When the Australian Fishing Championships started on TV, Taree’s Russ Babekuhl wasn’t even old enough to fish an ABT BREAM Pro event – contestants needed to be 16 to qualify. Indeed, when ABT (Australian Bass Tournaments, the original name for the now expanded format) started, Russ was just 11 and still in primary school.
Come 2010, and ‘Rusty’ realised his dream and qualified for Team Berkley in 2010 – the 7th season of AFC – in the process fishing with one of his childhood fishing heroes, Scott Towner. Towner is also the AFC’s top earner, pocketing a total of $52,000 from his angling exploits since beginning his journey nearly a decade ago.
“I reckon that I wore out the first AFC DVDs I got,” Russ said while on the filming tour. “I must have watched them hundreds of times.”
Babekuhl is a living, breathing example of the ABT tournament pathway. It’s a series of tournaments from which the AFC TV show draws its talent and anyone can qualify – they just need to be good enough at catching bream, bass or barramundi to be in the running.
No longer do contestants need to be a Rex Hunt or Andrew’ET’ Ettingshausen to get serious on-air time. AFC anglers let their rods do the talking and, in doing so, have created Australia’s best-rating fishing tournament TV show.
GETTING A BERTH
Let’s have a look at this in practice. Say you’re sitting down and enjoying the AFC on television and are thinking to yourself, “I can beat those guys.” The process is simple – check out the website (www.abt.org.au) and enter your local qualifying event, which costs between $110 and $165 and offers a range of cash and prizes. If you do well, you’ll qualify for a species-specific (bream, barramundi or bass) Grand Final. Win that, and you’re guaranteed a berth into the AFC show.
Sound easy? Remember that there are around 1500 other guys and girls who are thinking along the same lines and want to beat you onto the show, so the competition is intense.
Run from February through November each year at venues varying from the Derwent River in Tasmania to the pristine Walpole/Nornalup inlet in WA, the Hunter Valley’s Glenbawn Dam and the barramundi mecca of Lake Awoonga in Queensland, the ABT format involves a series of qualifying tournaments, with the winners decided by the cumulative weights of their heaviest fish.
Once weighed, all fish are released, alive, ready to catch another day. Dead fish are not accepted.
Once the winners have been decided, they qualify for entry into the premier AFC series, which is televised on Channel Ten, One HD and Foxtel. Primary sponsors include Club Marine and Ford Ranger Wildtrak.
WHO SHARES WINS
ABT has always had some core beliefs that we haven’t wavered from and the most important of those is the random-draw system that we use in our major events. I’m referring here to the boater and co-angler system that randomly pairs boat owners with angling partners each day.
Although it may seem weird to head to a tournament briefing not knowing who you’ll be fishing with until the 11th hour, the strategy has plenty of benefits.
Importantly, it gives learning and up-and coming anglers access to the competitors who are the best in the business. There’s no amount of magazine reading or DVD watching that will teach entrants as quickly as fishing with someone who knows what it takes to win.
As a by-product, these co-anglers are well versed in tournament craft. By the time they are ready to buy a boat, they will have probably been in more brands of tournament boats than most boat dealers. It makes them a very informed buying group.
Finally, it gives the boating or ‘Pro’ anglers a referee for the day. Fishing for up to $10,000 cash for a first place cheque in an event, there’s always the possibility that someone may be tempted to ‘bend the rules’. A different co-angler on board each day removes all doubt and, since inception, there have been no incidents, even though nearly $2 million in cash, and even more in products, has been awarded to anglers nationwide. In addition, in 2010, ABT will give away its 25th boat.
A DECADE OLD
Those are some impressive statistics, so it’s easy to forget that ABT events are only a tad over ten years old. Born in south-east Queensland’s bass lakes, where an enthusiastic 60 anglers in 30 boats competed on Lake Moogerah in 1999, the scope of the events broadened to bream in 2000 and barramundi in 2005.
In those days, a standard tournament craft was around 13 feet long and was powered by a 25hp outboard. Rock up to a major event in those boats now and you’re still welcome to compete, but don’t expect to be the first to the hot spot.
Last year’s Australian BREAM Open on Sydney Harbour featured an average horsepower of 187 and the field was mostly in slick, purpose made fibreglass boats, rather than the retro-fitted tinnies of the late ‘nineties.
Ever since Beaudesert’s Harry Watson won the first BASS Grand Final – on the compact Maroon Dam in Queensland in 1999, ABT has been sending Aussie champion ‘bassers’ to experience the professional tours in the USA.
Watson set the bar high on his trip, fishing a Bassmaster Pro-on-Pro event on Lake Oroville, California. He finished in the top fifth of the field and took home a nice pay cheque into the bargain.
Since then, over a dozen Aussies have taken the ABT ticket Stateside and all have learned from their experiences. Toowoomba’s Carl Jocumsen’s recent second placing in the US Open’s co-angler division showed that the ABT guns really do have what it takes to match it with the Americans. After all, fish behave like fish no matter where they are in the world.
Not that the fish really care, but the average tournament angler has really upped the ante when it comes to the quality of tackle that these guys and girls use to target their quarry.
Brisbane’s Tim Morgan won the first-ever BREAM qualifier on the Gold Coast in 2000. He was using a $40 reel and a $10 hard-bodied lure.
Most ‘breamers’ now carry a quiver of rods and most outfits wouldn’t leave much change from $500. A standard imported (usually Japanese) lure will set you back around $25. Most anglers have dozens and dozens of them.
Even the super-thin braided lines that many anglers favour aren’t cheap, with a spool of the latest line costing up to $100. Still, the fish don’t know what’s at the other end of the line, so there’s no reason old-school techniques won’t work. It’s just not as much fun.
After winning an unprecedented third AFC title, Team Mercury seems destined to hold onto its place in the record books for a long time. This year’s team consisted of Darren ‘Dizzy’ Borg and Ben Godfrey (BREAM), Matthew Mott and David Green (BASS) and Al McNamara and Matthew Coleman (BARRA).
“Winning AFC the first time was an effort in itself,” explained basser, Matthew Mott, “and I’m still shaking my head that we’ve managed to do it three years in a row.”
In my own case, and without wanting to brag, I have to say that I had a stellar last 12 months, adding the 2010 Australian BREAM open trophy to my wins in the 2009 BREAM Grand Final, 2009 Megabucks and 2009 Queensland and Tasmanian Angler of the Year awards.
Bass-wise, top-ranked Carl Jocumsen’s winnings topped $50,000 in early 2010. The Toowoomba-based tackle salesman travelled to the USA in 2009 to compete as a co-angler in the US Open – a big money bass tournament in Las Vegas’ Lake Mead. After a week of largemouth bass fishing, he finished a close second place and pocketed over $US5000 for his efforts. His trip was sponsored by the Australian importer of Skeeter bass boats – Skeeter Australia.
Identical twins Cy and Kerrin Taylor are virtually unstoppable in BARRA events – Cy leads the national rankings, but his first-ever BARRA event was inauspicious – and fishless. Since then, he’s won nearly everything there is to win on the ABT BARRA Tour, including half-a-dozen events and a handful of Angler of the Year titles. He’s also the leading money earner on the BARRA circuit – winning more than twice the prize money of his nearest competitor.
If you’re interested in ABT-style tournament fishing, there’s some essential reading in the form of the 2010 Tournament Angler Guide from most newsagents. It’s full of the latest techniques for bream, bass and barra – straight from the tackle boxes of the country’s best.
Online, check out www.bream.com.au, www.australianbass.com.au and www.australianbarra.com.au for all the information on recent and upcoming events. Many competitors also buy and sell tournament craft privately on www.tournamentboats.com.au.
A Collector’s Edition boxed set of all AFC episodes (from Series 1 to Series 6) is available exclusively in BCF stores. That’s over 24 hours of AFC for just $59.95.
AFC Series 8 will air towards the end of 2010.