How Bass Tournaments Work

Although bass fishing tournaments have been around for over 30 years, it hasn’t been until recently that the national media has taken notice. ESPN and ESPN2 now air the FLW tour, B.A.S.S. tournaments show on TNN, while the new WCF series appears on Fox Sports.

Jim Moynagh

Print media likeUSA Today has in recent years carried stories on bass tournaments. Big payoffs and corporate sponsorships are drawing further attention to the sport. And having Denny Brauer as a guest on David Letterman’s Late Show exposed bass tournament fishing to millions who never knew it even existed.

The heightened curiosity of the public has them asking many questions about tournaments. I get these all the time — very basic questions. How are tournaments scored? What happens to the fish? How long does it last? … and so on. I will answer some of those questions.

Tournament Basics
First, how does one get involved with tournament fishing? All tournaments require an entry fee and a completed application. If you have some spare cash and can write your name and address out –you’re in! Of course, you’ll need to have a boat, too.

Finding out about times and locations of tournaments is easy; many tackle stores have fliers of local events that are open to anyone. At the national level involving the two major circuits, the FLW and B.A.S.S Top 150, there are some qualifications that must be met before you are accepted as a participant. You need to demonstrate success competing in their entry level tournaments — the Everstart Series and B.A.S.S. divisionals, respectively.

To win a tournament, you simply score the highest accumulative weight for a limit of bass. Weighing of the fish is done at a “weigh-in” — one site where all competitors weigh their fish on the same scale. Some tournaments run for multiple days; in this case, each day’s weight is added together. Some of the premier events may have elimination rounds until only a few anglers are left. In this case, it may be that everyone starts the final day again from zero.

A special “big bass” prize is awarded to the person catching the largest individual bass of the tournament. But this prize is much smaller in comparison to the main one. Therefore, anglers are more concerned with catching a limit of bass rather than chasing lunkers, which are far less in numbers and more difficult to catch.

The start of a tournament will occur at one site on the lake at a specific time. Each boat is assigned a number designating its takeoff position. As soon as the starting time is reached, boats are sent off in sequential order starting with No. 1. This ensures a much safer takeoff instead of everyone blasting off all at once.

After the start, competitors are free to travel anywhere about the lake in pursuit of their catch. In some of the big lakes or river systems, competitors may sacrifice fishing time and travel over 100 miles one way to potentially more productive fishing grounds.

No matter what happens or where people fish, everyone must return to a check-in point (generally the starting spot) by a certain time. Returning late results in severe penalties and potential disqualification.

Tournament Formats
Within the limits previously discussed, most bass tournaments have the competitors compete under one of the following four scenarios:

1) Straight Draw: Entrants are all competing for the same prizes and they’re randomly paired together and share the same boat. Somehow, the pair agree upon whose boat will be used (that’s not always easy).

Regardless of whose boat is used, each person has the right to half the day for fishing where they want and how they want. In most tournaments using this format, each person catches their own fish and scores them separately from their partner’s catch. Some events have the randomly drawn pair fish together as a partnership, combining their catch for just one score for the boat.

2)Pro / Am Draw: This format has two pools of fishermen — a pro pool and amateur pool. Entering as a pro requires a higher entry fee, but the prizes in their pool carry a greater value. Entering as an amateur costs less, but the winnings are less as well. Each pro is randomly paired with an amateur. The pro has total control regarding fishing strategy and location; and is allowed the use of his boat. The amateur hopes to gain first-hand insight into the pro’s strategy and technique while catching a few fish along the way. Depending on the tournament, scoring can either be separate or combined between the paired fishermen.

3)Pro / Observer: Each pro entered will be paired with a person who simply rides along and doesn’t fish. Observers are typically volunteers whose job is to see that all rules are obeyed.

4)Team: Competitors choose their own partners and enter the event as a paired team. They’ll fish from the same boat, combining their catches for one total team score.

So what about the bass? What happens to them? Extraordinary efforts are made to ensure that all fish are returned to the lake in good health. Mortality rates run low; usually less than 5 percent and sometimes even zero percent. Prohibiting live bait in tournaments is the first step to saving the fish. Using live bait increases the chances of the bass being hooked deep in the gullet resulting in serious injury. Plus, the bass are never put on a stringer. Instead, each boat is required to carry “livewells” — tanks that hold water and have some means of aeration. The only time that the bass are taken out of the water is while they are being weighed. This lasts for less than 30 seconds. After this, the bass are then released back into the lake.

With the great number of tournaments today, many variations exist aside from what I’ve covered. In fact, one format exists now that scores by combining fish weight and racing skills — the WCF series.

Once you participate in a tournament, you’ll see that it is simple to understand. That’s unlike the bass themselves, which have a knack for bedazzling even the best fishermen from time to time.

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Jim Moynagh writes a twice-monthly bass fishing column on Visit Jim on Facebook at!/pages/Jim-Moynagh/167413610047622?fref=ts He is a FLW touring pro, and a former Forrest Wood Open Champion with multiple top 10 finishes. In 2012, he finished in fourth place for Angler of the Year honors. He also finished in fourth place two-straight times in FLW events in 2012. His expertise is deep-water structure fishing for large and smallmouth bass. Jim’s sponsors include M&M’s, All-Terrain Tackle, Chevy Trucks, and Ranger Boats.

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