The innovative Elite 50 concept - with its big purse, no-entry-fee and crowd-pleasing format - was put to the test for the first time last week at Russellville, Ark., on Lake Dardanelle. And the reception from both fans and anglers alike was nothing short of tremendous.
The fans turned out in record numbers - including crowds of 7,500 on the final day. And the pros are still singing praises of everything Elite 50 days later.
Here's a sampling:
"It was absolutely awesome," said Florida's Bernie Schultz, who recently qualified for his fifth CITGO Bassmaster Classic. "It was like the best Classic experience I could recall.
"The anglers were treated like royalty from the start all the way through the final weigh- in. The celebrities we met, like Bobby Knight and Whitey Herzog, the media attention and the crowd reception was incredible. I have never seen a crowd that large at a weigh- in other than the Classic. It was first-rate and professionally done by BASS, ESPN and JM Associates. It was just an incredible experience. It was like a mini-Classic.
"The Elite 50s are taking us into a direction that we need to go."
"It was cool," Oklahoma's Kenyon Hill added. "It was probably second only to the Classic.
"I liked the whole atmosphere. The take off and weigh-in times were really, really user friendly for the crowds. And that really made it special. It was really awesome. When we stepped out on the stage, it was like being at a rock concert."
Texan Ben Matsubu agreed: "It's a neat deal. The weigh-ins were exciting. Bobby Knight was a special guest speaker, and he was awesome. And he's a funny dude. It's an interesting concept. I like it except for the late dinner. Other than that, it's really cool to be out there fishing in the evening, dude."
The Elite 50s broke with tournament tradition by sending the pros out at 10 a.m. and staging the weigh-ins at 7 p.m. (to accommodate more spectators). And that forced the anglers to make some strategic adjustments.
"At first I didn't like it, but the way the bite was in the tournament it actually played into our hands," Schultz said. "The fish bit late, and if not for having a late start a lot fewer fish would have been weighed in.
"Weighing in late had some drawbacks like getting to bed late. But in retrospect, I didn't mind it. I think it might be more taxing and physically demanding later in the season when temperatures rise. But in that event where it was cold in the morning and warm in the afternoons it played right into our hands."
"This time instead of fishing the morning bite, we get to fish the evening bite," Matsubu added. "When they started biting at 2:30 to 3 o'clock, we got to fish for them. You know how it always seems like at a quarter till three they start biting and you have to leave. But this time we got to fish for them."
Hill summed up the opinion of most of the Elite 50 pros by saying, "It takes some getting used to. But it worked out better for the crowds, which was the most important thing."
HISTORIC CROWD. The final-day weigh-in audience, estimated at 7,500, is believed to have been the largest crowd ever to attend a tournament outside of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer.
It was overwhelming evidence of the fishing public's approval of the Elite 50 concept.
CATCH IT ON TV. You can catch the excitement of the season-opening Elite 50 event in two parts, Saturday, April 24 and Saturday, May 8 on ESPN2 at 10:30 a.m. ET/9:30 CT.
ROLAND AND THE PRESIDENT. Before heading to Lake Dardanelle, nine-time CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Roland Martin made a trip to Texas and the Crawford ranch of President George W. Bush.
Martin, host of one of the country's longest-running fishing television shows, had planned to tape an episode with the President on the presidential pond that was built specifically for bass fishing and stocked with largemouths. He had planned to spend a Saturday fishing with both President Bush and his father, former president George H.W. Bush.
Instead, Martin was limited to about 90 minutes of fishing with the President on Friday afternoon as pressing business took precedence the following day. The president was driving past the lake in his pickup when he spotted Martin and his television crew. Martin told the Associated Press that Bush looked at his watch and said he had time to "make a couple casts, so we jumped into the boat real quick.
"The president was very relaxed. ... He didn't really talk about politics at all. He was just relieved to have a minute to fish."
Martin, who remarked that Bush was "a very accomplished fisherman," caught three bass, including a 4-pounder during their short fishing trip.
DID YOU KNOW? Even though the CITGO Bassmaster Tour season is over, several of those anglers' 2004 Classic hopes are still alive. That is because with 10 more Classic berths coming from the Elite 50 series, there will likely be crossovers - pros that double- qualify from the Tour as well - from the Elite 50s. Those pros will be crossed off of the Angler of the Year list, allowing the anglers below them to move up in the Tour standings.
PRO BIRTHDAYS. Georgia pro Danny Kirk will be 48 on April 23. A day later will find Florida's Mark Rogers turning 32. Former Classic champion Woo Daves will be 58 years young on April 25. Arkansas' Stephen Browning blows out 38 candles three days later. Japanese pro Ysuke Miyazaki rounds out the April birthdays when celebrating his 34 on the 30.
IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... Oklahoma pro Tim Carroll, who qualified for his first Classic appearance this year though the CITGO Bassmaster Central Opens, would likely still be a full-time mechanic.
THEY SAID IT. "I'm real happy. I mean, I'm not doing this for the money. You know, this was my dream. Best part of this business (is) I don't feel like I'm working. I enjoy it inside." Japanese pro and 2003 Horizon Award winner Takahiro Omori.