Go East, young angler

Bassmaster angers pros by dropping Western series

This article was originally published in the L.A. Daily News and is reprinted here with their permission.

The Bassmaster Classic is to bass fishing what the Super Bowl is to football.

The Bassmaster organization transformed bass fishing from a hobby to a professional sport, one that employs thousands of anglers to promote boats, fishing tackle, rods and reels and to catch fish in front of worldwide television audiences.

It has branded Bill Dance, Roland Martin and Hank Parker into heroes and given hundreds of thousands of anglers the dream that they, too, can strive to fish for a living.

Anglers west of the Rockies might no longer be able to carry such hopes. Following the Western Bass Open, which begins today at Lake Shasta in Northern California, Bassmaster will no longer stage tournaments in the Western U.S. The decision has angered bass anglers throughout the West.

"Bassmaster made Skeet Reese, Dean Rojas, Gary Dobyns, Aaron Martens, me and others, but the future generations aren't going to be able to do that now," says Art Berry, 35, of Hemet, a professional angler since he was 19 and last year's Angler of the Year on the Bassmaster Western Open Tour. "What do you think this is going to do for the future of bass fishing in America?"

Fishing a Bassmaster event has long been a goal of anglers across the globe. Bassmaster, also known as B.A.S.S., based in Clearwater, Fla., has been around nearly 40 years. It was acquired in 2001 by ESPN now is a division of ESPN Outdoors.

The decision to stage events exclusively in Eastern states harms the organization, anglers say.

"It's kind of a hard thing to swallow," Berry said. "It's been my dream my whole life to go fish the Bassmaster. It's been a slap in the face. ... The part that bums me out most is this is the furthest thing that anyone in the West wants. By Bassmaster leaving the West, it's not making it better for our kids and the future of bass fishing in America."

Western anglers can still qualify to fish the Bassmaster Classic, the series that sits atop the bass-fishing pyramid, but it will be significantly more difficult for them to do so. They'll have to travel to the East just to qualify for a chance at advancing to the top circuit.

B.A.S.S. officials say the decision to drop Western events is part of a restructuring plan and might not be long-term.

"There's great fishermen on the West Coast," said Don Rucks, B.A.S.S. vice president and general manager. "There's a lot of bass members out there. We don't forget that. It's very important to us, but, obviously, we can't be in every state in the union.

"We are not coming back in 2006. Quite frankly, it had to do with our overall plan. California is a great supporter of B.A.S.S. as a whole, but the participation in the West is the lowest. Our plans call for us to constantly look at California."

Anglers have been able to qualify for the national Bassmaster Classic by placing atop the field in three Western Open events, held on California's Delta, Lake Shasta and Clear Lake, the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, New Mexico's Elephant Butte Reservoir, and Lakes Mead and Havasu in Arizona. Entry fees are $1,200 per event.

Qualifiers then fish the open championship to earn one of five spots on the Bassmaster Classic. This year, 11 Bassmaster Classic tournaments are scheduled, and entry fees - usually paid by sponsors - are $5,500 per event.

Bassmaster this year will stage only Northern Open and Southern Open qualifying series. Central Opens will be blended into the other competitions.

"There's no reason for Bassmaster to pull out of the West. There's no reason for Bassmaster to leave other than they don't care about the West," said Gary Dobyns, a Californian who has won more than $2 million - he's the all-time money-winner in the West - and 39 boats. To spend more time with his family, he's chosen not to fish the other circuits.

"What it comes down to is Bassmaster is supposed to be a national circuit, yet they only fish a few small states in the South. The truth behind this is that the pros from the East don't want to drive here, and they aren't confident enough to come out here and fish our way, so Bassmaster is shutting off the West."

Not all anglers are upset with the decision.

"So what?" said Len Taylor, who has run Taylor Tackle in Canoga Park for 15 years. "I really don't think it's that big of a deal. Most of the people around here fish local stuff - you know, smaller tournaments. Most of the people that fish the Bassmaster are from the Midwest and the East, and that's what it seems to be geared for.

"The guys from the Midwest and East don't like to come out here, so Bassmaster snubs the West. The interesting thing is that the guys from the East don't like to come out here because they can't catch fish out here, but when our guys go back East, they catch fish easily."

Most top Eastern anglers acknowledge that fishing in the West is more challenging, stemming from clear, deep waters that the Eastern U.S. lacks.

"We know we are catching slack for this," Rucks said. "We aren't leaving (the West). I hope (anglers and fans) can bear with us. It's not a guarantee, but we think we'll be back in the West with a new tour in 2007.

"I would tell you that I'm 90 percent confident that we'll be in California in 2007. I've been around long enough to know that stuff can happen in the Northern and Southern region, and until I see the proof in the pudding, I can't come out and say we are coming back for sure."

Western anglers' focus now turns to the FLW Stren Series. FLW, which also has a national series, is in its third year staging Western events.

The purse at the top FLW and Bassmaster events is $500,000.

"Bassmaster is no longer the premier circuit in the U.S. - FLW Outdoors has taken over," Dobyns said. "They are having trouble finding guys to fish the Bassmaster right now, but the list to fish FLW is a mile long."

Many anglers believe Bassmaster is in grave danger, that it has lost prestige as it has changed criteria for qualifying, enabling some anglers to fish the Bassmaster Classic without first testing themselves in lesser events.

"Look at the Bassmaster now," said Berry, a 1999 Bassmaster champion. "It's not like it was five years ago. It's gone way downhill. Word on the street is that it's only a moment of time before Bassmaster is gone. The word on the street is that if you want to be rich, you fish FLW, and if you want to be famous, you fish Bassmaster."

Kent Brown, a professional tournament angler and director of bass operations for ISE, the largest fishing and hunting expo in California, says Bassmaster's contention that it didn't have Western support is erroneous. The Western tour, he said, outdraws many circuits around the country.

"The B.A.S.S. in the West this year far exceeded their expectations," he said. "None of us know why they are leaving the West. That's a great question. It makes no sense. I don't know why in the world they would do it."

Bassmaster, in the past two decades, has pulled out of and returned to the West several times.

"I guess I'm sort of used to it," says John Murray, a top Bassmaster Classic competitor from Arizona. "It's a common theme for them. They don't really have a commitment out here. They are from Florida, and they don't deal well with people out here. They won't give us a good chance. They build momentum, and then they pull the plug."

Rucks said B.A.S.S. expects to announce plans for the West as early as the 2006 Bassmaster Classic championship.

"We are working on schedules now for 2007, and I can tell you that California is very high on that priority list," he said. "We do have two cities that we've identified that we are actually pursuing for the Bassmaster Classic. We think California fits that bill, because we are looking for waters that have big fish."

Chris Shaffer covers the Outdoors for the Daily News. He can be reached at cshaffer@californiawaterfalls.com.