When it comes to professional bass fishermen, a fact of life has always been that they rarely think alike. That is part of their collective strength. These are individuals who have blazed their own trails.
So it was not surprising to find a wide variety of voices and opinions when it comes to the sweeping changes planned for 2006, when the CITGO Bassmaster Tour becomes the Elite Series with the bittersweet combination of the biggest payout ($11 million) and largest entry fee ($5,000) in BASS history.
The sampling of opinions continues:
Four-time CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion Rick Clunn; "I like (the changes). It's where we need to go. We've been in the past too long, and unfortunately, if you leave it up to many of us who have been in the past, it tends to be where we can't think out of that box. I like it for a lot of reasons.
"Everybody is not looking at the mathematics of this. The two main complaints are we can't afford it which is completely mathematically incorrect. For the first time ever we can maybe afford this sport. We're spoiled brats in the fishing business. For example, (my wife) Melissa and I just opened up a store and we spent $80,000 to buy a building. You have to have inventory in the building. And then if you make 20, 25 percent margin on everything you do pretty well. But if you don't make that, you don't do any good. All businesses pretty well function that way. Our business is no different. You pay a $5,000 entry fee for a potential minimum of $10,000.
"If we just have a so-so year, we just might break even. If we have a decent year like everybody else where you're making 20 percent on your money, then we make a little money like the rest of mankind does. Here's the big difference: We can have windfall profits kind of like the oil companies are doing right now. We can have windfall profits; other people can't do that.
"But the bottom line is performance. The biggest fallacies I hear from the anglers and if you're around them long enough you hear them say one thing and then over time you realize what they're saying is 'I want a guaranteed living.' There's no such thing as a guaranteed living. Whether you're running any other business, you have to perform. And performance is going to be the whole key.
"The other complaint is what about the young anglers? Well, the young anglers are not different than when I started. You've got to work your way up the ladder. It's not easy. They can't just jump in like they do in the NBA from high school straight into the NBA. I had to work my way up. Larry Nixon had to work his way up. Denny Brauer had to work his way up.
"Yeah, it's tough. They've just got to take the tough road and if they start performing, then it's the best it's ever been. There's more opportunities now for a good angler than there's ever been in the history of the sport.
"That's where I don't have a lot of patience or sympathy with my own fellow anglers on this whole thing. This is the way we need to go. It's the best direction we've had in a long time."
Veteran Oklahoma pro Tommy Biffle: "I don't really like the $5,000 entry fee. It's going to be hard to come up with that kind of money. I like the 100-man field and everything, but the entry fee is a little bit high. If you break down the first day, you're done. You should get to fish for three or four days if you pay a $5,000 entry fee. If a guy has any kind of mechanical trouble, he's thrown away $5,000."
Reigning Classic champion Kevin VanDam: "I think there's a lot of positives to the whole plan. That's the way that it's important to look at it. The bottom line is as a Tour angler, who is an individual businessman, you have to look at it as a business decision. The entry fee being $5,000 is a lot to swallow, but if you take into account all of the parts of the equation like the wrapped boat, which I take is a good step to drive more non-industry companies into our sport, and all the money that's there from the Angler of the Year purse, the Classic purse and the Majors, there's an opportunity for anglers to make a lot of money.
"There's a big risk/reward. From a standpoint of a comprehensive long-term plan, I think it's amazing how far we've come from where we were at earlier this spring. Going from a 200-man field with what I called pretty dismal payouts to a more elite group. Bigger risks, without a doubt. But definitely bigger rewards. But what I see is a blueprint for the anglers and the sport to continue to grow going forward in the future.
"There's no doubt that there's gong to be people that are left behind. And again, my viewpoint on it is everybody is an individual running our own businesses. We have to look at this as a business opportunity. If it's something you want to be a part of, there's definitely some risks involved. I think a lot of the older guys that have been fairly successful may decide that it's time for them to ride off into the sunset instead of taking that chance. I think for young anglers, this is an opportunity to either make it or break it in the big time. .
"It's a lot to swallow. It's more than we've ever been asked to pay before. Me, personally, I'd rather pay a little bit more and fish against a smaller field even if it is the most elite. It sets themselves apart from every other organization out there and every other tournament that's ever been done."
Northern Open angler Bill Lowen, 30, from Cincinnati: "I'm kind of nervous, man. I've been chasing a dream forever. I've been fishing the Northern Opens trying to get my foot in the door. I'm in 10th and I'd love to get on the Tour. I'm kind of nervous that maybe I'm going to get my shot and not be able to afford it. I've got a little backing, but it's going to take more than what I've got now."
Former Classic champion Larry Nixon: "ˆI think they're making the biggest mistake they've ever made. There's no reason why there's not 150 boats in the Tour. None whatsoever. And you don't have enough guys that can pay $5,000 for 11 events to have a successful Tour.
"It needs to be about like it was. You need to have about 150 boats in the Tour because there's more than 150 guys that want to fish. You've already eliminated 50 people that want to fish; probably 75. And $5,000 a pop for 11 tournaments, even with a $10,000 payback if you make the top 50 you're still only going to profit about $3,500 at the most.
"So there's no reason not to start with 150 guys. That's the biggest mistake that BASS has ever made in all the years I've been there. You're eliminating fishermen that want to fish and have entry fee money. That's what they're doing and I don't think that's the right way to go about it.
"I'm not sure they'll get 100 fishermen at that price. I can fish them, but I'm not sure that I want to fish them. I just think it's ridiculous."
Veteran Florida pro Shaw Grigsby: "The biggest thing you have to look at is the progression of the sport. If you want the sport to stay where the sport has been for the last 20 years, it's progressed very little. ESPN is trying to progress it and bring it into being a big-time sport. If you look at it from that standpoint, there are things that they need to do and they're doing them.
"In my opinion, I think they're doing the right thing. I think they're going the right direction. I think the entry fee is a major problem, but from what I've read, (BASS GM Don) Rucks says they know they need to get it down. We're hopeful this is a one-time deal and next year they'll bring it down. And the year after that they'll bring it down. They're working in the right direction. That's what we feel is happening and I think BASS is doing a good job in that regard."
Third-year Tour pro Luke Clausen: "I'm a little bit concerned. I'm not even sure I'm going to fish them right now because if I put in $55,000 I'm probably going to be up to $80,000 with expenses. Even if I end up in the top 50 every tournament, I'll be up $110,000, but after expenses I'll only be up about $35,000. That's not really a great living for taking that kind of risk."