By Tim Mason
-In the last decade, we folks here in the Upper Mississippi River Valley have witnessed an explosion of bass tournaments. To paraphrase another writer: I’m old enough to remember a different human culture on the river.
In the 1950s and ’60s of my youth, a summer morning may have seen a typical river user as an old bib-overalled man rowing a wooden flat-bottomed boat out through an evaporating foggy mist to his favorite fishing hole, with cane poles and a can of worms. I still can see his back bending with each stroke and hear the creak of the oars.
Now believe me, I’m not naive enough to think that those nostalgic peaceful river days are going to return.
However, in 2013, a typical river weekend morning will see a swarm of sparkly sequined and gaily colored plastic “go-fast,” obnoxiously loud boats with outboard motors the size of large refrigerators on their sterns. Huge corporate logos pasted to their hulls, towed to the river landings from faraway cities by full-size new shiny pickups. These obtrusive visuals are more reminiscent of NASCAR.
However it’s not a super speedway at Talladega, Ala. It’s the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge, our public waters.
These bass fishing tournaments are a frenzied activity to catch the five largest bass and return to the appointed area by a predetermined time. This industry, and make no mistake about, it is an industry, is fueled by one thing and one thing only! That is the great American cultural motivator, greed. The grand prize: money!
The tournaments are sponsored by multinational corporate giants, such as Walmart, Cabalas, Chevy trucks, Mercury outboards and others. The vast majority of tournament participants are from distant metropolitan areas. Their urban mindset and competitive personalities do not recognize the local river traditions, safety, ethics or courtesy to other river users.
I and most everyone else I know grew up learning by example. When you are operating your boat through a backwater slough and you come upon a couple quietly fishing with their boat tied to a snag, you slow your craft to a crawl, give a small wave and perhaps are rewarded with a simple nod.
The bass tournament crowd, on the other hand, practices what they freely call “running and gunning.” I have witnessed every type of violation of the federal Rules of Navigation, common sense and simple courtesy as they roar down the main channel and through backwaters traveling 70 or 80 mph. Some even wearing motorcycle helmets. They have absolutely no regard for other river users or the river’s natural and cultural resources.
Our family has spent generations growing up on the river. My extended family members and friends spend great amounts of time on the river. I can honestly say the hatred of the bass tournament industry comes up in nearly every conversation, while out on the river.
Kayakers and canoeists tell me they have been scared to death with the behavior of the bass boats’ operators.
I’ve seen them throw handfuls of monofilament fishing line to the wind, as well as cigar wrappers and other garbage. “No wake” violations, excessive speed are common. They cast their lures into, over and through where you’re fishing. The fish kill from this industry has long been recognized by the regulatory agencies. However, I have never once seen one of the blue light boys from the DNR chase one of the bass tournament boats on this public body of water.
The adjoining state DNR agencies say they have rules on the books to regulate these corporate tournaments. However after studying these documents, I see fee collection rather then actual safe guarding of the resources and other river users’ safety.
As far as the federal government goes, its involvement is hilariously non-involvement, although Fish and Wildlife Service Public Use Regulations state clearly: “Disturbing behavior. Unreasonably disturbing other visitors by the inconsiderate operation or use of any … power equipment … or interfering with, disturbing, or molesting other visitors engaged in authorized activities on the refuge, is prohibited.”
I suggest river users contact appropriate federal and state elected officials and push them to treat fishing tournaments for what they are: For-profit, group events on our public waters that are out of control.
l Timothy Mason of McGregor is active in local issues about land and resource uses. Comments: email@example.com