Thursday, July 25, 2024

The “Gray Area”: What is it and who is to blame? by Carson Maddux


The term “Gray Area” has been thrown around a lot in the bass tournament world the past few years. In fact, this past year seems to have been the worst in recent memory. Whether it be anglers taking advantage of gaps in the rules or organizations holding anglers to different levels of accountability, this year has had no shortage of topics for conversation. So, what really is this so called “Gray Area” and why has it become such a prevalent topic?

From our very core, anglers are competitive by nature. From Tuesday evening shootouts to regional championships and all the way up to the Bassmaster Classic, it’s always about making sure your bag is heavier than the guy next to you. Like any organized sport, rules must be set in place to set clear cut boundaries to what anglers can and cannot do. As competitors, it is our responsibility to understand and to adhere to said rules prior to competition. While this all may seem pretty agreeable at first, there are certain “unwritten rules” that spark more controversy.

Those who fish know that there are things that can be done on the water that although are not explicitly against the written rules, are frowned upon by their colleagues. I’m sure we can all recall a few events where someone who was near the top of the leaderboard had an altercation with a lower standing competitor for fishing their water. Kevin VanDam’s famous “You’re not part of the community” or Randy Hayne’s “I’m finna go to the house” are a few famous one- liners that standout from moments of heated competition. While all anglers are given access to the same playing field, it is often understood to give the leader their space during closing periods of competition.

During last year’s Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour Event on Cayuga Lake, we saw anglers catching spawning smallmouth and weighing the same fish in multiple times during competition. Although it can be assumed that the fish returned to its nest, as long as the angler was not actively looking at the fish, the catch was accepted. Additionally, during the 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. John’s River, Champion Cory Johnston weighed in a fish that was hooked outside the mouth off of a bed. While the rules state that when sight fishing all fish must be hooked inside the mouth, Johnston was using his forward-facing sonar and was able to legally weigh the fish. In the Elite Series event on the Harris Chain, rookie Trey McKinney was given permission by the lockmaster to fish inside the lock. In doing this, many veteran anglers questioned the legality because fishing inside the locks has been restricted in years prior. A gap in both MLF and B.A.S.S.’s rule books allowed the area of questioning known as the “gray”.

Another hot topic recently has been rookies bartering for and accepting information about tournament venues prior to accepting an Elite Series bid. Elite Series anglers are not allowed to access any information once the schedule has been released, but because the Bassmaster Elite Qualifier (EQ) season had not ended yet, this year’s rookie class had not been invited to the Elite Series therefore did not have to adhere to those rules. To combat this, Bassmaster recently announced that they will be amending the EQ rules so that the Elite Series rules apply for all EQ anglers.

This brings me to my main point of this article, with all the “gray” in the bass fishing world, how can we make things more black and white? I think it is up to the tournament organizations to create a more cohesive set of rules that anglers must agree and abide by. I would suggest a good mix of veterans and young anglers (from each respective tour) should provide angler insight on what rules should be added or amended before each season. A thorough set of guidelines will limit discretion and uncertainty amongst anglers. As technology continues to advance and participation of the sport continues to increase, a more proactive examination of the rules needs to be put in place.

The ever-evolving landscape of tournament bass will always spark new ways in which anglers try to gain a competitive advantage. A more comprehensive set of rules will help uphold angler integrity and limit the debate of what is right or wrong. With that, anglers that are in violation of a rule need to be held accountable in order to preserve the integral values of our sport. Who would have thought a sport stemming from weighing your five heaviest bass would require so many amendments in its short lifespan? I suppose it is a testament to the growth and progress we have seen thus far. I am curious to see how the rest of this busy season shakes out and hope we can see less “gray” in the future.

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