KISSIMMEE, Fla.--Their most popular and most hyped
fisherman was disqualified for poor sportsmanship, and dead or dying
fish were featured on national television last weekend as the professionals
harvested largemouth bass full of spawn in the BASS/ESPN Bassmaster
Luke Clausen, a 27-year-old bass buster from Spokane, Wash., was declared
the tournament winner on Sunday for his three-day catch of 15 bass weighing
56 lbs., 2 ozs. He also sat a new one-day five-fish record of 29 lbs.,
6 ozs. And, he won $500,000, the largest cash prize BASS has awarded
in 36 years of its "super" tourney.
ESPN now owns BASS and has applied its considerable promotional expertise
to boost interest and television ratings (and advertising rates) for
its fishing tournament circuit. The network was so successful that an
estimated 10,000 people crowded into the Orange County Convention Center
to see the final weigh-in.
Spectators got to see a lot of big female bass, loaded with spawn, when
each fisherman grabbed his biggest fish and waved it in the air as he
walked from his boat to the podium and scale. Each angler carried the
rest of his stringer in a plastic bag and dumped them into the special
scale to be weighed. Many of these bagged fish appeared to be either
dead or dying. Fish waving continued for photographers and fans for
This is just what sports fans, ESPN and the bass busters wanted to see--lots
of big largemouth waved in front of a television camera. Lake Tohopekaliga
was picked for this reason. Everyone knew a Florida tournament on Toho
in late February would produce big catches, mainly because the females
would be full of eggs and would bite aggressively. And, Florida Freshwater
Fish Management last year completed a project of habitat improvements
at Toho, aimed at producing more big largemouth bass.
The most telling incident of the three days came on the first day when
the most-hyped angler of the tournament, Mike Iaconelli, was disqualified
for poor sportsmanship. While on the water, the Philadelphia native
and New Jersey resident threw a hissy fit when he found two of his fish
had died in his boat's live well.
But Iaconelli was not upset about the dead fish, per se. He was upset
because he would suffer a penalty that BASS assesses for bringing in
dead fish. Nobody penalizes BASS/ESPN for fish that die during or after
their tournaments, and nobody can replace the spawning year these fish
seem certain to lose.
As seen on ESPN, Iaconelli broke a small flag staff
and let loose a string of profanity unlike any ever heard on TV outside
of Chris Rocks shows. The network bleeped him, but it wasn't hard to
figure out what he was saying. While those numerous profanities got
him in trouble, it was kicking the small American flag into the lake
that enraged American's patriotic viewing public. After reviewing tape
of the incident BASS fined and suspended Iaconelli.
After seeing how the caught fish were handled, I asked the Director
of Florida Fisheries Management, Darrell Scovell, a series of questions
about why he allowed this tournament during spawning season; how many
fish died; how many fish would die a day or a week later from stress
or injuries and when statistics on dead fish would be published.
Scovell had not replied by the time I wrote this column, but an assistant,
Bob Wattendorf, provided this response: "The biologists took everything
that you mentioned into consideration when permitting the tournament,
plus the regulations that guide issuance/denial of those permits."