What is Best for Professional Bass Fishing?

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When the fluttering confetti settled at Mellon Arena on the Forrest Wood Cup championship, Bassmaster Elite Series pros Greg Hackney and Mike Iaconelli were sitting in the top two positions just a few ounces apart.

Hackney won the championship Aug. 2 in Pittsburgh on the Three Rivers system, capping a three-day tournament that saw big weights – relatively speaking – the first day and then a tough-as-nails bite the final two days. Hackney won by three ounces over Iaconelli, with FLW Tour pros Cody Myers, former Cup champion Scott Suggs and Rusty Salewske rounding out the top five.

Immediately, as expected and as is human nature, comparisons began about the FLW vs. BASS and competitors on both tours. One can look back to 2006 to FLW Tour regular Luke Clausen’s Toho Classic for similar chat room fodder. Like a freak snowstorm in early spring, this year’s chatter didn’t last long but was inevitable given Pittsburgh hosting the 2005 Classic and FLW landing there for its championship.

The upside, according to the top brass at BASS and FLW, is the sport of fishing came out a winner.

“The more opportunities that exist for anglers to build viable careers, the more healthy the sport is,” said Tom Ricks, vice president and general manager of BASS, via email. “Greg and Mike are both tremendous anglers and their track records reflect that. We congratulate Greg and Mike for their fantastic performances.”

Charlie Evans, CEO for FLW Outdoors, echoed Ricks’ comments and said opportunities that may arise in 2010 for anglers to compete on both tours could increase attention for fishing. Elite Series and FLW Tour schedules have only one overlapping event and while travel may be hectic to fish both circuits, it’s not impossible.

“Me personally, to call it a side is putting a different color on it,” Evans said. “I consider us colleagues and we obviously want to be top of the heap. But it’s not in anyone’s best interest to be battling or opposing. We need to be promoting the sport and anything that allows more opportunities we’re supportive of it. Anything that allows anglers to have more opportunities to fish, we’re in favor of that.”

The Elite Series wraps up the regular season this week at Oneida Lake in New York. Anglers not making the Top 12 “post-season” week in September will step up their plans for 2010. Several have been competing in FLW Series or Stren Series events, including Ish Monroe in California and Bobby Lane on the East Coast. Hackney and Iaconelli qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup via the lower-tier events last year.

Between attempting to secure sponsorships and financing for 2010, the anglers will have to map out travel logistics to see if fishing two or even three tours is feasible along with family time and sponsor duties.

“Each angler will make their own decision based on what is in their best interest,” Ricks said. “We feel that the Elite Series is the most prestigious and visible tournament trail in the marketplace.”

Neither Ricks nor other FLW officials would comment specifically about whether BASS and FLW plan to meet to discuss preventing future schedules from overlapping. Both organizations work with prospective cities years in advance to plan and finalize contracts to host events. BASS announced its 2009 and 2010 schedules last year, and FLW regularly announces its next season lineup the week of its final regular-season tournament in June.

The Elite Series in 2010 will pack eight events in four months, from March to June, while FLW will have its regular six tournaments from February to June. That leaves some wiggle room for Elite Series pros to look at the three main FLW Outdoors circuits – FLW Tour, FLW Series and Stren Series – for scheduling.

“As we have done in the past,” Ricks said, “we will continue work with host cities and other tournament organizers to prevent overlapping of tournaments.”

FLW sponsor changes?

Evans addressed speculation that Walmart, the title sponsor of the FLW Tour, might be withdrawing its support by saying evaluations still are in progress.

The tour ceased holding its tournament weigh-ins at Walmart parking lots last year and moved to arena venues. The 2010 schedule does not include Beaver Lake, which has long been a staple and a week-long event for sponsor representatives near the Walmart headquarters in Benton, Ark. The schedule also did not include sponsor designations for the Walmart Open or Chevy Open, two of the three tournaments that pay $250,000 to the winner.

“Obviously this is a year to renew contracts and it’s still in the process,” Evans said. “Walmart has brought more to our sport and has helped elevate and raise the bar so much, we could never repay them for all they’ve done. We have a great relationship with Walmart.

“Unfortunately, when you read about someone suing them or them running a mom-pop out of business it’s not good. But we have generated very positive press and tons of exposure for them and they have for us. We hope to continue the relationship with them for a long time.”

Chevrolet is in the throes of the economic crisis gripping the country, but Evans said he believes that relationship will continue as well. Chevrolet has been involved with professional fishing for decades to provide support vehicles, first with BASS and in recent years with FLW along with fielding a Tour team that has included Larry Nixon and Clausen.

Two-Tour Showdown?

Prior to the Forrest Wood Cup, Evans was quoted in a Pittsburgh newspaper about a possible future “Super Bowl” of bass fishing pitting the best from the Cup against the top guys from the Classic, similar to the NFL’s pre-merger showdowns with the American Football League.

“Someday, hopefully, we’ll come together for a Super Bowl of bass fishing,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I think it’s inevitable.”

“The truth is there are great fishermen with FLW and great fishermen with BASS,” Evans said last week after the Cup. “The sport is full of tremendous role models. They’re accessible and willing to share, and you don’t see that much.

“Would I personally like to see a ‘best of the best’ duke it out? You’re doggone right. Baseball, basketball, football, all those sports where they have dual leagues … as a fan of the sport I’d love to see the best of the best. I think it would be a neat deal and the fans would be interested.”

The Professional Anglers Association, a tour run by the pro anglers from both circuits, offers events to anyone regardless of organization affiliation or sponsorship. But while still growing and despite having BASS and FLW pros in its tournaments, a showdown between a group of top FLW Tour and Elite Series championship finishers most likely would command greater attention from fans.

“Regardless of who won, it would be like Ali-Frazier,” Evans said. “You’d obviously have a No. 2 (finisher) but it would be one of those things I would love to see. You immediately would have people asking to do it again a year later, wanting a rematch.

“Would we be willing to talk about it (with BASS)? Absolutely. But I don’t think it’s a matter of urgency … I think they’re just as busy as we are. I don’t think that’s at the top of the list for either of us right now.”