They say the only thing that doesn’t change is change.
Recently, I saw a case in point. At the weigh-in of a bass tournament on Table Rock Lake, all of the anglers in the tourney had big bass boats, most powered by outboard motors of 150 horsepower or higher, as well as all kinds of electronic equipment — a far cry from the ’60s when I fished tournaments.
In those days of tournament fishing, if you had a 50-horsepower outboard, you were one of the few. Most of the anglers had a 25-horsepower engine, and their boat was usually a 14-foot aluminum one with no livewell. Tackle boxes were metal, unlike the plastic or cloth ones of today.
Fishing in the early ’60s was nearly always good, as the big lakes such as Bull Shoals and Table Rock were new. You didn’t need a big rig to get to the fish. I can remember when a short trip to a local stream or lake would always produce a good stringer of fish. My dad would load up some cane poles and a can of worms and catch catfish, crappie and bass, along with carp.
The early tournaments gave trophies to the winners and little cash, unlike today’s anglers, who can make tens of thousands of dollars by winning a tournament. The big money and press coverage were still a long way away.
Tournament fishing changed when Hy Peskin, a photographer for Sports Illustrated in the late ’50s, envisioned a fishing tournament that would be a big televised event with lots of spectators watching and attending the weigh-ins. Big tournaments as we know them today were made prominent by Peskin.
Peskin died in 2005 at age 89. There was little noted of his death or of his contribution to fishing tournaments from the outdoor press.
Missouri anglers dominated the freshwater World Series of Sport Fishing, with Harold Ensley of Raytown winning the first tournament in 1960, followed by Virgil Ward of Amsterdam in 1962; myself, of Independence, in 1963; David Jadwin of Forsyth in 1964; and Glen Andrews of Lampe in 1965 and 1966.
In the years that followed, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and other rival bass tours would arise, and the World Series held its last tournament in 1967.
Peskin wasn’t a fisherman, but he started the World Series of Sport Fishing that turned out to be the start of the big tournaments of today. Several years later, women got into the act with the Bass’ n Gal tournament circuit that showed how good the female anglers were.
Most of today’s tournament anglers would find it hard to believe just how good the fishing was some 50 years ago when you could go almost anywhere on a lake and catch fish. We couldn’t move around that much, but then, you didn’t have to. We didn’t even have trolling motors. Instead we used a paddle to move the boat around.
However, we still caught fish.
Back then there were no fish finders to tell you how deep the water was; you had to guess or tie a rock to a line and drop it in the water. Instead of a livewell, stringers over the side of the boat held your catch.
Many of the today’s records were taken back in earlier days — before boats sported big motors and electronics — including the Missouri record largemouth bass that weighed 13 pounds 14 ounces caught in 1961 from Bull Shoals.
Another thing that has changed is the number of boats and fishermen on the lakes. Bob Neal, 81, of Joplin, recalled that when he fished Bull Shoals years ago, he might see two or three boats on the lake all day long.
“The last time I fished Bull Shoals, I counted 14 boats in less than a half hour and most of them were flying down the lake,” he said. “It’s a different world out there today.”
Today’s anglers have more species of fish to catch including muskies, stripers and walleye. Hatcheries have made a big difference, and stocking programs have created a supply that wouldn’t have been imagined years ago.
Fishing today is still good, and much has to do with good fisheries management as well as the sophistication of today’s anglers and all of the things they have learned.
However, even with all of the new equipment, you might know the fish are there, but that doesn’t mean they will bite.
As Neal said: “It may always be fishing, but it isn’t always catching.”