The original Red Man Tournament Trail was a game changer in terms of what it meant for the everyday angler – giving weekend warriors a chance to compete regionally and then advance to a national event for major prize money. Many of us who immersed ourselves into the world of competitive bass fishing in the 1990s or after the turn of the century tend to assume that there were always stable nationwide organized circuits for the weekend angler. We may have known that what are now the Phoenix BFLs were previously the Red Man circuit, but we don’t have a sense of when and where the Red Mans were born.
As Terry has detailed previously, old issues of CAST Magazine are a treasure trove of information about that era, and provide an incredible look back at the origins of the BFLs.
Today there are 18 BFL divisions, each with five events leading to regional events and eventually the All-American, the six figure pinnacle of the chain. Winners of the championship include past and current stars like Shaw Grigsby, OT Fears, Rick Clunn, Joe Thomas and Stephen Browning. When former CB radio salesman Mike Whitaker founded Operation Bass (the predecessor of FLW Outdoors) in 1979, it wasn’t so clear that it would become the important and career-launching event that it has become.
Today, you can fish BFL events from the far northeast to the depths of Florida, and west to Oklahoma. While they currently do not hold tournaments in the far west, there have previously been divisions that competed in the western states and the organization even took the bold step of staging events in Hawai’i
When Whitaker and the Pinkerton Tobacco Company first partnered in 1983, however, there were a total of just 60 events for the year, in the following divisions:
- LBL (Land Between the Lakes)
- Ole Miss
While Operation Bass had held tournaments since Whitaker founded it, the first “official “ Red Man took place on February 20, 1983 on Lake Okeechobee. It had 237 contestants.
That year the Bulldog division had the most entries, with 1,469, and Ole Miss had the fewest, at 574. Bama, a division that has since become extremely popular and well-subscribed, had the second fewest, with 607. LBL, which was home territory for the organization and rapidly became a breeding ground for top pros, also produced relatively low numbers that year, with only 787 entrants. All of the divisions had live release rates of over 90%, except for Ole Miss, which struggled to hit 79%. While Bama, Ole Miss and LBL had low participation rates, they also had the highest average number of bass weighed in per competitor, at 2.82, 2.75 and 2.59, respectively. The Gator division produced the largest bass, a 10-06 caught by Edwin Parslow of Kissimmee, Florida.
Thirty-two year old Dean Starkey of Peru, Indiana won the first All-American, held on Kentucky Lake, earning $50,000 out of a $75,000 total purse. He won a second time in 1994 on the Arkansas River at Muskogee. By that point the top prize had risen to $100,000. We plan to provide more detailed information about Starkey’s victories in the near future. The tournament started with 240 competitors and was winnowed down to a smaller final group. Here’s how the final round of the 1983 event shook out.
Schultz is the only one on that list who has had a longlasting (and ongoing) career at the tour level, but there were certainly some other notable sticks among that 30-man crew, including:
Of course Starkey, who fished 48 B.A.S.S. events through 1998 as well as parts of three seasons (1996-98) on the FLW Tour;
Billy Schroeder, who fished the FLW Tour off and on from 1998 through 2006, qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup in 1998. He also founded the American Quilter’s Society, which his son Billy recently indicated was based on a familiar model, B.A.S.S.;
David “Smiley” Wright, one of the famous “Carolina crankers,” and long-time tournament partner of Jeff Coble. The two have an arrangement that’s rare in this sport – they split all of their winnings, whether the other angler is in the tournament or not. As Rob Newell wrote on Bassmaster.com in 2008:
“Since 1997, the Carolina duo has split every dime they have won in bass fishing tournaments. Whatever Wright wins, he splits with Coble and vice-versa. If the idea of splitting bass fishing winnings seems bizarre, consider that over the last decade these two anglers have amassed more than 1.2 million dollars together, roughly $600,000 a piece, while investing just a small fraction of that into regional and local tournaments entry fees and expenses.
“It’s a team concept that’s reminiscent of Rick Hendrick pioneering multi-car race teams in NASCAR years ago when other single-car owners thought the idea would never work. By consolidating the resources, information and technology of several teams, Hendrick’s cars gained an advantage over the competition and the result of his out-of-the-box thinking speaks for itself.”
Mark Hicks, a veteran outdoor writer who continues to fish the Bassmaster Opens today.
Entry fees in 1983 were $50 per event and they remained steady in 1984, although the 10 divisions covering 11 states were expanded to 15 divisions spanning 29 states. The new divisions the Cowboy Division (Texas), Northeastern Division, Ozark Divison and Piedmont Division (VA/NC). The All-American was expanded from 30 contestants to 36.
Whitaker partnered with Genmar to create the FLW Tour in 1996, and sold Operation Bass to Bass Acquisition, Inc., a holding company headed by Irwin Jacobs, that same year. More recently, the tournaments have fallen under the Major League Fishing umbrella.