The good ol' days

"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

— Kurt Russell as "Snake" Plissken in John Carpenter's Escape from L.A.

I saw a story the other day that just puzzled the crap out of me. Literally. The gist of the piece centered on the spiraling cost of tournament bass fishing and how the price of tournament fishing had gotten out of the reach of many young people wanting to get into the sport.

Just now? All of the sudden? Seriously? I thought it had always been damn near impossible for someone in their late teens or early 20s to jump into the world of pro fishing. This is something new? Not.

My first derby somewhere around 1986 (maybe?) was fished with my older brother Vern out of his 16-foot flat bottom on Lake Maumelle, aka The Dead Sea. I think he had a 25 Merc on the transom, plywood floor and maybe that green indoor/outdoor carpet over the plywood. We pulled it to the lake with either a '69 or '70 orange and cream colored Chevy truck.

Even with the shiny Rangers, HydraSports and other fancy bass rigs in the parking lot, I thought Vern's 16-foot tin can was the coolest rig on the pond because he was my brother and we were fishing the big Tuesday night tournament together. No matter that all 28 of the other boats passed us on take-off, we were still having a big time and we were there.

Vern's about nine years older than I am. At the time of our first tournament, his flat-bottom rig was all he could afford. Nothing outrageously fancy, but it got him around the lake and it was his.

Would he have liked to be flying down Maumelle in a new fiberglass rocket? Most assuredly. But he couldn't afford the payment and wasn't going that far in debt for a boat, even a fancy boat. The tin boat was his fishing platform for several years. Some Tuesday nights he took the fancy boys money and some nights he donated; but he was there.

Years later, when I purchased my first boat (a 13-year-old at the time, not quite what you'd call a "fiberglass rocket") and fished my first tournament, I quickly realized that there were guys out there who had a lot more than I did. Not only did they have more and shinier stuff than I did, but they knew how to use it, too.

Many of these guys with the shiny stuff were considerably older than I was and I wasn't exactly a spring chicken. At 35, I'm not sure that I would qualify as a "young gun," but in the tournament world around Central Arkansas, I was a youngster.

Most of the older gents with the blinged out boats were not necessarily independently wealthy. They either owned their own businesses, had high-paying jobs that afforded them time and money to play or I guess they could have just been in debt up to their eyeballs.

Either way, they had the goods and the time to use those goods. Those first few years of derby fishing, there were very few guys in the fields who were younger than me. Many of those who were younger had fathers or other relatives who fished and helped them be "out there" in some form or fashion. There were very few truly "young guns" who were making it entirely on their own.

Was the Central Arkansas scene any different than any other part of the country? Near as I can tell from talking with some of the "old timers," that's the way tournament fishing has always been. There are those who have the good stuff and show up for all the derbies. They either have enough money or they're good enough to win enough money to keep playing.

On the opposite end are those who try their hand at the tournaments for a while, can't run with the big dogs because they don't have enough $$'s or aren't good enough to win the dinero it takes, and they fade away. Tournament fishing has never been a cheap endeavor. Not back in "tha day." Not here. Not now. Not ever. Deal with it.

Even back in "tha day" when a top of the line fiberglass rocket cost a whopping $15,000, that 15G's could have been your Dad's, and maybe even a chunk of Mom's, gross annual income. What's changed here? A 2010 topper now will be somewhere in the $45-60K range and how much do you and the wife gross per year?

Have things really changed that much? Has the cost of tournament fishing outpaced our income or do we just have more things to spend that income on now? Think about that.

One of the first pieces of high-tech fishing equipment that I remember my Dad buying was an Abu Garcia 5000C reel. It was in 1975 at Blass Sporting goods and cost him a whopping $79. I thought he had lost his freakin' mind. He thought I had lost my mind when I asked him if I could use it, too.

We (kids) had never had anything other than Zebco 33s at the time. Dad had a few old knuckle-buster level winds, but the 5000 was the crown jewel of bait casters. Still have that 5000C, too. Funny, you can still buy a lot of reel for 79 bucks. A frugal shopper could actually look around and get a decent rod/reel combo for 79 smacks. Would it be "top of the line?" Not hardly. Would it catch fish? Definitely. Win a derby? Possibly.

So have things changed that much in the tournament world? Sure they have. Higher entry fees (because we all wanted higher paybacks), more expensive boats (because we all wanted bigger, better, faster, more storage, more comfortable seats, etc.), more expensive rods (because we all wanted lighter, stronger, more sensitivity) and the list goes to infinity and beyond.

But with all this increase in expense, are we seeing fewer participants? You bet we are. Across the country turnouts for tournaments at all levels are down. Hold on there, Chicken Little, attendance at amusement parks, movie theaters, cruise ships, vacation resorts and just about everything else that people do for "recreation" has declined over the past few years. Why should tournament fishing be any different?

So have we reached some point where tournament fishing at the highest level is no longer attainable for a "young gun?" Not any more so than we've seen over the past 30 years. We are, however, very close to a point where the "donators" aren't showing up in high enough numbers to support the "donatees."

What? What? Did I say something wrong? White boy speak with straight tongue, dude. Donators and donatees; that's the way it's always been. We have probably the same number of the latter, but less of the former in these tough economic times.

Since 1968 and Ray Scott's first BASS tournament, anglers have largely fished for their own money. Yes, there have been times when the tournament organizations have been able to kick in as much as, or almost more than, the anglers, but for the majority of the time, it has been angler money that supported the paybacks.

The furthest we've gotten from the "fruit jar" stage happened in 2006 and 2007, when BASS had 11 tournaments on the Elite Series and also the Majors, which were the first no-entry-fee, high-payback events outside of championships. Along with those events were a host of media opportunities (which attracted sponsors and sponsor dollars) across several different media outlets. Alas, those days are over. Been forked. They're done.

Have we seen the "good ol' days" of tournament fishing at the top level? In some ways, yes we have. There are now fewer derbies to fish paying less money. Fewer tournaments mean less exposure for potential sponsors, who, for the most, are spending less money on advertising. Tighter budgets at the tournament organizations mean fewer tournaments and the vicious circle starts anew.

To break the circle, everyone needs to go out and buy a new bass boat. Tomorrow. I don't see that happening either. Just like we didn't get here over night (although it slid pretty quickly), we won't get out of this economic mess in a few weeks, months, or possibly, years.

For all those looking to make their mark on the Elite Series or FLW Tour, yes, there has been a better time than now to jump in the fray. Sorry. You want sugar on that? Not from me. It's tough.

Maybe not any tougher than it's ever been, but it's not an easy path. It's expensive, just like it's always been. There's no guarantee you're going to make it. It's the best job you've ever had in many ways and the worst job all rolled into one.

Bass fishing tournaments have never been an activity "for the masses" and I doubt very seriously they ever will be. Cost, proximity to suitable water, interest and a variety of other factors will keep derbies confined to certain areas of the country. Why do we think it will change after 41 years?

One bright spot in all this gloom is the number of college and high school students that are getting involved in tournament bass fishing. Where was this 20 years ago? Didn't exist.

These guys and gals are the future of professional fishing. Some will take on pro fishing as their vocation. Others will fish derbies on the weekends as an escape from their regular job. Some will make it with help from Mom and Dad. A few will make it entirely on their own. Just like it's always been. The key here: there's a lot of them. They're learning from today's pros at an amazing rate. They're coming. And they're good.

41 years and it is amazing to see how much has changed. 41 years and it's amazing how much has stayed the same. I'm looking for a flat bottom and an old 25 Merc. Those things are hard to find now.

For more info on Kevin Short or to contact Kevin, check out his Web site at www.kfshort.com.