It’s the dream for tournament anglers everywhere: to step across the stage as your name is announced over the sounds of thousands of screaming fans. Just getting to that point is the pinnacle of bass fishing, and you can only get that kind of atmosphere at one tournament - the Bassmaster Classic. With the 2012 Classic just around the corner, 49 qualifiers will all have their chance to take part in this the most prestigious bass fishing tournament in the world.
But how does one get to that point? If you want to fish the Classic and become a bass fishing pro, read on to find out how you can make your dream a reality.
You may think having a career in bass fishing would be fun, but it takes a lot more than passion to become a pro. Surely it’s a necessary component to like bass fishing, but it has to be to the point of obsession, it has to be your main goal over anything else. Think of fishing like a sport. Do you think Kobe Bryant has five championship rings only because he likes basketball? No, he is largely considered the most competitive athlete in the NBA, and even after 16 seasons he’s still trying to get better. Just like other pro sports, you need drive and dedication to succeed in the fishing world.
However, unlike basketball and other major sports, talent can only get you so far. A largemouth bass doesn’t care if you have the best natural cast in the history of fishing, all it cares about is eating, or protecting its nest, or following its instincts to strike at something close by. Do you know which presentation to use at the right time? The right bait? Speed? Size? There are hundreds of factors at play, and you have to be constantly practicing all of them to gain the knowledge you need to catch fish on a consistent basis. You could be the best angler ever at catching bass with a jig off bottom, but if fish are only schooling in suspended water, you’ll never catch as many as someone tossing out a crankbait.
If you have the drive, passion, and knowledge, then it’s time to build up your cred by fishing in local tournaments. It doesn’t matter if the prize is just a free dinner at a local restaurant, you need that tournament experience. If you don’t have a boat, join as a co-angler or enter team tournaments. Many non-boater tournaments have cash prizes, and even wins as a co-angler will help build up your reputation. The more tournaments you fish, and win, the more confidence you'll get as an angler.
It’s no secret that becoming a bass pro isn’t cheap. Not only are there entry fees to worry about, but wheeling around your boat from tournament to tournament costs money, let alone saving up to get a decent rig in the first place. Winning tournaments help, but most current pros all started off working other jobs while pursuing their dreams until they felt financially secure to make the leap to a fishing career. Having financial stability is one of, if not the most important criteria for becoming a fishing professional.
Of course a great way to help with the costs is to get sponsors. It’s a bit of a catch-22: you need sponsors to help launch your fishing career, but you can’t get sponsors without already being a pro. It’s true, after winning your local mom and pop’s fishing derby in your hometown, it’s not likely you’ll get a massive sponsorship deal with a major company like Shimano or Yamaha. It’s the wrong attitude to believe that simply asking for money straight up will land you a sponsor. To get to that point, you must build up your resume. Winning tournaments is a big one, but equally important nowadays is proving you can be a good spokesperson and salesman. So learn the products you’d like to work with one day, take some public speaking lessons or business classes if you have to, get familiar with different mediums like TV, internet, and even radio. Just remember, fishing companies aren’t rewarding you, they’re looking for you to help drive sales for their products. If you don’t like the idea of promoting products at fishing shows or in commercials, then sponsors are not likely coming your way. Most important of all, to be a professional you have to act like one. Anglers are more likely to care about a product you are promoting if you are more likeable. A bit of class goes a long way in this business.
The Bassmaster Classic is not open to everyone. No more than 50 compete, all of whom having to earn their way there through various means. While most spots are held for anglers fishing the Bassmaster Elite Series, the top professional bass circuit out there, there are other ways to get into the Classic. While criteria to enter the Classic changes every so often, below are the different paths you can take with today’s current format.
For anglers who can’t quite devote everything they have towards a fishing career, the American Bass Anglers’ Bassmaster Weekend Series offers a great way to help you get the feel of a well-run tournament series, right in your own backyard. There are dozens of divisions spread throughout the country, broken up into four regions, with hundreds upon hundreds of competitors competing in them - but only one of them can fish the Bassmaster Classic. To do it, anglers must win the Bassmaster Weekend Series Championship, and it’s certainly not easy. First, anglers in the boater division must place in the top 40 in their Division to advance to one of four Regional Championships. From there the top 50 boaters advance to the National Championship itself, where the winner not only receives over $100,000 in prizes, but also that coveted spot in the Classic. To enter this series, you must be registered as a B.A.S.S. and ABA member.
Six anglers from the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation get to go to the Classic, and it sure isn’t easy. The Federation is broken up into six divisions (North, Mid-Atlantic, Central, Southern, Eastern, and Western). Each division is broken up into states (or foreign countries, like the Canada contingent in the Eastern Division), and those states are further broken down into smaller B.A.S.S. clubs. To get to the National Championship, an angler must first qualify for the State Team Qualifier Tournament by excelling in their local club. Each State Chapter determines the format for how anglers qualify through the local clubs. The Qualifier Tournament (again, format differs per state) will determine a 12-person team that then advance to the Federation Nation Divisional Level. There, teams compete against each other for the grand prize, but individually, only the top angler from each state will advance to the National Championship. In the championship, the top angler from each of the six divisions earns a berth in the Classic. Only once has an angler won the same Classic he qualified for through the Federation Nation: Bryan Kerchal in 1994. In its history, there have been 18 Top 10 finishes for the Fed Nation at the Classic, including two runner-ups, so don’t think it’s not possible to win as an amateur. Winning the Federation Nation Championship also gives you an automatic berth into the Elite Series, the “big leagues” of bass fishing. Many anglers have used their championship wins as a springboard to a full-time professional career, like Michael Iaconelli and Brandon Palaniuk.
For the average angler, it just doesn’t get better than the Bassmaster Opens. Not only are there some big payouts, but you’re often fishing against anglers from the Elite Series, the real pros of the bass fishing world. There are three Open divisions (South, Central, and North), and there are three tournaments for each division. The winner of each tournament automatically qualifies for the Classic, so long as that angler fishes the other two tournaments in their division as well. Anyone with a B.A.S.S. membership can qualify for the Opens, though priority registration is set aside for previous competitors, Federation Nation members, and those with a lifelong B.A.S.S. membership. If you want to get in, be sure to register as early as you can. When you get to this stage of tournament fishing, finances should be well in hand as not only will you have to travel to three different tournaments, but entry fees are in the thousands. By this stage sponsors are the norm for anglers. If you are serious about being a pro angler, the Opens serves as your chance to enter the big leagues. To qualify for the Elite Series, you must rank in the top five in points at the end of the season in one of the divisions.
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