On April 14, the $1.6 million, four-event Elite 50 series kicks off on Arkansas' Lake Dardanelle. The field combines the 27 top performers over the past three Tour seasons with the top 20 anglers from the BASS all-time money list, as well as the newly crowned CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle, BASS Rookie of the Year Greg Hackney and reigning CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion Michael Iaconelli
Every angler is guaranteed to earn a check. The most successful competitor after the four events, based on points, will win $150,000; last place takes home $20,000. And the top 10 anglers in the Elite 50 standings qualify for the 2004 Classic.
"The Elite 50s are definitely the direction the sport needs to move," Texas pro Alton Jones said. "Limited fields. Everybody gets paid guaranteed money. Difficult to qualify for. It gives everybody in the industry a bar to shoot for. It's what everybody will want to be in.
"The concept is something that we as professional fishermen need to rally behind. I think it's going to be a little bit less pressure. Also, in these tournaments with 150 anglers, you're always trying to find a secret hole somewhere. You really can't fish your traditional spots and rely on them. But in something like an Elite 50, we can just kind of go fishing and have a good chance of doing well.
"The pressure's off monetarily and every other way."
Jones said he never dreamed of such a tournament trail where every angler is paid without putting up entry fees from their pockets or those of their sponsors.
"I never even considered the possibility of that," he emphasized. "I just applaud ESPN for taking it to this level, and I would love to see it grow. "
Former Angler of the Year and Classic champion Davy Hite, who recently added the 2004 BASS Horizon Award to his resume, agrees with Jones.
"I've been excited ever since it was announced that we were going to be able to fish theElite 50s," he said. "Having a field that small and fishing for some major money and not having to pay an entry fee: that's what everybody has been really dreaming for."
The Bassmaster Elite 50 qualifiers will face a big adjustment in terms of strategy, though, because the innovative tournament series will feature the most unusual fishing hours ever attempted. The pros will launch mid-morning and fish until about 6 p.m. to accommodate a 7 p.m. weigh-in. The later weigh-ins are designed to allow families and working folks to enjoy the festivities.
"Anything to help the sport, I'll try," Hite said. "It's going to be more challenging to catch fish because we're going to miss the early bite. Even though we're going to be fishing late into the afternoon, I've always thought the morning bite is the best bite - especially at the time (of year) we'll be fishing the Elite 50s.
"You'll have to change the way you fish some. Probably the deep-water fishermen might have an advantage. Maybe not so much on rivers, but if we get on manmade reservoirs those deep-water fishermen will probably have it play into their hands.
"But we're all fishing the same time. I've always said, heck, we ought to start at nine o'clock just like bankers. If we start at the same time and quit at the same time it's all equal."
A FRIEND'S PERSPECTIVE. No one was happier to see Gerald Swindle wrap up the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year than best friend Marty Stone. And the North Carolina pro thoroughly enjoyed one of the closest Angler of the Year races in BASS history. "This is the way a race should be," he said. "It should come down to the last day, the last catch."
I LIKE IKE. For most of the 2004 Tour season, Michael Iaconelli made a strong run at becoming just the third reigning Classic champion to follow up with the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title the following season (along with David Fritts and Jay Yelas). He finished third in the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, which is remarkable when you consider the intensive demand on the Classic champion's time and attention.
"I did my best," the New Jersey pro said. "You never know what's going to happen. I came out here this year as Classic champ. I've been working so much with the media and doing events and doing shows. So to come out here and even do this well, I did what I wanted to, which is make a good showing and stay competitive. So I'm pretty happy."
MEMORIAL TOURNAMENT. A special memorial tournament in honor of BASS winner Russ Bringger, who passed away on Feb. 15 at the age of 53 from pancreatic cancer, will be held April 24 on Lake Okeechobee. Proceeds from the event will go to The V Foundation for Cancer Research. The entry fee is $125 per boat. For information call (954) 969-0979.
DID YOU KNOW? When it comes to grabbing the last qualifying spots for the new Bassmaster Elite 50 sseries, Stacey King and Jack Gadlage tied for the final spots based on their Bassmaster Tour performance over the past three years. Tommy Martin and Takahiro Omori were left on the outside looking in. From the all-time BASS money list, Randy Blaukat nailed down the last invitation, while Ken Cook ended up on the wrong side of the career earnings bubble.
PRO BIRTHDAYS. Florida pro Pete Thliveros turns 44 on April 7, while Bill Berry of Indiana becomes 48 two days later. On April 11, Californian Warren Wyman becomes 30. Georgia pro Danny Kirk will be 48 on April 23.
IF I HADN'T BECOME A BASS PRO... Oregon pro Darryl Burkhardt would be concentrating full-time on his auto collision business in Gresham.
THEY SAID IT. "When I saw Santee-Cooper was on the schedule for this year, man, I was really excited. But things change, and that's one of the neat things about bass - everything changes. No matter who you are or how well you think you have them figured out, it always changes. Every year it seems to be different conditions and different areas. So it's always a challenge to run new water all the time and keep trying to figure out the fish." Texas pro Gary Klein wrapped up his 22nd Classic invitation at Santee-Cooper Reservoir.