Tournament fishing hits the big time

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Luring a fan base: Tournament fishing has hooked interest nationwide.

Dennis Sherer, Florence, AL Times Daily

February 17, 2002

Fans cheer for the favorites on the weekend, and if they can't be there in person, they just turn on the television to watch.

Participants help pay for expensive equipment by wearing logos of corporate giants like Pepsi, Kellogg's and M&M Mars or by plastering them on their vehicles.

And they can win more money in a week than most people earn in 30 years.

However, this isn't NASCAR. It's professional bass fishing.

The five bass Larry Nixon caught Saturday to win the Wal-Mart FLW Tour fishing tournament on Wheeler Lake were worth more than $20,000 apiece. The Bee Branch, Ark., angler earned $110,000.

The payday made the 27 pounds, 15 ounces of bass Nixon caught in the preliminary rounds and the 16 pounds, 9 ounces he caught in Saturday's final round worth almost $2,500 per pound.

"That's not a bad payday. Not bad at all," Nixon said.

Nixon, 50, said it was a far cry from the paydays when he became a professional angler 26 years ago.

"When I first started, first place was a fully rigged Ranger boat that was worth about $10,000," he said. "That's all we got. There wasn't any cash for winning first place back then. It wasn't anything like it is today."

Later this month, an angler could take home as much as $1 million for winning the FLW Tour's Ranger M-1 Millennium bass tournament in Mobile.

"Whoever wins that tournament will have their life changed forever," said Irwin Jacobs, chairman of FLW Outdoors.

At the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society's Bass Masters Classic in Birmingham this summer, the winner will earn $200,000.

Not a bad living for people who would have gone fishin' anyway.

FLW Outdoors and B.A.S.S. are rival organizations.

Some pro anglers compete in both organizations' events, but others compete on only one tour.



Weighing in

B.A.S.S. anglers like Tim Horton of Muscle Shoals, who rarely competes in FLW events, say Jacobs' ability to lure sponsors that are not directly connected with fishing has helped spark the popularity in bass fishing.

At last week's tournament, weigh-ins for the final two days of competition took place at Wal-Mart Supercenter in Florence. Many people who had never been to a bass tournament before stopped by to see what all of the hoopla was about.

Many of the tournament sponsors passed out free tape measures, recipe books, photographs, food samples and Styrofoam rabbit ears at a Family Fun Zone that was part of the weigh-in festivities.

Anissa Mixon of Russellville was driving past Wal-Mart when she saw the large blue and yellow tent surround by a huge crowd and decided to stop and check it out.

"We just happened to see it and decided to stop by. This is really great," Mixon said as her 4-year-old-son, Denver, waved frantically at Chester the Cheetah, who was posing for pictures at the Cheetos booth.

It was the Mixons' first visit to a bass tournament.

Jacobs said he is hopeful some of the first-timers will get hooked on fishing and help the recreational fishing industry grow.

But promoting fishing was not the sole purpose of having the weigh-in at the department store. Many sponsors of the Wal-Mart FLW Tour had booths set up around the tent, where they passed out samples of their products.

Sherry Hughes of Russellville said the free gifts the sponsors were passing out and the games for children at the Family Fun Zone were neat. It was Hughes' first visit to a bass tournament.

Jacobs said a giant tent at Wal-Mart is the perfect place for companies to promote their products to fishing fans and other customers. He foresees more corporate sponsorship of tournaments and growth in the bass fishing industry.

When Texas angler Gary Klein began competing in professional bass tournaments in 1978, anglers were lucky to win enough money to cover their expenses.

"When I started out, tournaments were paying $10,000 to win," Klein said. "Now, almost every tournament pays at least $100,000, and we've got some that pay $200,000 or $250,000 for first place."



Moving on up

Ray Gresham of Florence, who competed in some of the first national bass tournaments, said tournament purses have come a long way since the early days.

Gresham said when B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott began organizing the nation's first major bass tournaments in the late 1960s, he would tell competitors there would be a lot of people making a living catching fish someday.

Today, even Scott is a bit surprised with the growth of bass tournaments.

"I'm the man who started this train wreck, but I have to admit I really didn't know exactly how big it was going to get," Scott said. "I knew it was going to be big, but I was not sure of the height and breadth of it."

B.A.S.S., which is based in Montgomery, is now a subsidiary of sports broadcasting giant ESPN.

When ESPN purchased the fishing organization last April, tour officials applauded the deal, saying it will help fishing attract more major sponsors and pay even larger purses.

But early anglers in the B.A.S.S. tournaments found it hard to believe they might actually be able to use their fishing skills to support a family, Gresham said.

"If we made enough money to pay for our gas back home, we were lucky," he said. "I went to a tournament out in Arkansas in 1968 and finished in 20th place. But they didn't pay that far down in the field. I also had the big fish for one day, but all I got for it was a plaque."

Today, anglers who finish 20th in a B.A.S.S. pro division tournament earn $4,000. Catching the biggest fish of the day is worth $1,000. The tournaments award prizes through 50th place, which gets the angler $1,400.

In Wal-Mart FLW tournaments, the 20th-place angler receives $5,000 and big fish of the day will net $750. Prizes are paid through 75th place, which is $1,800.



The fishing Viking

Klein credits Jacobs' entry into national bass tournaments in 1996 for helping fuel the growth of the sport.

When Jacobs, a Minneapolis investor and a former owner of the Minnesota Vikings, bought what was then known as Operation Bass, he set out to find new sponsors for the Gilbertsville, Ky.-based organization's tournaments.

One of his first targets was Wal-Mart. Jacobs landed the retail giant as a sponsor in 1997.

Anglers on the FLW Tour soon began earning more money than most dreamed possible.

The entry of Wal-Mart into tournament fishing opened the door for other major corporations to sponsor anglers or major tournaments.

In Wal-Mart's inaugural season as a sponsor, the FLW Tour featured 14 sponsors with a total purse of $863,750 over seven events. This year, the tour has 32 sponsors and a purse of $5.1 million for its seven tournaments.

The tournament season begins in January and runs through fall.

Sites of the tournaments change every year but normally stretch from the Deep South all the way to the Great Lakes

Instead of having sponsors that just sell bait, boats or beer, anglers are now able to land sponsorships from companies like Land O' Lakes, Frito-Lay, U.S. Bank and Alpo Pet Foods.

However, the quest for the big money and sponsors doesn't come cheap.

Klein said most professional anglers have more than $100,000 worth of fishing equipment, including their boat and tow vehicle.

Entry fees and other expenses related to competing in the 20 tournaments many pro anglers participate in annually cost another $25,000-$35,000, he said.

The bigger purses have helped attract new anglers to the sport.

Once a sport mainly dominated by white men, tournament fishing is beginning to attract increasing numbers of women and anglers of color.

Jacobs said attracting new anglers was one of his goals when he began looking for ways to lure new tournament sponsors and increase payouts.



Corporate world

Even with the bigger purses, anglers must have help from sponsors to pay their way.

"It has become so expensive to compete in these tournaments that it's hard to make it more than a year on the tours on your own.

"You have got to have the sponsors," Arkansas angler George Cochran said.

Anglers who cannot land sponsors supplement their income by working other jobs when they are not fishing.

Cochran estimates that 60 percent of the pro anglers on the major bass fishing circuit work as fishing guides or have another job to help pay the bills as they wait for sponsors to take them under their wing. And if they do land a sponsor, the extra work is far from over.

The sponsorship deals require anglers to do more than wear a patch on their shirt to promote the company.

Cochran said almost every weekend that he's not competing in a tournament, he is traveling around the country to boat or outdoors shows promoting one of his sponsors' products.

Horton said most pro anglers travel more than 60,000 miles a year competing in tournaments or attending product shows.

Cochran, a full-time angler since 1987, said making a living fishing is not as easy as it might sound. He previously worked as a brakeman-conductor on the Union Pacific Railroad to supplement his fishing.

"I'm working twice as hard now as I worked when I was on the railroad, but I love every minute of it," he said. "It's a great way to make a living."

For anglers who don't want the grind of traveling back and forth across the country for an opportunity to win huge paydays, there are numerous fishing trails for amateur and weekend anglers.

Both FLW Outdoors and B.A.S.S. operate tours for nonprofessional anglers. Many other organizations also have tournaments for casual anglers.

In the Shoals, local tournaments are conducted on almost a daily basis during the summer months.



Economic impact

The anglers are not alone when it comes to reaping the benefits of the increased popularity of bass fishing.

Debbie Wilson, director of Florence-Lauderdale Tourism, said having major fishing tournaments has proved to be a boon to the local economy.

She said last week's tournament will pump more than $1.5 million into the Shoals as the money spent by the 350 anglers from 30 states works its way through the economy.

"We had a reporter from London and fishing magazines from Japan covering the FLW Tournament in addition to the television, newspaper and magazine coverage we received all over the United States," she said. "There is no way we could afford to buy the amount of advertising we received from just that one tournament."

The final weigh-in was televised live on PAX-TV.

After every major tournament, Wilson said the tourism office is flooded with calls from recreational anglers around the country who saw a story about the event or watched the weigh-in on television. They want to catch fish in the Shoals.

Tim Haney, superintendent of Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville, said the number of visitors picked up after a B.A.S.S. Top 150 tournament was held there last March.

"We have people call us all the time who had never heard of Rogersville, Ala., before they saw the park on 'The Bass Masters' television show or read about in a fishing magazine," Haney said. "They want to come here to go fishing."

He expects a similar response from the Wal-Mart FLW tournament.

Wilson attributes much of the 27 percent growth in lodging tax collections last year in Lauderdale County to fishing.



Stirring the waters

Fishing guide Steve Hacker of Florence said the popularity of Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick lakes has increased dramatically during recent years.

Hacker said the exposure the Shoals receives by playing host to major tournaments has helped make the local lakes popular fishing destinations.

"There's no question there's a connection between the tournaments and the people who want to come here to go fishing," Hacker said. "Just the growth in the popularity of bass fishing in general is helping. Bass fishing is already big, and it's getting bigger every day with no signs of slowing down."

Hacker said there is no evidence the tournaments harm the local fishery.

The bass caught in the tournaments are released after being weighed.

Hacker said his clients are catching more large smallmouth bass now than they have in years despite in the increasing number of fishing tournaments on local lakes.

While the growth of popularity in bass tournaments has often been compared to NASCAR racing, Jacobs said bass fishing has the potential to develop a fan base larger than auto racing.

"Fishing is something anybody can participate in even if they do not compete in tournaments," he said. "Not everyone can get in a car and drive 200 mph like a NASCAR driver. But everyone can go fishing."

Dennis Sherer can be reached at 740-5746 or dennis.sherer@-timesdaily.com.
 
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