- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2007

Mention the words “bass tournament” in these parts and you’ll rarely be greeted with ambivalence. Competition fishing — large Potomac River bass tournaments in particular — is the stuff vigorous arguments are made of.

After having covered the Bassmaster Classic — the most prestigious bass tournament in the United States — from the early 1970s to 1997, I’ll admit that I have completely soured on the concept of competitive bass fishing. There was no ugly incident that made me change my mind, no damaged ego, nothing of the sort — only the sudden realization that bass tournaments are not so much about sport and fishing as they are about money. The mighty dollar rules everything.

As I look back, I can recall professional bass tournament anglers that I am sure would have run over their own mothers if they thought a contest-winning catch lay on the other side of her body. Generally speaking, however, the majority of the pro bass anglers that I met were perfect gentlemen.

What turned the tide for me happened in the past four or five years, when major out-of-town tournament organizations would come to the tidal Potomac’s super popular Smallwood State Park on the Mattawoman Creek in Charles County to launch up to 200 bass boats for three and four days at a time and act as if they owned the place. Worse yet, they’d receive red carpet treatment from the county and the people who run the state parks system. Fishermen who live in or near Charles County are told they can’t put their boats into the water while the tournament boats are being launched even though the local citizens paid for the park’s boating facilities with boat taxes and registration fees, water improvement funds and other “reach into the citizens’ pocket” schemes used by the state government.

To add salt to our wounds, these mega-contests are frequently conducted during time periods when the water temperature exceeds 85 degrees — certainly not desired by the bass that the contestants try to keep alive until a weighing and tallying of the fish takes place. They’re let go eventually and only God knows how they fare after that. Some will die from the stress of being confined in soup-warm water for many hours, but the tournament honchos pat themselves on the back, saying they’re strictly catch-and-release folks who don’t kill fish.

A case can be made that if you hold a large fishing contest in which money is the sole object, it ought to be called commercial fishing, not a recreational activity. What’s recreational about an event that is ruled by money and nothing else? Why wouldn’t a state demand that all the contestants be in possession of a rather expensive commercial fishing license?

It’s true that other participation sports are about only money, including professional golf, bowling, motorcycle and auto racing, but those sports generally are conducted on privately owned courses, alleys and tracks. Competition bass groups use only public waters and they tremendously inconvenience the very people whose taxes and license fees support boating facilities that abut these public waters.

No one would complain if the BASS group or FLW and others held their contests in privately owned lakes, but, no, they prefer public waters because it’s cheaper that way. Sadly, the Maryland government actually supports such things, but again it’s all about money. They figure if the out-of-town tournament pros spend a few bucks in the local Wendy’s, Burger King or the Motel 6, it’s good for the state’s economy.

Horse hockey!

I receive unsolicited reader comments about tournaments regularly. They come from people who are fed up with the weekly bass tournaments that threaten to beat the tidal Potomac to a froth.

A fisherman named Bob wrote, “This is why [I dislike tournaments]. After 10 years of wonderful fishing, we stopped entirely. The crowds and tournaments killed the fun. I now think about the Mattawoman as yesteryear.”

On the Bass Fishing Web site, Jay wrote, “Welcome to the world [where only] dollars matter. This used to be a super place and now, well, it [stinks].”

Another bass angler who asked for anonymity because he belongs to a bass club and might get some grief from his fellow members, wrote, “I propose a coalition of user groups to protest these [bass] tournaments. A coalition of resource users should be organized to oppose the contests. This could include waterfront landowners, recreational fishermen, recreational boaters, sailors and park users.”

This e-mailer is of the firm belief that anyone who fishes for money violates the intent of gamefish regulations and the meaning of recreational angling. I echo his sentiments.

On the same Web site, a fellow named Jim C. wrote, “Large [commercial] tournaments like FLW and B.A.S.S. are going to continue to wreak havoc on the fishery. Studies out of Texas Tech University in Lubbock demonstrate that while initial mortality rates have dropped since the early ‘80s, post-release mortality of bass caught in tournaments remains at a steady 24 to 28 percent. That’s over a quarter of the biggest and best fish being killed in tournaments. Other studies put the mortality rate even higher — more like 40 percent or more with increases in temperature, fish capture depth and concentration of fish per volume of water raising mortality rates.

“I won’t even get into the fact that a [significant] percentage of tournament fishermen tend to have an entitlement attitude that they use to justify their pushing other water users off ‘hot spots’ or certain stretches of water.”

Jim C. added that during tournament days you can forget about even getting close to a public boat ramp, even though it was paid for with local tax dollars.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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