In 1981, competitive bass fishing was turned on its ear when Western Bass Fishing Association (WBFA) announced the plans to put on bass fishing’s highest-ever paying event at Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada. Coined as the U.S. Open, the event had a $50,000 guaranteed first-place prize and over $180,000 in cash and prizes combined.
Numbers like these were unheard of at the time. The Bassmaster Classic, the biggest event in bass fishing at the time, was paying $40,000 to the winner and it wasn’t until 1983, when Bassmaster started the Super B.A.S.S. series of tournaments, that the U.S. Open would be outdone.
Hoping for 60 participants to sign up for the $1,000 entry fee event, Rich Schultz, then president of WBFA, and crew set out to market the event. Two months prior to the tournament, 100 anglers had put down the extravagant entry fee and more were coming in. By the time the tournament rolled around, 161 anglers had signed up for this first-of-its-class event.
Slated to be held in August, undoubtedly the hottest time in the Nevada desert, the anglers would not only have to compete against a laundry list of the country’s best tournament fishermen, they’d also have to deal with four long days in the 110-plus-degree heat.
Would the western anglers, who grew up fishing in Mead’s heat have the advantage over the southern anglers? No one would know until the last fish was weighed.
Until this time, rarely, if ever, had a southern angler ventured west to fish unless it was for one of the few events B.A.S.S. held in the west. This event was different, though. The promise of a big payday brought anglers from 22 states. Names like Roland Martin, Bobby Murray, Forrest Wood, Basil Bacon, Harold Allen, Don Butler, Cliff Craft, Rick Clunn and Ricky Green would face off against the West’s best.
For a complete list with angler biographies, see the figures below.
With so much on the line, the western anglers were making good with pre-practice hitting the lake whenever they could. Two such anglers, Don Doty and Greg Hines both from Santa Ana, CA, were spending copious amounts of time on the water with Hines dedicating over two straight months to practice. His regimen would not only help him determine fish movement and location but also get him in shape for the grueling heat during the 4-day event.
This is part one of a three-part series on the first-ever U.S. Open hosted by Western Bass Fishing Association. The U.S. Open, at the time, had the largest payout ever for a bass tournament and drew anglers from all over the country. In this part, we’ll cover a bit of the history of what led up to the event along with an introduction of the anglers. I have to thank long-time editor of Western Outdoor News and Western Bass, Bill Rice, for the photos and for editing of this piece.