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Elite Series Angler Riles the Industry by Sharing ‘the Truth’ About Professional Bass Fishing

March 1, 2024 - Blog

Just as some kids dream of being an NFL quarterback or NBA point guard, I wanted to be a bass pro. For much of my youth, I wanted nothing more than to fish in the Bassmaster Classic and to hold high the most coveted trophy in the sport of fishing. I envisioned the confetti flying and the arena thumping after a wire-to-wire victory. 

I chased that dream throughout high school at the local level and into college where I fished for Penn State. During my tenure there, I soaked in as much knowledge as I could. I learned different fishing techniques and got experience dealing with industry professionals to get sponsorships during college and beyond.

But becoming a pro always seemed so out of reach, and a few years after college the reality of my situation began to set in. I could not afford to fish professionally, or even attempt to qualify to fish professionally without sponsorships. To qualify to fish in the Elite Series, an angler would have to fish the B.A.S.S. Opens, which costs $16,200 in just entry fees. Then if you make the Elites it costs $5,000 per tournament. Only the top 50 percent of the 100 anglers in the Elite series will break even.

Looking back at it now, becoming a pro bass fisherman is an odd way to make a living. You need to be able to catch fish, but there are a ton of talented bass anglers out there and at the highest level everyone can catch ’em. Even more importantly, you need to be able to sell yourself to companies that have enough advertising dollars to make you whole. 

Some anglers are incredible at this, while others struggle with it. Bassmaster Elite angler Jacob Foutz is one of the latter and he recently released the video below as the kick-off of the 2024 Elite Series season was bearing down. 

Foutz’s perspective stirred the industry and resonated with pro anglers (and aspiring pro anglers) across the country. It has also received plenty of push back and negative comments from anglers who don’t think this is a topic worth ‘whining about.’ Here’s why the discussion matters.

Pro Tournament Fishing Is Built on a Dream

Some folks watching this video might think: Big deal. If pro fishing is so hard then just quit and get a real job like the rest of us. In some ways, that’s a valid critique. But I think Foutz is onto something here, and to understand why, you’ve got to understand the moment that pro bass fishing is in right now. 

For anglers in my age range (their 20s), the college fishing boom provided a stepping stone the generation before us didn’t have. With the popularization of collegiate bass fishing, more young anglers are sweeping onto the professional tours. Many of the pros out there now (including Foutz) were my competitors in college.

Practically every post and commercial that promotes tournament bass fishing includes a high-level pro saying something like ‘You can do this too, if you work hard enough.’ That message is repeated time and time again during the pinnacle events as pro’s get on stage during weigh-ins with the lights and cameras rolling. Foutz disagrees. 

“Everything I ever heard growing up was ‘If you want to fish for a living, man, just focus on fishing,’ he says. “Well buddy, let me tell you. That’s a bunch of crap.”

Social Media Has Changed Fishing Industry Economics

In the early 2000s, before the social media boom, professional anglers were mainly judged on merit. If you could catch fish consistently and find yourself at the top of the leaderboard at most events, you’d quickly become a household name. The likes of Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Davy Hite, and Greg Hackney came up through this era. Besting the field certainly wasn’t an easy job, and they still had to promote brands along the way, but catching fish was their main priority.

Times have changed. With the rise of social media influencers and YouTubers, fishing brands now have a lot more options for spending their money. Yes, brands still want anglers who can find themselves at the top of the leaderboard, but they also want anglers with large followings.

Say, for example, you are a marketing manager for a fishing brand and need to promote your products in front of more people. Would it make more sense to pay an influencer who can get you in front of 250,000 people, or pay a professional angler who can get you in front of 20,000 people? While the 20,000 may be more devoted anglers, the odds are, you’re going with an influencer’s bigger audience. 

The result is that anglers like Foutz struggle to make ends meet, even after qualifying to fish at the highest level in the sport. There are approximately 300 touring professionals in the United States and of those, about 30 of them are making serious money. Whether they got their break by winning a couple of events to the tune of $100,000, or by winning the Bassmasters Classic (and its $300,000 prize), the vast majority of those 30 anglers have earned their spot on top with a big win. The giant check is great, but the endorsements that come with it are what stabilize their finances, at least for the near future. Signing with companies to get their name on products and getting percentages from each sale is how the most famous pros make the big bucks. But not very many anglers reach that level. 

So, what does this mean for the bass fishing industry as a whole? 

In reality, there are two ways to look at it. First, this industry has been around for over 50 years and, for the most part, has seen nothing but growth in participation and revenue. So, you could argue that everything is working just fine. But then there’s the more nuanced perspective that most anglers fishing at the highest level aren’t making a living. That’s a problem in my book. If aspiring pro anglers become disenchanted, they’re not going to keep chasing the dream. 

Maybe they’ll decide to try becoming a YouTuber or influencer and potentially make more money. Or many will decide to get real jobs. Over time, this could lead to a decline in talent at the pro fishing level, making it a less interesting sport for fans. At the same time, so many more kids are being introduced to the sport of competitive fishing in high school and even elementary school. They’ll learn early on that winning isn’t just about catching fish, but it’s more about how much money you can raise and spend.  

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And that’s where this great sport could come crashing down. In my mind, we need to keep bass fishing affordable and accessible to everyone. Without that mindset, I’m not sure what the future holds.

What’s Next for Aspiring Pros? 

If you’re a young angler reading this (or the parent of a young angler), don’t be discouraged. You can still make a run at pro fishing for a living, but you’ll simply have to change your mindset from what the older generation of anglers believed. Yes, you need to be able to perform at the highest level, but you’ll also need to focus on your brand well before you ever get the chance to make a living. With entry fees in the tens of thousands, boats upwards of six figures after tacking on electronics, a truck that needs to get you and your rig around the country, travel expenses, and fishing gear, you’ll either need sponsorship or a small fortune to get started. 

And even if you do make it pro, don’t be surprised if you have to scrap just to get by. It’s not easy and it’s not pretty. It’s a lot more like being a fish bum than a pro athlete. But, there’s always going to be some folks who break through, win consistently, and sign six-figure deals. So, if you’re willing to risk it all to be a pro bass fisherman, then you better give it everything you’ve got.

The post Elite Series Angler Riles the Industry by Sharing ‘the Truth’ About Professional Bass Fishing appeared first on Outdoor Life.

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