When it comes to bass fishing bragging rights and prize money in the Western U.S., it didn’t get any bigger or lucrative than this week’s competition on Lake Mead outside Las Vegas.
The WONBass U.S. Open is the Super Bowl of bass fishing this side of Texas, where 284 professionals and amateurs competed for an $80,000 first place prize, which included a $40,000 fully rigged fishing boat.
There were the grizzled angling vets sporting three-day beards like Johnny Johnson of Lakeside, Ariz., who wore the professionals’ signature long-sleeved shirts bearing sponsor logos from top to bottom. And amateurs fished for black bass, too, trudging to the daily fish weigh-ins at the Callville Bay Marina, 40 miles from downtown Las Vegas, just like the pros.
The WONBass U.S. Open is not part of any fishing circuit. The nation’s top professional bass fishermen compete at two top levels — the Bassmaster Elite Series and the newer FLW Tour. The Bassmaster and the FLW are like the American League and National League of Major League Baseball, with the U.S. Open at Lake Mead serving as its own independent mini-World Series for competitors from Bassmaster, FLW and around the world.
“This is the last big tournament on the West Coast,” said professional fisherman John Murray of Phoenix.
The 31-year-old bass fishing contest drew the sport’s biggest names this week, including anglers from Japan and Australia.
But a unique feature of the competition allows professional bass anglers to work in two-man teams with amateurs who took a week off from their day jobs to compete with the full-time pros. The pros paid a $1,600 entry fee, while the amateurs stroked a $600 check to compete Monday through Wednesday this week.
“The U.S. Open has five or six guys from the Bassmaster Elite Series and this tournament gives you the chance to test your mettle against those guys,” said Dan O’Sullivan, publisher of www.AdvancedAngler.com, which covers the sport.
Western Outdoors News (the WON part of the tournament name) puts on the bass-fishing contest. It’s a break-even enterprise for the San Clemente, Calif.-based publicaztion, said Chuck Buhagiar, the company’s director of sales and marketing.
Sponsorships pays for the prize money and provide the boat, engine and fishing tackle for the winners, Buhagiar said.
In the U.S., about 150-200 bass fishermen can make a living exclusively from competing at the tourneys, said Brett Hite, 34, of Phoenix, who competes on the FLW circuit. He said annual entry fees alone cost him $40,000.
Murray, the pro from Phoenix, said the top three or four earners in professional bass fishing generate $750,000-$1 million annually. He said the next 10 or 15 money-makers earn in the $200,000-$500,000 range.
“It’s a passion for all of us,” Murray said. “You have to watch your spending. If you win this tournament, you better bankroll it for a year and don’t go out and buy a new car.”
Sponsors range from big names like Nitro and Mercury, while small companies like Lobina Lures also are a sponsor. Jennifer Duff, of Mesa, Ariz., who owns Lobina Lures and is a former bass angler who competed in Japan, said she invested about $5,000 in the U.S. Open.
“For these guys to use our lures, it gives us credibility,” she said.
For the major brands like Mercury, the event’s official engine sponsor, participating at the U.S. Open was a move for exposure to “maintain our market share out here,” said Kevin Linehan, Mercury business development chief overseeing West Coast sales.
Contact Review-Journal writer Alan Snel at ASnel@Reviewjournal.com.