No Mo Co?

In 1997, I entered two regular season FLW Tour events and did well enough to qualify for the Championship (before it was called the Forrest Wood Cup) on Lake Ferguson in Mississippi. I enjoyed fishing those three tournaments, so when the 1998 schedule came out, I put in for two more….and was promptly put on the waiting list.

It seems that they had given preference to prospective co-anglers who were willing to put down deposits for all six events. At the time, I was working for a big law firm that didn’t like its employees taking any vacation at all, so I couldn’t conceive of how anyone but a handful of retirees and independently wealthy slackers could have six weeks off to fish as a co-angler. I wrote FLW’s brass a letter to that effect, arguing that they were punishing the “working man” who made up the vast majority of their clientele.

Pete fishing as an amateur with Brent Chapman at the now-legendary 2008 Elite Series tournament on Falcon.  - photo by James Overstreet

Pete fishing as an amateur with Brent Chapman at the now-legendary 2008 Elite Series tournament on Falcon. - photo by James Overstreet

A few weeks later I was sitting at my desk when I received a call out of the blue from Irwin Jacobs, who was friendly but unbending in his belief that they’d fill the field with full-time co-anglers. I didn’t get many words in edgewise as he’s a fantastic salesman, so we eventually bid farewell without me having a chance to plead my case. It didn’t matter, because my position proved to be wrong. They did indeed fill the field with full-timers that year and for many years thereafter. Apparently there are a lot of people out there who have a lot more discretionary time than I do to fish. I wish someone had told me that was possible 30 years ago.

Two decades later, however, we’ve seen a major change in the tour level co-angler landscape. The Elite Series replaced co-anglers with Marshals after the 2008 season. The FLW Tour has kept co-anglers, but has gradually reduced their role. In recent years they’ve only been able to fish the first two days of competition, and have not been eligible for the Forrest Wood Cup. I have to assume that at some point FLW will get rid of them altogether. Not surprisingly, the number of people vying for those co-angler spots has dwindled. No longer do you need to be a left-handed, Ranger owning, FLW life member person willing to fish the entire slate of events to have a chance of getting in (past credentials may have been exaggerated slightly). In fact, as of last week, the organization was advertising that none of the 2017 tour co-angler fields were full.

I’m conflicted about this. On the one hand I loved fishing as a co-angler in both FLW and BASS events. I’d love to have the chance to do so again in the future. On the other hand, I’ve never met a single pro angler who liked having a co-angler in the back of his boat. Some have benefited from it on occasion, but they all know it changes their approach. An aggressive co – or even just a very competent one – affects the way that they fish, while the competition may not be similarly impacted. One fish caught by a co-angler from a spot that the pro intended to double back on could cost that pro a check or a career. On the flip side, a co-angler who keys his pro into a particular lure or color also changes the playing field. Maybe that impact balances out over time, as it seems that the cream has always risen to the top, with or without co-anglers, but in the space of an event or two it can have a huge disparate effect.

And no, fishing as a co-angler in an Open or a Costa is not the same, at least not to me. While there’s a chance that you’ll draw a Classic winner or the top local stick, there’s at least an equal chance that you’ll draw someone who is at roughly the same skill as your average bass clubber. To me, that chance is not worth taking time off from work.

Something is going to be lost if and when there are no more co-anglers at the tour level. One of the things that made our sport great, and different from all of the others, is that you could compete on the same playing field, at the same time, as your heroes. You can’t do that in the NFL, or the NBA or the PGA. A nobody wannabe outdoor writer who competes in local derbies on the weekends could get in the boat with KVD or Denny Brauer and learn and have a great time for not all that much more than the cost of a guide trip.

The smart amateurs learned that while the competition days were exhilarating, the real learning went on during practice. In three days in the boat with KVD at the Cal Delta in 2007 I got so many lessons I don’t even know how to rank them. Even today, when FLW co-anglers are only eligible to fish two competition days and can’t qualify for a championship, the co-angler who travels and practices with the likes of a Larry Nixon or an Andy Morgan is so far ahead of the game on value that it’s not even debatable.

Maybe we could keep pro-ams, but put them somewhere outside of the regular schedule. The hard part is getting the pros on board. I don’t believe that a shared weight format will work on a nationwide basis. It may be a great concept, but the headwinds against it are simply too strong and well-established. In order to make these events popular and well-attended, you’d need to incentivize the pros to participate. That only happens one way – cold, hard cash. No, a $500 or $1,000 bonus to the pro whose am produces the biggest weight is not going to do it when they’re used to competing for a $100,000 top prize. On the other hand, if you have 100 amateurs putting in a grand apiece in entry fees, you’re dealing with a pretty big pot of money. I finished in the money in four of the six Bassmaster tournaments I entered and all three FLW Tour tournaments I fished. Including $2,000 for a 13th place finish at Minnetonka in 1997, the grand total of those winnings was $5,244. That’s less than $600 per tournament, which might have offset some of my costs, but not all of them. I would have participated even if the prizes were all merchandise, or nonexistent. Sure, someone won a boat or a five figure check as an amateur in each of those tournaments, but you can’t bank on that. The real prize was getting to compete in that forum. Is there a way to take that $100k in entry fees and use it to get some top pros to compete in standalone or non-points events? They’d know what they were getting into, and have a chance to earn a few extra bucks for their troubles, without jeopardizing their efforts on the “real” tour.