Our Western Heritage

Recently I sat down and marked up my 2007 calendar with all the Pro tournaments scheduled to take place here in the West. Almost like a kid with a Christmas list, I pictured myself at every event, and wished I could attend them all. The harsh reality of many weeks of missed work, and nearly $20,000 in entry fees brought my illusions back to earth.

I had been itching to get back into the game, as the last 5 to 6 years had seen me fishing less and wishing more. Not that I am complaining, starting a business, getting married, having a baby, and then changing careers were all important enough endeavors to put my tournament career on hold. Fortunately for me, the coming season presents an opportunity to get back on that horse.

As with many Western dreamers, I have watched as many of my friends have taken tournament fishing from a passion to a career. From the pages of national magazines, to the numerous websites covering our sport, I’ve always felt a sense of pride when a Western angler is glorified on the sports’ largest stages. Their status among fishing’s elite is a testament to the training grounds of our Western waters, as well as to their own talent and dedication.

When you start listing names like Martens, Reese, Monroe, Clausen, Ehrler, Reynolds, Bolivar, Weyer, Hite, Guiterrez, Moore, Berry, Niggemeyer, Velvick, Lee, Murray, Rojas, Tyler, Yelas, the list goes on and on; the least common denominator is that they are all from the Western states. Perhaps the greatest common denominator is that they all first had success and gained recognition by fishing local Pro-Ams here in the West. While their paychecks, sponsor recognition, and career acceleration hinged on Eastern tournament success in the national circuits, the smaller stage of the West brought them to the dance. Many of their initial sponsorships were forged due to their success in the West, and many still have long lasting financial relationships with those same sponsors. The influence of Western tackle and technique has been recognized by the nation through the success of these anglers, competing in foreign lands on unfamiliar waters. The heritage of West Coast bass fishing is rich and is still adding chapters to the bass tournament chronicle.

With the emergence of B.A.S.S. and FLW tournament circuits on the West Coast in the past few years, anglers have been given (and in some cases had it taken away) an opportunity to make a name for themselves and a nice paycheck on home waters. The upcoming FLW Series with its’ $3,500 entry fee will prove to be the richest circuit in Western history. However, wagering a months’ salary on the Columbia River is not in the cards for me. I hope those with larger ambitions, and smaller family responsibilities, will make this circuit a success and a mainstay for years to come. I applaud FLW for bringing this opportunity to us, and for continuing the popular Stren Series.

Returning to my initial thought train, the home-grown Western Pro-Am circuits (WON, Anglers’ Choice, 100% Bass, etc.) are in peril with the current attention paid to tournament circuit imports. We were all excited when B.A.S.S. came out West in the late ‘90s. I can still remember Mike Folkestad’s impassioned welcome to Ray Scott at the initial Delta event, as well as Robert Lee’s historic victory. However, six or so years removed, B.A.S.S. has no presence in the West aside from the opportunity for Westerners to participate as a “spectator” in the upcoming Tour season. B.A.S.S. will reap the benefit of the visibility of the great fisheries we’ve cultivated without benefit for most of the Western anglers. This trend can continue, possibly with FLW in the coming years, if their coveted “Series” is not fully booked and profitable to them. The Stren Series continues to be strong, but money drives the train, and the lack of Western business/community sponsors does not bode well for the future. My ambition is to be an angler, not a fan of tournament fishing here in the West. I am concerned about our future.

George Kramer took the roll of soothsayer recently by questioning the ability or desire of Western anglers to finance and travel to all upcoming FLW Series events. History is on his side, but I feel the West will support this series, to what extent is yet to be seen. However, comments made by Western bass tournament pioneers lead to more concerns. Don Iovino has warned of fishing with “scared money”, participating in tournaments where getting a paycheck was the only way to recuperate a borrowed investment. Gary Dobyns has written about “fishin’ chicken”, where performance concerns more with trying to maintain status rather than elevating it. It seems that both scenarios will face those who compete in the FLW big money tournaments. The individual anglers’ potential could be stymied by their fear of failure and financial ruin. Look at the recent departures of the Elite Series and it's $55,000 worth of entry fees. Some may use this do-or-die situation as motivation, but what about those who have the talent but not the bank roll to even compete? With the lack of big-money sponsors in the West, most pay entries and expenses out of their own wallet. Some promising anglers could bankrupt before ever reaching the beginning of their potential. There is still a need for a venue where anglers who desire to compete, but aren’t required to put their financial lives in jeopardy. There continues to be a need for choices. We are all not destined for super-star status, some of us just look to fulfill the need to compete. Not all college kids end up playing Pro ball.

The WON Bass Pro Circuit has existed in the West, under different organizational names, for many years. The past few seasons of sponsor abandonment and dwindling angler participation (from 155 boats per event in 2003 to 88 in 2006) should be of concern for any angler who chooses to stay in the West, yet still wants a stage to compete on. Though the “career angler” might choose to gain glory on another level, the beginning or working angler needs a home grown Pro circuit that won’t leave town if its’ business goals are not met. John Barron and I saw a need for a new organization to bring Pro-style tournaments to Southern California, but even this will only be for a specific region, we still need other local Pro-Ams throughout the West. But at the same time, these circuits need to earn angler support just as Stren/Everstart has the last couple of years.

Though I have had concerns with WON Bass in the past for various reasons, I am more worried what could happen if they (and others) disappeared and the national circuits were the only avenue to compete in the West. Bill Hutcheson followed in the footsteps of Mike Kennedy and Harvey Naslund as the care taker of this circuit. I have confidence in his ambition to keep and protect a storied tradition. The future of Pro tournament fishing in the West depends on local “stepping-stone” circuits which can allow some to elevate to a national stage, and also allow others to have a chance to compete locally without having to head East. Many young anglers of limited means need local Pro-Ams to get involved in the sport. It is from the local amateur ranks that many Western heroes have emerged, Brent Ehrler comes to mind immediately. There is no doubt that WON Bass could offer more to the participating angler, and probably should in the face of stiff competition, but the bloodline of Western history flows through their continued existence. This is something that transcends money and rests in the heart of our bass tournament heritage.

I hope everyone finds the circuit best suited to their desires and abilities this season, and next season.