Anglers take to Lake St. Clair for Bassmaster Elite tourney

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Harrison Township — Fishing, often a solo venture, is one of the few activities that hasn’t been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 emergency.

Running a fishing tournament, however, is a different story.

A group of 85 anglers dropped poles in the water Thursday for the first day of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society’s 2020 YETI Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair, one of nine stops in the series. Beginning at 6:30 a.m., they fished for eight hours, competing for a $100,000 prize to be awarded Sunday. Their boundaries were the Ambassador Bridge to the south and Lake Huron to the north.

The 40 anglers who caught the heaviest five fish Thursday were to move on to the semifinals Friday; and the top 10 would then move to the championship round Sunday.

“They’re working toward the Angler of the Year championship,” tournament spokeswoman Emily Harley said. “Ultimately, they’re trying to make the cut for the Bassmaster Classic, the most iconic event in bass fishing.”

Among the competitors Thursday were Garrett Paquette of Canton Township and Chad Pipkens of Lansing. As of Thursday, Pipkens was ranked 8th in the Angler of the Year points race.

This year’s tournament began as scheduled on Feb. 6, but when the coronavirus hit in March, events were postponed until mid-June.

Buddy Gross, of Chickamauga, Georgia, prepares his tackle before the first day of the 2020 Yeti Bassmaster Elite on Lake St. Clair, Thursday, August 20, 2020.

“It was an unsafe time to travel around the country,” Paquette said Thursday.

When the tournament resumed in mid-June, organizers had to scramble to pick up the tour, Harley said.

“Part of what the tournament did was not just find new dates, but find dates when the fishing would be decent,” Harley said. “Fishing in the South in the fall is difficult because you have warmer temperatures. So we asked: Are we better doing this here or there? Texas in July or November? We tried to move stuff around. It’s not a perfect science, but we tried to make sure we had good, competitive, fun tournaments.”

Paquette said he’s comfortable with how the tournament has handled the virus.

“B.A.S.S. has taken some serious precautions to keep us safe,” he said.

Previous Lake St. Clair tournaments drew between 2,000 and 3,000 people, Harley said, but because of the virus, fans weren’t allowed to attend. Instead, they could either watch the tournament on ESPN2, which carried it live, or on the Bassmaster website, where it was livestreamed.

Although fans weren’t formally allowed to attend, some sat on the lake in boats watching the anglers at work.

The fishermen, most of whom were alone, weren’t wearing masks, although the land crew donned them.

“The nice thing about fishing is, it’s a safe sport when you’re out on the water,” Paquette said. “We’re still able to compete; still able to get a paycheck.”

Harley said there have been some operational difficulties during the tour.

“The logistics have been interesting and challenging,” Harley said. “There was one event, at the Sabine River in Texas, which we had to move to Cayuga Lake in New York, because it was hunting season in Texas, and it was too dangerous (to be on the water with hunters nearby).

Professional anglers prepare to leave Lake St. Clair Metropark on first day of the 2020 Yeti Bassmaster Elite on Lake St. Clair.

“When we were in New York, that’s where we saw the biggest challenges,” Harley said.

While the fishing itself hasn’t changed much because of the virus, the ceremonies are different.

“We reconfigured the stage, so people are more spread out,” Harley said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo classified the tournament as a sport, “so we were just like the Yankees and Mets in that respect,” Harley said. “But that presented logistic issues. Their guidelines said everyone had to be COVID tested within 48 hours of the competition, and it was a challenge to get 140 people arranged to be tested.”

After the Lake St. Clair leg of the tour ends Sunday, it moves on to Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas.

Harley said every effort is being made to keep the tournament crew safe.

“We can’t create a bubble, but we try to create an umbrella,” she said.