Pros and co(n)s

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — When Greg Hackney learned of BASS' decision to eliminate co-anglers from the 2009 Elite Series, he didn't mince words.

"It's the greatest thing to ever happen to the sport of bass fishing,'' Hackney said from the floor of the 2008 ICAST Show.

There were several professional anglers working the floor of the show who agree with Hackney, but almost equally spread out among manufacturers and retailers was a feeling of disappointment tempered by understanding.

"I certainly understand how the pros feel,'' said Eric Naig of Pure Fishing, who has competed as co-angler. "But as a manufacturer it's a little disappointing, because it's been a great way for us to grow our pyramid of influence. I do understand, though."

That feeling was consistent with a handful of manufacturers asked about the impending change.

"I think it takes away the true interaction between angler and hard-core angler,'' said John Barnes of Strike King. "But I'm sure the pros are tickled to death."

And for the most part he is right. ESPN Outdoors asked a half dozen Bassmaster Elite Series anglers at ICAST how they felt about the change. The responses ranged from extremely positive to moderate indifference.

"I think that is awesome," said Elite Series pro Fred Roumbanis. "It really changes the course of the game when you have a co-angler in the back of the boat."

At the heart of the change is the extreme competitiveness of the Elite Series. Like many professional events in this era, that tour has operated the last three years under a pro-am style format. Each day a professional angler is paired with a co-angler and the two compete individually from one boat.

The professional angler fishes against all the other professionals from the front of the boat, while the co-angler competes against the other co-anglers from the back of the boat. And both spend a lot of time watching each other.

"Personally, I learned a lot from the pros," said Lee Sisson, who fished four times as a co-angler this season and had two top 10s. "I understand from the angler's point of view that every fish I catch is one he's not going to catch tomorrow. So for the overall picture, I think it's a good move, but as a co-angler, I hate to see it go."

The stakes are high on both ends. The professional is vying for a $100,000 top prize, a Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title and a spot into the Bassmaster Classic. The co-angler is fishing for $25,000.

The high stakes often creates a situation where co-anglers compete all out and impact the professional's day.

"This is our job, though," said Kevin Short, an Elite Series competitor who has been outspoken in his blogs on ESPNOutdoors.com about the role co-anglers play in the outcome of these events. "None of those guys are showing up trying to make their house payment or take care of their bills. They get to fish, possibly win, and go home. But in the process they can also change the outcome of one of our tournaments and impact a pro's career."

Many of the pros acknowledge that there has been the occasion when a co-angler has helped a professional angler find and catch fish. Hackney gave an example of a professional struggling in the front of the boat with a crankbait, while the co-angler was just fishing in the back of the boat with a plastic worm.

"He catches one on that worm or off a piece of cover and it tips the professional angler on what to do next,'' Hackney said.

Many of the anglers say that type of thing waters down the competition on the Elite Series.

"This decision is the best possible thing for our sport,'' said Ish Monroe, an Elite angler. "It takes the elite anglers and turns them into truly Elite anglers, where they compete against each other in the truest form of competition."
Monroe's statement, according to Tom Ricks, General Manager of BASS, is the primary reason for the decision.

"It's the next logical step for the Elite Series; to truly turn this into a professional sport and level the playing field for the guys involved," he said.

But it doesn't come with out some hesitation. Even in the middle of celebrating the idea that they will no longer have to contend with an angler competing in their boat, pros and manufacturers do feel a little trepidation.

"You've got to be careful with what you're doing here," said Elite Series angler Peter Thliveros. "Co-anglers are the guys that have perpetuated the myth of a lot of the top guys.

"Their word of mouth is how a lot of this industry was built to this point. Maybe so many of the stories don't get out the way they used to and it turns into NASCAR where everybody knows you, but they don't know you."