Tour Talk is a regular column where members of FLW’s media team and industry professionals – pundits, if you will – answer questions regarding tournament results, top pros and industry trends.
On the agenda in this installment are the Rayovac FLW Series Championship, changes to the Walmart FLW Tour and the future of FLW College fishing.
To comment on Tour Talk, email a message to [email protected].
1. Ten pros qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup at the recent Rayovac FLW Series Championship on Wheeler Lake. Of those pros, who do you think has the most potential to contend for the Cup at Lake Ouachita next season?
Colin Moore, Editor-in-Chief: Look no further than Zack Birge, the Oklahoman who won the event. He’s 23 and hungry, and had some consistently high finishes in Rayovac FLW Series events in 2014 before winning the championship. Bryan Thrift, who placed fifth, is dangerous wherever he competes. Chris Baumgardner, who finished second to Birge, is a quiet craftsman who doesn’t make a big splash, but he always seems to figure out a way to catch fish. Of the Rayovac crowd, those are my choices, with Casey Gallagher of Pulaski, Wis., who placed third, being a dark horse candidate.
Curtis Niedermier, Managing Editor: Bryan Thrift is in, which makes him a favorite no matter where the Cup is held. The fact he has so much time to prepare makes this pick even easier. Consider these Thrift stats: He has six top-10 finishes in Cup competition, including a current streak of three in a row.
Jody White, Associate Editor: I feel like Thrift is too much of a gimme on this one, so I’m going to say Chris McCall. I think he’ll practice hard for it, and he looks like he could be getting into the prime of his fishing career. Looking at his results the past few years, it’s pretty apparent that he can catch them on a variety of lakes and rivers. He’s not a surefire bet, but I think we’ll see a strong finish from him at Ouachita.
Tom Redington, FLW Tour pro: There are no fluke qualifiers in the group, but I wouldn’t bet against Bryan Thrift winning at any lake, any time. With the pressure off him to qualify for the Cup next year, Lord help us pros on the FLW Tour – he has as good of a chance as anyone to win multiple times next year.
2. FLW announced that the 2015 Walmart FLW Tour will be capped at 150 boats, with the same prize money up for grabs that was offered in 2014 when there were about a dozen more boats per tournament on average. Do you think reducing the field is a good thing?
CM: Fewer boats, several thousand dollars’ less entry fee money in the kitty, yet the payout stays the same. It’s a win-win for the fishermen and the guys like me who cover the events. If you’re an On The Water reporter, it means there aren’t as many anglers to keep up with. If you’re a contestant, a couple of dozen fewer competitors puts you closer to a check and qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup.
CN: I’ve never felt too strongly about what is the “right size” for the Tour field, but I do like this change. We’ll see more of our favorite pros. Lakes will be a little less crowded. Weigh-ins will go faster. The sport’s true professionals should have an easier time securing paychecks. Average skill level should be higher across the board. These are all small victories, but they add up to a smart change for FLW.
JW: There are a lot of angles to take on this one. On the one hand, fewer total entry fees means higher entry fees. That’s not much skin off Andy Morgan’s nose, but for a more marginal angler that could be a decision factor. Then again, payouts have stayed the same, and now there are fewer anglers battling for them, so the odds seem to be better. Finances aside, this is probably a good long-term move. The space below 150th in the 2014 AOY standings was largely occupied by guys who bombed all season or who, for whatever reason, only fished a few events. Shedding those spots from the roster isn’t going to equate to a major change among pros who’ll contend for AOY in 2015. A full field all year and more coverage per angler seem like good things.
TR: My hat’s off to FLW for shrinking the field while keeping the payouts the same. That means 40 percent of pros are leaving with $10K checks at each event, versus about 33 percent at our peak turnouts last season. Lakes also fish a lot better with smaller fields – you can run patterns more, and there are bigger catches since good spots aren’t shared as much. Smaller fields also mean stronger fields due to more competition to enter, plus more coverage for individual anglers and their sponsors. Both from a fishing and business side, smaller is generally better, especially if payouts remain the same (and they are the same this season).
3. FLW also announced that the 2016 Forrest Wood Cup will be a pro-only event. Some in the industry question this decision. What’s your take?
CM: Casey Martin said it best in a recent blog on the FLWOutdoors.com: If you’re competing as a pro, and the guy in the back of the boat catches a fish that you might have caught, and it costs you the championship or perhaps your future as a professional, it can’t be a good thing. So it could be a real zero-sum game for the pro in the Cup.
CN: I like this change, for all the reasons the pros are touting, but also for a reason that I haven’t heard mentioned yet: I always felt like co-anglers were largely overlooked at the Cup. They were just sort of “there” – present, but a minor part of the festivities for a couple of days before the cut was made and the focus shifted back to the real attraction, which is a group of the sport’s best professional anglers, having performed at the top of their game to make a championship, squaring off for $500,000. That’s not a knock on co-anglers. In fact, I love FLW’s co-angler program and the opportunities it presents. I just don’t think co-anglers belong at the Cup, which is a professional championship. Besides, this change reinforces the real purposes of the co-angler program: to provide a low-cost opportunity for anglers to compete in a nationwide tournament series for cash prizes and to train the next generation of professionals. Both of those can be achieved in a six-tournament regular season and at the lower levels of FLW competition.
JW: I love it. Though payouts for co-anglers can be crucial to starting an angler’s career, they’re still likely to have six chances at $20,000. By all accounts, the real payoff of being a co-angler is the time on the water with pros in practice and the event, and only 1/7 of that is going away. That means the pros will have the stage all to themselves for four days in August. Every storyline will be purely on them. There won’t be questions about Jacob Wheeler’s co-angler being disqualified or any coverage of how Bryan New won (as cool as that was). It will be all pros, all the time.
TR: As a former co-angler myself, let me preface this by saying that most FLW Tour co-anglers are true class acts, often with skills as good as top pros (witness the instant success top co-anglers have had jumping to the pro side), who go out of their way to stay out of the pros’ way and help in any way they can. While many anglers point out co-angler drawbacks, good co-anglers often improve a pro’s catch by experimenting with a different technique, which can lead a struggling pro to have a good day. However, I equate the co-angler design to the old college football bowl system: It was a relic of the sport’s roots, and it is inevitably moving toward an eight- or 16-game playoff system so that the top team can be determined on the field. The very loud objections by a small minority with a vested interest in the old system, stating a loss of tradition and dilution of the regular season, are now being drowned out by the most captivating season ever.
Back to fishing: Co-anglers sign up for a variety of reasons, primarily to learn, qualify as a pro or for recreation. A marshal or observer program allows for learning with pros, and TBF, BFL and Rayovac FLW Series events offer a clear qualification path to the Tour and offer a diverse range of co-angler opportunities.
The goal of any sport is to level the playing field as much as possible and let the outcome be decided solely on the skill of the pros. A Forrest Wood Cup victory is truly life-changing and career-making for a pro, and for that reason, FLW has decided to eliminate co-anglers from the event. At the same time, earning a check or a first victory is often just as important to many pros all season. By the same logic, if fishing is truly a professional sport, all FLW Tour events should be pro-only. I believe that is a sentiment privately shared by the vast majority of pros, including co-anglers who’ve switched to the pro side.
I say this knowing it would send away some of the top gentlemen affiliated with our sport, such as Todd Lee and Frank Divis Jr., change the path to the pros for a lot of great up-and-coming anglers, and mean no longer having my best friend/brother on the road with me as a co-angler. However, like college football, there might be a few growing pains, but the end result is inevitable, so the sooner, the better.
4. Based on the 2015 schedule, any early favorites for the Angler of the Year title?
CM: I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m picking Andy Morgan or Cody Meyer.
CN: This should say: Who are the early favorites if Andy Morgan decides not to compete this season (like that’s going to happen)? Morgan three-peat aside, there are six (or maybe seven) anglers I could confidently pick to win it, but at the top of the list is Bryan Thrift. He has already qualified for the 2015 Cup, so he can fish for the win at every tournament, and there’s not a stop on the schedule where Thrift doesn’t have a realistic chance at winning. He’s my No.1 pick for half the tournaments: Toho, Eufaula and the Potomac. Wouldn’t it be something if Thrift walked away with the AOY and Cup trophies this season?
JW: Besides Andy Morgan and Cody Meyer, I think David Dudley and Scott Canterbury are good choices. They are both high-level fishermen, and they will have an opportunity to make big moves on waters that they are at least semi-local to.
TR: A quick look at AOY points for the past years reveals the same list of Tour studs in contention every year. Assuming my colleagues will cover the obvious favorites, let me give you a few dark horses. Jason Lambert, Adrian Avena or Michael Neal winning would probably catch a lot of fans by surprise, but not many pros. Lambert is an absolute demon offshore, almost assured of top 10s from late spring through summer. Avena brings an open mind to bass fishing after honing his skills in the saltwater around Jersey. My sleeper pick, however, is Neal. He went from 95th to 20th to seventh in the points the past three seasons, rounding out his shallow-water skills to match his Rose/Haynes level of offshore prowess. Still in his early 20s, his arrow is only pointed up.
5. FLW College Fishing was recently featured in a story in The New York Times that suggested the College Fishing format, which offers cash prizes to winning teams, might be the start of a new trend in collegiate sports, shifting away from the strictly amateur format used by the NCAA. This poses an interesting question: Would it be better for college bass anglers if the NCAA sanctioned bass fishing and universities funded clubs, but required that the anglers maintain amateur status by not accepting sponsorships and prize money? Or would it be better for college anglers to maintain affiliation with schools, for the most part fund their own competition, but have the freedom to fish for cash and scholarships?
CM: Tough question; the NCAA has the leverage to make colleges jump through its hoops. If other sports start whining and pointing to college fishing as an exception to the rule the NCAA imposes on others, the universities might have no choice but to rein in fishing teams and make them walk the walk. I don’t think most collegians would forego team fishing because they wouldn’t have a crack at prize money. If they’re good enough and prove it in the college ranks, they probably could get all the sponsors they need once they graduate.
CN: I think the best thing for college fishing is a combination of the two scenarios outlined in the question: school-sanctioned and funded “varsity” teams that are not governed by the NCAA, but that allow team members to earn prizes at events put on by organizations like FLW. Compared to team ball sports that require arenas, buses, large support staffs and overpriced coaches, among other expenses, fishing should actually be very cheap for a major university to fund. Plus, the promotional value is quite high with wrapped trucks and boats out there on the road. More universities should jump on that opportunity. For the anglers, I’d almost hate to see them forced into a purely amateur role. Would a college angler have to turn down a check in a weekend BFL tournament fished independently, like a college golfer in a for-money tournament, for fear of losing his amateur status? Would there be suspensions for purchasing tackle at a discounted price as a fishing team member? In my opinion, the foundation is already in place for anglers to compete and earn, and FLW already has the resources to host events, meaning the NCAA doesn’t need to take over. Now let’s build on it and do whatever it takes to get more university support so we can see how far this thing can go.
JW: I go back and forth on this issue a lot, and it is one that I’ve thought a lot about. Even though the NCAA is basically making up the rules as they go along (see Penn State), I feel that the added regulation would almost certainly make most college fishing teams operate in a much more consistent manner. Currently, the patchwork of rules between schools is a little crazy, and each bass club operates under wildly different conditions. Then again, the way things are now typically results in the most committed anglers making it to actual intercollegiate competition, and that is the way it should be.
The other possible benefit from NCAA involvement that I see would be increased legitimization of fishing. Though there are some NCAA sports that are even fringier than fishing, I think there’s a chance that having a well-defined and official pipeline that leads to the professional stage might make fishing easier to understand and more popular. Along with that, there are a number of people who don’t consider fishing a sport – NCAA involvement would likely push that number down.
One concern is that if the NCAA got involved with collegiate fishing, it is likely to drastically change FLW College Fishing. There are regional conferences, but the distinct leagues that exist in fishing don’t currently exist in other college sports. You’d likely see a dramatic change in how the fishing industry interacts with college fishing. Though some would undoubtedly benefit, I don’t think that is a bet I’d want to make right now.
I’m absolutely not one of those people who is against changes just for the sake of not changing, but it seems like we’re doing all right as-is. So, I think my preference is to keep on plugging the way we have been. College Fishing is doing well and growing consistently, and I expect it to keep getting better as it evolves (because it is still startlingly young). I think that’s about all we need right now.
TR: Going back to my earlier discussion, the NCAA is in a major state of flux, embroiled in a power battle with top conferences. That leads me to think a wait-and-see approach is best for now, until the landscape settles.
The one thing I would like to see though, is a sustainable format at both the high school and college levels where any kid who is really into fishing and has the talent/drive can make the team and compete. With the prohibitive cost of tournament-quality bass boats, fishing at both levels could be limited to those who have boat access, which somewhat limits the sport to those who grow up in a fishing family and/or an affluent one. The goal should be to have more open, widespread opportunities like we see with baseball or basketball.