This Is the Most Lucrative Moment in History to Catch Bass

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One Friday morning in August, even before the sun had risen over the St. Lawrence River, the docks in Waddington, N.Y., were aglow. Some of the artificial light came from a flotilla of sleek boats that drifted around the marina, kitted out with luminous fish-finder devices. The rest emanated from smartphones and video cameras, as dozens of professional anglers recorded social-media clips ahead of the last competition of the regular season.

The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society — or BASS — turned 50 this year, and the professional tournament circuit it runs, the Bassmaster Elite Series, has long been considered the most prestigious in the world. In Waddington, 107 men were competing for a top payout of $100,000. Whoever won would amass points good for the Angler of the Year prize, worth another $100,000, as well as entry in the Bassmaster Classic tournament, a.k.a. “the Super Bowl of fishing,” where the victor takes home $300,000.

With their catches in holding tanks, competitors in the Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence waited for their weigh-ins.CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

With a few minutes to go before the start of competition, Kevin VanDam sat in the driver’s seat of his Nitro Z21. As a cameraman crouched before him, he began a Facebook Live feed for his nearly 250,000 followers. “I’ve fished here since 1987,” Mr. VanDam said into the lens, recalling that it took a combined catch of less than 45 pounds to win that year.

An avuncular 51-year-old from Kalamazoo, Mich., he is considered the best bass fisherman in history — and certainly the best compensated, with more than $6.4 million in BASS winnings. His sponsors — Toyota, GoPro, Oakley, Yeti coolers, to name a few — likely push his annual earnings into the seven figures.

“Last year, I won with 90 pounds,” Mr. VanDam continued. “It’s going to take more than that this year, for sure.” Despite the predawn hour, motivational comments flooded in as he spoke. One urged: “Go get ’em, KVD.” Another wrote simply “GOAT,” for “greatest of all time.”

The sport’s popularity can be seen in the crowd in Waddington and in Mr. VanDam’s Instagram following: about 260,000 fans.CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times
Mark Daniels Jr. recording the announcement of the 12 finalists — including himself — in Waddington.CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

No one — not the fans, not even Mr. VanDam — realized on that sleepy morning that the world of professional bass fishing was on the cusp of a radical transformation. A month later, Mr. VanDam would soberly announce on Facebook that after 29 years, he was bolting from BASS to an upstart rival. Major League Fishing, founded in 2011 in partnership with the Outdoor Channel, had announced a professional competition circuit of its own for 2019, called the Bass Pro Tour, and the news had slapped the industry like a 10-pound largemouth to the face.

“In case you’ve been living under a pile of Trick Worms lately,” an editor at wrote, “you may have missed the biggest news to hit the tournament side of the industry in some time. Maybe ever.” He added, “The magnitude of this shakeup cannot be overstated.”

At last count, Mr. VanDam and nearly 70 other BASS anglers have been lured away by the promise of more control over league decisions, a more TV-friendly competition format and bigger money. The Bass Pro Tour will have a total payout approaching $10 million.

BASS has responded by lowering its entry fees and upping the prize money at a number of events. The one-upmanship means that right now is possibly the most lucrative moment in history to be a professional catcher of bass.

A collection of signed photographs of fishermen at the Bassmaster tournament, evoking the snapshots found in bait shops.

In Waddington, as the sky turned pink and the clock neared the launch time of 6:15 a.m., Mr. VanDam and the other anglers wrapped up their Facebook and Instagram streaming, removed their caps and stood for the national anthem. Each of them was accompanied by a marshal, whose job it was to observe the rules and log estimated weights into an app called BASSTrakk. For one day, I acted as a marshal for Mr. VanDam.

The boats were lined up next to the shore. Each vessel was decorated with the logos of the angler’s top sponsors, giving them a similar look to the stock cars of Nascar. An M.C. announced each angler as he (they were all men, and nearly all white) launched into the river. Off went Casey Ashley, a South Carolinian and occasional country crooner, in his aqua-blue boat, sponsored by Costa sunglasses. Away sped the Texan Alton Jones, representing Miracle-Ear, a company that makes hearing aids. When it was Mr. VanDam’s turn, he quickly brought his sparkly black-and-red Nitro to its cruising speed of 70 miles per hour.

Bass boats were slower back when Ray Scott, an insurance salesman from Alabama, founded BASS in 1968. The idea for a tournament series had come to him the previous year during an outing in Jackson, Miss. As the creation myth goes, the day was rainy and the fish were elusive, so Mr. Scott retreated to his room at a Ramada Inn, took a hot shower and flicked on the TV. Watching basketball players bound across the screen, he thought: Why couldn’t his favorite sport, bass fishing, be professionalized, too?

A few months after what he called his “brainstorm in a rainstorm,” Mr. Scott held the first modern bass fishing tournament on Beaver Lake in Arkansas, inviting 106 anglers to compete for cash prizes, a fully paid fishing trip to Acapulco and a plot of land on the lake. He also founded Bassmaster Magazine.

“It is my plan that we lift bass fishing up to public par with golf, bowling and pocket billiards,” he wrote in the first issue. “It’s high time the public found out we exist.”

To an extent, Mr. Scott’s goal has been realized. According to the most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, produced by various federal agencies, bass are the most popular fishing target in America. Nearly 36 million people older than 16 went fishing in 2016, and they spent some $43 billion on equipment and travel. By rough comparison, about 24 million Americans played golf in 2016, according to the National Golf Foundation, and they spent about $32 billion on the same categories.

Anglers preparing and chatting before a day of competition on the St. Lawrence. Dozens have decided to jump to the new Bass Pro Tour next year.CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

Lately, interest has seemed to explode at the high school and college level. The number of BASS-affiliated college clubs has increased to 179, from 71 in 2012. And participation in high school clubs has boomed even more, to over 10,000 members from 793 in 2013. At least seven colleges now offer bass fishing scholarships.

Professional bass fishing has appeared to be on the verge of breakthrough popularity before. ESPN purchased BASS in 2001, but sold the organization to a group of private investors less than a decade later. (Some competitions still air on ESPN’s channels.)

The sport’s latest economic trend relates to social media, with sponsors encouraging competitors to become brands unto themselves. The biggest following belongs to Mr. VanDam, who has some 260,000 fans on Instagram in addition to his Facebook horde — nearly double the numbers of Patrick Reed, the golfer who won this year’s Masters.

On the St. Lawrence in August, Mr. VanDam’s blue eyes darted between a fish finder mounted in his console and the waves on the river. Having zoomed along for 40 minutes after launch, he reached a spot he deemed promising.

He cut the outboard engine, threw off his life jacket, leapt to the front of his boat, lowered his trolling motor and pitched out his first cast, all within a matter of seconds. Fishing as a cardio workout might sound laughable, but research published in 2008 found that professional anglers burn up to 4,300 calories during tournament days.

Mr. VanDam is tall, with cherubic cheeks and a tendency toward zealous winking. To ward off the morning chill, he wore rain pants and a raincoat embroidered with the logos for Nitro, the company that made his boat, and Bass Pro Shops. On his feet he sported timeworn flip-flops that revealed the edges of an intense sandal tan.

Most BASS tournaments are held in lakes and rivers dominated by largemouth bass — recognizable by mouths that extend beyond their eyes. In Waddington, however, Mr. VanDam was targeting smallmouth bass, which tend to fight fiercely once hooked.

Within minutes he had his first bite. “It’s a nice one,” he said, letting out a bit of line. When the fish had tired itself out, Mr. VanDam reeled it in, tipping his rod down close enough to the water that he could scoop the bass up in a sun-tanned hand.

It was about the size of a squished bread loaf, with a razor-sharp front dorsal fin and dark, tigrine stripes covering its shimmering bronze body. As Mr. VanDam transferred the creature to his livewell — a compartment behind the boat’s seats that acts as an aerated swimming pool for captured fish — the smallmouth relieved itself on his foot.

His day got worse from there. At one point, Mr. VanDam hooked a mammoth smallmouth only for it to break off. “Dang it!” Mr. VanDam exclaimed, with the most bile his Midwestern manners would allow.

Scott Rook, Mr. VanDam’s frequent roommate during tournament travels, was fishing nearby. “I just jumped off a giant,” Mr. VanDam called out to him. After losing a second lunker a few minutes later, he turned to me and asked, “You ever think maybe you were bad luck?”

“You don’t have a banana, do you?” my husband responded when I texted him Mr. VanDam’s comment.

Apparently, anyone who knows anything about fishing knows that bananas are forbidden on fishing boats. Why, exactly, is unclear. Explanations include, but are not limited to, tales of naval crew members slipping on rogue peels and bananas floating tauntingly after the ships that carried them sank to the bottom of the sea. In any case, they are known fish repellents.

My angling-obsessed husband had neglected to mention this before I boarded Mr. VanDam’s Nitro. Tucked into my lunchbox, which was stowed in the cool belly of the world’s best fisherman’s boat, were two ripe Chiquitas.

“I am not messing with you,” my husband typed. “You can’t let him see … Throw away.” A few minutes later, I briefly jumped from Mr. Van Dam’s boat to one reserved for members of the media. When Mr. VanDam turned his back, I grabbed my lunchbox, unzipped it, found the toxic fruits and gave them a secret river burial.

Mr. VanDam’s sustained success seems to dispel the notion that luck plays a significant role in fishing. He has finished in the money in 252 of the 313 BASS tournaments in which he has competed. His winnings in the organization exceed those of Skeet Reese, the next-most-successful active Bassmaster Elite Series fisherman, by more than $3 million.

During his BASS career, Mr. VanDam has reeled in 11,827 pounds and 9 ounces of bass, equivalent to the weight of a medium-size African elephant. He has won the Bassmaster Classic four times, and Angler of the Year seven. In September, he was inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mo.

Mr. VanDam credits some of his success to growing up in Kalamazoo, which had many different types of water to explore. It taught him to think like a fish. Given the water temperature and current dynamics, what are bass likely to be eating? Are they hankering for baitfish, such as gobies and perch, or craving frog? What type of cast and lure movement might shock them into biting reflexively, even if they’re not hungry?

“I also work really hard at it,” Mr. VanDam said on the St. Lawrence, snapping his rod up and down so that his jerkbait mimicked the erratic movements of a wounded baitfish under the water.

In the first six hours I rode with Mr. VanDam, he did not touch food or drink. Around noon he grabbed an unsliced peanut butter and jelly sandwich from his cooler and ate it using his left hand while steering his boat, moving at 65 m.p.h., with his right. He washed it down with a few glugs of Gatorade to forestall the cramps he had suffered the day before, when he forgot to consume a thing.

Tournament days might last around eight hours — compare that with a basketball game’s 48 minutes of hustle — and Mr. VanDam does not waste a second.

“You can’t pass anything up,” he said, “and you have to love it. If you don’t,” he added, the other anglers “will eat you alive.”

“Really, for the first half of my career, there were a lot of anglers that had other jobs and did other things,” said Mr. VanDam, signing hats in Waddington. “It wasn’t something they focused on 365 days a year.”CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times
Brandon Palaniuk, one of the rising young stars, said his annual sponsorship earnings had increased to the six figures.CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

Since 1987, he said, the field has become far more skilled. “Really, for the first half of my career, there were a lot of anglers that had other jobs and did other things,” he said. “It wasn’t something they focused on 365 days a year.”

Today, most Elite Series anglers fish as a full-time occupation. In addition to the Bassmaster Elite Series and the new Bass Pro Tour, there is a third pro circuit, Fishing League Worldwide, which began the big-money era in 1996 by offering $100,000 to winners of regular-season events.

Bass fishing is one of the few professional sports in which top-tier participants must pay to play. Entry fees for the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2018 totaled $43,000, and that’s before the cost of travel, gear and gas. The BASS pro fishermen I spoke to in August and September estimated that their expenses totaled $65,000 to $80,000 per year.

They complained that payouts had decreased over the past decade. But since word of the Bass Pro Tour broke in September, BASS has offered a number of new incentives — including $20,000 early-signing bonuses and a guarantee to pay $2,500 per tournament even to anglers who finish dead last.

Despite the sweeteners, an early trickle of pros away from BASS quickly turned into a hemorrhage. Among the defectors are Mr. Ashley and Mr. Jones, as well as Mr. Reese and Edwin Evers, who have each earned more than $3 million with the organization.

In an Instagram post, Mr. Evers wrote: “It’s a chance for us to finally control our own destiny, and at the end of the day, you have to decide whether you want to be the bass or you want to be the shad. I want to be the bass.”

Another angler abandoning BASS is Brandon Palaniuk, 30, who is considered one of the sport’s most promising young competitors. After dropping out of college when his finals conflicted with an amateur tournament, he constructed logging roads in Idaho until qualifying for the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2011. He scraped together his entry fees by crowdfunding from bass fishing clubs and saved money by sleeping in the “Tundra Suites” — his euphemism for the back of his Toyota Tundra pickup.

Since he won an Elite Series tournament in 2012, Mr. Palaniuk’s fortunes have risen. He was crowned Angler of the Year in 2017, and his annual sponsorship earnings have increased to the six figures, he said. He rarely checks into the Tundra Suites anymore, sleeping instead in a 43-foot camper he hauls from competition to competition with his girlfriend and their dog.

Much of his success with sponsors derives from his social-media savvy. Mr. Palaniuk, who often fishes in flat-brimmed ball caps and hoodies, paid $73,000 last year for a cameraman and a boat driver to shadow him during every tournament he fished. He packaged the footage into dramatic videos set to electronic and hip-hop music, which he uploaded to YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. This year, Go RVing, a coalition of RV manufacturers, dealers and campgrounds, helped offset those costs for him.

Some fishermen, like Ott DeFoe, Brandon Lester and Bradley Roy, pay companies such as Pro Fishing Management to consult on their social-media strategy and produce annual reports for sponsors, which list their social-media, television and print impressions and can exceed 140 pages.

Other anglers depend on their spouses to manage their business affairs. The spouses maintain sponsor relationships, negotiate contracts, field media requests and often select what photos and videos to upload on social media.

LeAnn Swindle, who is married to the 23-year BASS veteran Gerald Swindle, keeps a traveling office in her RV, complete with a scanner to keep documents from her husband’s 19 sponsors straight.

I am travel agent, office manager, car washer, anything and everything that doesn’t involve rigging up tackle or catching fish,” she said. Mr. Swindle’s career winnings with BASS are just above $2 million.

Becky Iaconelli, who is married to Mike Iaconelli, an angler known as Ike, is particularly busy. As her children, Stella, 6, and Vegas, 7, clambered over her, Mrs. Iaconelli explained how she balances the Ike Foundation, which encourages fishing and outdoor recreation in urban areas; the Bass University, an educational effort; and Mr. Iaconelli’s social media accounts, for which she oversees strategy. With a team of 13, she also runs Professional Edge Fishing, a marketing agency that represents three anglers in addition to her husband.

The winner in Waddington: Josh Bertrand of San Tan Valley, Ariz.CreditRyan David Brown for The New York Times

Everyone I spoke to in professional bass fishing agreed that BASS has a tough few years ahead of it, with dozens of its biggest personalities gone, but would ultimately survive. The organization is not only a pro tour; it has amateur competitions and membership rolls of some 500,000 people.

In September, I reached Mr. VanDam in Missouri, a few days after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. As far as he was concerned, he said, BASS would continue to be the “keeper of the culture.”

“Change is hard,” he added. “But this is going to be very positive for our overall sport. You have significant investments from all sides, and it’s pretty hard not to grow when you have that. When the water rises, all ships go with it.”

I never told him about the bananas.

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