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Breaking the Bass Ceiling at NYC’s Only Freshwater Fishing Tournament

At the fourth annual Prospect Park Battle on the Banks fishing tournament, our columnist tests her skills against some of the city’s best anglers and contemplates being a woman fisher.

A largemouth bass is being measured on a neon-yellow Hawg Trough.

(Hell Gate)

I had been grinding for hours, with nothing but a seven-inch largemouth bass—a dink, and too small to count—to my name, and I was beginning to worry that my first bass fishing tournament would be a bust. Nothing was working. My go-to lures—a Ned rig, a Texas-rigged Bandito Bug, a Rapala jerkbait—had been failing me. The spot on Prospect Park Lake where I had been reliably fishing for weeks was an atomic-green dead zone. My just-purchased Hawg Trough, which can be best described as a two-and-a-half-foot long neon-yellow fish ruler, sat at my feet, mocking me. This wasn’t the first day I’d had at the lake when I netted little else but some chill times by the water and a regrettable sunglasses tan, but unlike those days, I wasn’t there to simply have a relaxing day—I was competing against dozens of other anglers, many of whom had arrived at Prospect Park that morning with an entire Bass Pro Shop’s worth of gear and a grim determination to win. 

Weeks earlier, I had paid $12 to sign up for the 2022 Prospect Park Battle on the Banks, the only freshwater bass fishing tournament held in New York City. It’s one of hundreds, if not thousands, of tournaments held every year around the country where anglers test their skills catching what is by all accounts the most popular sportfish in the country. The popularity of bass among the fishing public is spurred by its ubiquity, its aggressiveness, and its willingness to eat practically anything.

Bass fishing didn’t always have the primacy that it does today, nor were bass tournaments always the commercial, big-money spectacles that they’ve become, events with $500,000 prizes broadcast on ESPN and Fox Sports featuring superstar professional anglers with massive social media followings who can make even more cash through sponsorships. If there was one person who turned bass fishing into what it is today, it would be Ray Scott, an Alabama-born insurance salesman who in 1967 had the idea of holding a more professional tournament for bass fishers; shortly after, he founded the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, or BASS. In 1971, BASS held its first Bassmaster Classic, which quickly became known as the “Superbowl of bass fishing.” 

Turning fishing into a potentially lucrative, competitive sport can seem antithetical to its fundamental pleasures of solitude and escape, but what can I say, I’m human and I was curious to see how I would rank against other, far more experienced anglers. 

An annual event since 2019, the Battle on the Banks is helmed these days by Neil Premachandran, one of the state’s elite anglers and a competitive kayak fisher who regularly qualifies for the national Kayak Bass Fishing National Championships. Premachandran, who lives in Staten Island, has organized the Prospect Park tournament for the past three years. When I caught up with him at the park on the day of the tourney, I asked him what advice he’d give someone new to tournament fishing (i.e., me). Unsurprisingly, he told me the key to winning tournaments is to fish, a lot. “When I'm not fishing? I'm researching fishing. If I’m not fishing, I'm reading about fishing, talking about fishing. You know what I mean?” he told me. (I did, indeed.)

“Prospect has fish but it’s difficult in the summertime,” he added—like for humans, the heat can make life more challenging for bass. 

I harbored no illusions that I would win, but I had started the day believing that I could post a respectable showing. But as the seconds ticked by and my Hawg Trough remained unused, my goals diminished—I just wanted to catch one fish that would get me on the board. I felt an additional pressure: I was keenly aware that I was the only woman who had signed up for the tournament, and when you’re adrift in a sea of men, you definitely don’t want to finish last. 

Battle on the Banks organizer Neil Premachandran explaining the rules of the tournament. (Hell Gate)

The “sportsman” in BASS’s name is telling—for two decades, women were not allowed to compete in the group’s tournaments. In 1990, BASS finally changed its rules to allow women anglers, only to reverse itself after a poll revealed that 76.8 percent of men were opposed to the rule change. For the women who clamored to gain entrance to BASS’s tournaments, the goal had more to do with the tough economics of competitive fishing rather than any sort of notion of feminist uplift (though it’s hard to imagine the saga didn’t turn some women into bra-burners of the second-wave variety). There were women-only circuits like Bass’n Gal, but where the top prize in one of Bass’n Gal’s events might have been a $20,000 bass boat, a BASS event could net not only a boat but tens of thousands in cold hard cash, not to mention the potential for sponsorships. As one woman who fished women’s pro tournaments told an outlet, “A woman could benefit a lot doing well in a BASS tournament as far as sponsors are concerned. There's a lot more to win."  

It was only when the Army Corps of Engineers, on whose reservoirs many of the tournaments took place, threatened to revoke BASS’s permits in 1991 that the group allowed women into its competitions. In more recent years, progress on this front has continued to be spotty, and contentious. In 2006, BASS began to hold women-only tournaments, and a few years later, the group announced that the winner of its women’s circuit would gain an automatic entry into its storied Bassmaster Classic. In 2009, Australian angler Kim Bain-Moore became the first woman to compete in the Classic, leading to quite a bit of grumbling. As one man put it, “She didn’t compete against the guys who earned the right to be here. She competed with a completely different league of anglers.” He added, seemingly miffed by the attention she received, “She’s already gotten more publicity than the winner will probably get.”

But even that brief advance was short-lived. In 2010, BASS abruptly canceled its women’s tour, citing ​​lack of participation, though many women anglers charged the group, which by then had been owned by ESPN for almost a decade, had treated the women’s tour with the same disdain other professional sports groups tended to regard women athletes. (Unlike other BASS events, the women’s tour had never been shown on cable television.) That year, two women started the Lady Bass Anglers Association to fill the gap left by BASS, as well as the folding of Bass’n Gal in 1998, but they’ve struggled to gain momentum. LBAA’s co-founder blames the group’s difficulties in part on “traditional family roles.” As she noted in 2021, “In the vast majority of households, if there’s a bass boat, the husband is not going to be the one at home watching the kids while the wife is out fishing.”

One competitor's impressive gear set-up. (Hell Gate)

I decided to switch to a wacky rig, slipping an o-ring onto the middle of a five-inch senko worm and then sliding the hook through the o-ring, which allowed the worm to dangle. Standing on a rock in the water, I cast out, and then began slowly retrieving the worm back to shore, rhythmically jerking the rod tip up so that the worm would wriggle through the water, ideally enticing a lurking bass to strike. 

I felt a tug; the line started moving. I began reeling in, the bass at one point leaping out of the water. Once on shore, I gently removed the hook, before putting the gleaming largemouth on the Hawg Trough to measure it and snap a photo before returning it to the lake; it was 10.25 inches, barely over the minimum to qualify for the tournament. 

I was finally on the board—but where would this leave me at the end of the day? 

Eight hours after we had all started fishing, we trudged back to our meeting spot, where Premachandran and his crew would announce the top three anglers. It had been, we all agreed, a rough day.

Premachandran announced the winner, based on the combined length of their top five fish—it was George Huertas, with a catch of 71.25 inches, almost 10 more than the runner-up. 

I caught up with the winner after his victory. “I want to thank everybody. I went up against great anglers. I mean, it's a tough place to fish. It's not easy for me to catch 11, 12 bass. I was totally surprised, you know?” Huertas told me, displaying the modesty of a true expert. A Brooklyn native, the 50-year-old has been fishing since he was six, and often spends his weekends catching bass at Prospect Park Lake. (“I’ve fished out a bike, I’ve fished out a cart. It's insane,” he told me of the lake.)

What was the key to his success today, I asked? It was a Texas-rigged Strike King Rage Twin Tail Menace grub, its double-tail providing just enough action on a hot day, bombed out toward the reeds on the far shore. “They love it on the drop,” Huerta noted. 

Huertas went home to celebrate his victory, and I anxiously checked the tournament app. Success is relative—I wasn’t last.

The top anglers from 2022's Battle on the Banks. (Hell Gate)
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