that the TTBC will be back at Lake Fork next year. The fishermen want it, but it is hard to draw huge crowds in rural Wood County.
If they do or don’t, 100-pound stringers may be hard for BASS and FLW to ignore, fans in the stands or not.
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