"A lot of us - not everyone - need motivation, some goal each season," said California's Skeet Reese, who won the Tour season opener last year on the Harris Chain of Lakes in Florida. Reese and other pros will again begin the season in Leesburg, Jan. 26-Feb. 1, but with a Tour victory under his belt and a guaranteed Classic berth for his third-place finish in the CITGO Bassmaster Western Open point standings, Reese is focused on a new goal.
"A lot of the guys who qualify for the Classic through the Opens don't fish real well on the Tour, I think, because they lost their motivation," Reese said. "My motivation is to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite 50s."
If the idea of fishing on the all-new, no-entry fee $1.6 million dollar Bassmaster Elite 50 circuit isn't motivation enough, there are plenty of other new programs and enhancements to the Tour to target. In addition to the Elite 50s, anglers can pursue incentive cash and entry into the single-day Busch Shootout tournament; take aim at the Purolator Big Bass prize money, which increased by more than $53,000 under Purolator's title sponsorship; or try for the end-of-season BASS Horizon Award, which puts a $25,000 bonus in the pocket of the angler whose position in the Tour point standings has increased the most over 2003.
"I can speak for a lot of the pros that are excited about all of these changes," said last summer's Classic champion Michael Iaconelli. "We're trying to grow the sport and make it a true professional sport. The changes that are taking place, that BASS and ESPN are making, are taking us in the right direction."
That direction begins with this month's Tour opener and a host of opportunities.
Bassmaster Elite 50 Series
"One of the biggest changes that stands out for me is the Elite 50s," said Iaconelli whose Classic title has already earned him a berth in the Elite 50 field as well as the 2004 Classic. "Looking at the sport, looking at the evolution of the sport, what's the big thing? The smaller fields, smaller formats, no entry fees. That is the right direction. It's very exciting to be involved in the sport when it's growing in these directions."
The Bassmaster Elite 50 series features four no-entry-fee tournaments in which the world's best anglers compete for a total prize purse of $1.6 million.
To qualify for the field - one-third the size of the Tour's - anglers must make it under the wire of very stringent criteria. The Elite 50 field is composed of Iaconelli, the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year, the 2004 Bassmaster Rookie of the Year, the top 20 active anglers on the all-time BASS money list, and the 27 anglers with the highest cumulative point totals of the 2002, 2003 and 2004 Tour seasons.
One of the Tour season's big stories to follow is who will qualify, who is on the bubble, and who will end the tournament season after the Tour's final stop. Qualifiers will end the Tour season with the chance to fish another four tournaments and possibly take home the winner's $150,000 check. But in the all-new series, even the consolation prizes are pretty significant. Second place takes home $100,000, with $70,000 going to third place and $50,000 to fourth. In fact, every angler will finish the series with at least a $20,000 paycheck.
Going in to the 2004 Tour season, Harold Allen is one of the anglers on the bubble for qualification.
"I'm going to fish my butt off," he said. "When you fish under pressure, it messes with you. It gets in your mind and you don't fish well. What you have to do is fish like you're not even in the thing.
"I'll just take one lake at a time and hope for a little luck," Allen added.
New Points System
If luck isn't on Allen's side, at least the new BASS point distribution system will be helping him (and the rest of the anglers) during the 2004 Tour season.
In the past, the points format was based on a 150-point system, with the first-place angler at any tournament receiving 150 points for his win, the second-place finisher receiving 149 points, and the rest of the field receiving a decreasing single point relative to their finishes.
In 2004, anglers will earn points based on a 300-point format designed to better reward consistency throughout the six-event Tour schedule as well as the four Elite 50 tournaments and all of the Open stops.
Under the new system, the winner of an event, whether it be Open, Tour, or Elite 50 tournament, will receive 300 points. The scoring will decrease in five-point increments to fifth place, four-point increments through 10th place, three-point increments through 15th place, two-point increments to 99th place and one-point increments for the remainder of the field.
"In order to encourage fierce competition, we adjusted the ratio of points awarded for different finishes and implemented a bonus point system for leaders," said BASS Tournament Director Trip Weldon. "This way, if an angler leads for two days and doesn't win, he is still recognized for competing to the fullest extent of his ability."
CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year
"The second goal of my fishing career is to win Angler of the Year," said Iaconelli. "I had two goals. One of them is behind me. Super; that's awesome. But, one of them is still out there and I'll be fishing forever until I accomplish it. That's what wakes me up in the mornings."
If Iaconelli is going to make a run at it - and 2003 Angler of the Year and 2002 Classic champ Jay Yelas has set a precedent - this is the year to do so. In 2004, the $311,550 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year prize purse is 50 percent bigger than last season's purse and pays deeper into the field.
Last year, the prize purse was $200,000 and paid the top 10 anglers in point standings, with a $100,000 top prize. This season, CITGO has increased the purse to $311,550 and BASS will pay the top 25 anglers in points standings with the winner taking home the $100,000 top prize as well as $11,550 to cover entry fees for the next Tour season.
BASS Rookie of the Year
But anglers don't always have to top the point standings to earn recognition. In 2004, the BASS Rookie of the Year award will put $10,000 into the pocket of the rookie who finishes highest in season point standings after the Tour's sixth and final event.
The 2004 Rookie of the Year award will be decided among twelve Tour newcomers. California's R.J. Bennett, Idaho's Bink Desaro, Louisiana's Greg Hackney, Alabama's Jimmy Mason, Utah's Scott Nielsen, Tennessee's Thomas O'Bryant, Connecticut's Jordan Paullo, Texas' Jason Reyes, Florida's Mark Shepard, Arkansas' Kevin Short and Scott Suggs, and Pennsylvania's Marcel Veenstra will each have a shot at the title first claimed in 2003 by Arizona's Mark Kile.
"It's a great title to have," Kile said. "I know the guys that I've been competing against are great fishermen. And winning the $10,000 is very exciting as well."
BASS Horizon Award
Neither did BASS forget to reward anglers for making a comeback. The Horizon Award, earned by the 2004 competitor who has the biggest increase in final tournament points standings over 2003.
Last year, Takahiro Omori won the trophy and a $25,000 check for finishing in 40th, an incredible 98-place improvement over his 2002 finish.
"It's awesome," said Omori. "... Winning the Horizon Award means that I have come back from last year and I have fished like I knew I could. It sure feels good to be back in the groove."
Speaking of incentives to compete, the new Busch Shootout program and tournament will add $200,000 to the huge pool of cash up for grabs in 2004 on both the Tour and Elite 50 circuits.
The combined Tour and Elite 50 seasons total 40 competition days during which Busch will award a $1,000 bonus to the angler with the largest daily catch, creating 40 Busch Shootout qualifiers. Those qualifiers who record the 10 heaviest weights will advance to the championship tournament.
The single-day event, slated for Sept. 18, will also include those with the largest catch from the 2004 Classic, the 2004 CITGO BASS Federation Championship, and John Murray, who weighed in the largest catch en route to winning December's CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship.
The Busch Shootout revives a BASS tradition, pitting the anglers in competition on a mystery lake. The angler with the biggest single day catch will win the $100,000 grand prize, with his competitors taking home $5,000 consolation checks.
The Busch $1 Million Challenge
For those who don't want to wait to join the rarified BASS Millionaires Club, there is a new shortcut.
Busch has anted up $1 million for the first angler to top Dean Rojas' single-day catch record of 45 pounds, 2 ounces, set at Florida's Lake Toho in 2001. A number of anglers think this record could be broken on Santee Cooper, which yielded a three-day catch of 98-9 to winner Zell Rowland at a 2003 Tour event.
"It's gonna be a tough record to beat," said tour veteran Kelly Jordon. "If you catch Harris Chain just right it could happen, but I think if it's gonna happen, it'll be at Santee Cooper. You have to be somewhere where there are some really big fish, and Santee Cooper has some really big fish.
"Records are made to be broken," he said, "and a million dollars would be sweet."
Purolator Big Bass Award
If catching five bruisers to beat a world record seems impossible, anglers can still earn a check for catching just one that outweighs all the other big fish of the day.
Purolator, a new BASS premier sponsor, is increasing the daily payout for the largest bass caught each day to $1,000 for pros and $500 for amateurs, as well as putting up incremental funds for the "Purolator Big Bass Award," an additional $1,000 that will be given to the angler, pro or amateur, who hauls in the largest bass for each event.
The CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer
The pinnacle of professional fishing is, of course the CITGO Bassmaster Classic, and in 2004 the Classic will be held on Lake Wylie near Charlotte, N.C. The winner of the Classic is sure to have his calendar fill up shortly after the win. Just ask 2003 Champ Michael Iaconelli. After winning the Classic, he reached the top of the sport and since then has been going non-stop.
"Since I won that tournament, you know, every day has been a challenge," Iaconelli said. "It's been so much attention, so much work. More business work than I've done in my whole life, but all these little perks keep coming up."
Perks indeed, such as fishing with Deion Sanders for ESPN's "The New American Sportsman," to leading the parade down Main Street at Walt Disney World in Orlando on Jan. 28.
But, Iaconelli admits, it isn't the money, the fans, the trophies or the exposure that motivate him. Nor, he said, is it the goal of adding the Angler of the Year title to his collection.
"There are two motivators," he said. "The first one, the one that I use in everything I do, is that I'm a very competitive person. Every time I go out on the water, I want to win. Every time. With that, you're just as excited about an Open, about the Tour, about the Classic."
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. This April, BASS introduces the all-new Bassmaster Elite 50 Series, a four-event, no-entry-fee circuit featuring a $1.6 million prize purse for the world's best anglers. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass-fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Skeeter Boats, Mercury Marine, Yamaha Outboards, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.
Associate Sponsors include G3 Boats and Bryant Heating and Air Conditioning.
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.