After 33 years as a bass pro, MLF veteran Mark Davis has a few thoughts about the Bass Pro Tour format. Photo by Garrick Dixon

I’m one of the “old guys” in the bass fishing world nowadays. I began my professional bass fishing career in 1986 when I was 22 years old. Fast forward: after continually competing for 33 years, here I sit today, a veteran angler now 55 years old.

In all the years I’ve spent fishing for a living, I’ve witnessed several changes in the sport. I’ve seen reduced daily creel limits, increased outboard horsepower limits on boats – one of the changes equipment-wise has been electronics. And that’s just to mention a few.

But the biggest thing to evolve in the sport of bass fishing is what we know as the MLF catch/instant-release format. But I’d like to explain to those who haven’t experienced this format why it’s so special.

Conservation and Competition

From a conservation view, the format is great simply because the bass are released immediately. It can’t get any better than that for the health of the fish. As a competitor, you’re never safe, and that’s pretty unique.

Now hear me out on this one. I’ve spent my whole career fishing for a limit of bass in competition. For countless days on the water in competition, my goal was to catch a big stringer of bass. Once I caught them and put them in the livewell, I could relax!

A good feeling no doubt. But it’s a luxury that’s really never attainable in MLF competition. When every single fish over 1 pound counts, you have to continue to catch bass after bass after bass, and it starts from lines in and continues until lines out. I can recall so many days in five-fish-limit events where I had a big school of fish located or a pattern that worked well early in the day, and most of my work was over long before the competition was done that day.

In MLF competition, you can never, ever relax. You can never go to the marina store and eat pizza.

Think about it in terms of other sports. If a professional football or basketball team had a big lead at halftime, would they not show up and finish the game? That applies to fishing, too. The MLF format doesn’t allow an angler to relax or go in early. It’s like a ball game, but with many competitors all competing against one another at the same time.

When conditions change and your bass stop biting, you better figure out another way to catch them. Because if you don’t, your fellow competitors will blow you away catching and scoring bass. You’re just never safe.

Momentum and Live Scoring

Let’s talk about momentum: it’s what makes the Bass Pro Tour a mental game. In most ball sports, momentum swings often determine the winner of the game. Because you know the score at all times in MLF competition, momentum becomes a huge factor in the sport of bass fishing.

On one end of the spectrum, a competitor can be on a roll, leading an event, catching bass, gaining confidence and riding a momentum whirlwind. The opposite end of that spectrum is a competitor who is not getting bites: his confidence is in question because he hears he is in last place on SCORETRACKER®, he’s struggling mentally and physically, and he’s looking for any positive that he can build on.

He’s looking for momentum.

Most days, the early leader doesn’t win the round because other anglers gain momentum and figure out the fish. Because of live-time scoring and SCORETRACKER®, momentum becomes a huge factor in the “game” we play.

Davis likes fish of all sizes, and so should ALL Bass Pro Tour competitors. Photo by Garrick Dixon

Big Fish, Little Fish, ALL Fish

Don’t be fooled into believing MLF competitors only target smaller bass, because that’s just not the truth.

It takes five bites from 1-pounders to add up to a single 5-pound bass. Depending on the fishery, an angler in an MLF event may choose to target keeper-size bass, and on a different fishery, he may decide because of a low bass population, he may need to target larger bass. Sometimes it’s a little bit of both, depending on the fishery.

As an example, let’s look at the two Bass Pro Tour events at Table Rock Lake. Most multi-day events on this lake are won with a 3-pound average, so my point is that there is not a lot of big fish in that fishery right now. There was an FLW Costa event held there the week before Bass Pro Tour Stage Six, and it took around 45 pounds to win that event.

That was a three-day event, so 15 bass total.

In this situation, an angler is forced to find and catch every scoreable bass he can to compete. As a result, huge numbers of bass under 2 pounds with a handful of bigger bass are what won this event.

Let’s look at Lake Conroe as another example. Conroe was a stingy fishery where finesse techniques were not the order of the day. Big fish were targeted and caught in a big way (including Edwin’s 8-pounder in the final hour). The quality of the fish depends entirely on the fishery.

To sum it all up, the Bass Pro Tour is a completely different game, simply by design. It’s not to be confused or compared to any other competitive bass-fishing format. It’s a constant full-court-press of intense pressure. You’re never in a safe zone. You have to continually figure out how to catch bass under changing conditions. You’ll never have enough fish found or enough different ways to catch them.

You must be able to make adjustments quickly, and know when and how to target big bass, and when not to. You can’t get spun out when things aren’t going your way. You must stay sharp and confident in your game. You must keep pressing forward trying to gain confidence and momentum in yourself throughout the day.

It’s a new game, for sure

In closing, here’s my wish: that each and every tournament bass angler at every level could experience the MLF format. It has to be experienced to be truly appreciated. And when the day is done, all the bass that were caught and then quickly released are back in the lake alive and well and ready to bite your lure on your next cast.

Good fishing to all.