Inside Events: Crappie USA | Sports Destination Management

Inside Events: Crappie USA

Nov 27, 2019 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Darrell Van Vactor, Operations Manager

Crappie USA was organized to establish and expand a family-oriented, cost effective and competitive arena for amateur and semi-pro crappie anglers as the foundation to promote and market products and services. It is the first and largest crappie tournament organization in the world, and is the founder of the American Crappie Association, the first and largest association of crappie anglers.

In 2020, the organization, will conduct 26 tournaments (up from 17 in 2019) in multiple states. The tournament sites are primarily in the eastern half of the United States where teams may earn the right to compete in the "Super Bowl of Crappie Fishing", The Crappie USA Classic held in September or October each year.

All images courtesy of Crappie USA

Crappie USA averages 5,000 anglers annually. Additionally, the organization has a member publication, the Outdoor Journal Magazine, has affiliated local crappie clubs and has established the Crappie Kid's Fishing Rodeos, free events for youngsters 12 and under, conducted at every tournament site. Fishing rodeos offer prizes to each youngster attending and all participants become eligible to win one of six $1000 scholarships given away annually. To date, Crappie USA has given out over $342,000 in scholarship funds.

Worth noting: Crappie/panfish anglers are identified by the latest National Survey of Fishing by the Federal Fish and Wildlife agency as the largest freshwater fishing segment in America - 14.2 million. Representing 25 percent of the total freshwater market, these anglers spend an average of 27 days annually in pursuit of their favorite specie versus the next closest species at 15 days. Prior to Crappie U5A, this market did not have any national promotional efforts to drive sales of its products and services.

Sports Destination Management: Crappie USA has been around a long time.

Darrell Van Vactor: Yes – it was formed in 1996, so that’s 23 years now. We’re the first, largest and oldest tournament group that targets crappie in the nation.

SDM: What do you think distinguishes your events from other fishing tournaments – outside of the species?

Van Vactor: We’re a very family-oriented company. Our tournaments offer bonuses for family teams, husband and wife teams and so forth. The way we look at it, we’re here for friendly competition and we offer a fairly level playing field. Very few people are making their living from tournament fishing. You can also look at our tournaments as a learning experience. For example, if you went out by yourself in your boat and you didn’t bring in anything, you’d probably tell yourself the fish just weren’t biting that day. But if you’re in a tournament and everyone is bringing in fish except you, you start asking yourself, “What are they doing that I’m not doing?” You ask them what they’re fishing with and you learn something.

SDM: Your tournaments are growing in number. Do you tend to go back to the same places?

Van Vactor: About 70 percent of the time, we go back to the same places, but we do like to move a few of our events around during the year. We have about 25 companies that are national sponsors and we add new water to try to give them more exposure. If you go online, you can see our tournament schedule for 2020; we’re already working on 2021 and even some events in 2022.

SDM: You’re hosting 26 events in 2020, which is an increase over 2019, when you hosted 17. What is the economic impact like for those?

Van Vactor: Our championship event, The Crappie USA Classic, which is held in the fall, never has less than a one-million-dollar economic impact for the hosting community and brings in 350 to 400 anglers. For our other tournaments, there’s about a $100,000 impact for one-day events, and $250,000 to $300,000 for two-day events.

SDM: What are you looking for in a host community?

Van Vactor: Obviously, we need a body of water with a viable population of fish. We need boat ramps, hotels and restaurants, and we want to be in an area that is a good environment for family travel since, as I said earlier, we’re very family-oriented. Even if the whole family doesn’t want to fish, we look for things other family members would like to do – shopping or other attractions.

When it comes to hotels and motels, we try to be sensitive to the places our anglers would be interested in staying in. We like to use what we call “down and out” motels, meaning they all offer ground floor rooms with a door leading right out to the parking lot. Those are really popular with anglers because they like to be able to run out to their boats if necessary.

SDM: Anything else?

Van Vactor: The most important thing, the very first thing we do, is contact the people in charge, whether that’s the Department of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife or other authority, and make sure the place we are looking at is one that is safe. One thing we don’t do is limit the amount of time people can spend on the water before the tournament – they can come out and fish on the water, get to know the area – and if they want to catch fish while they’re practicing and have a fish fry, the fish need to be safe.

SDM: Are anglers allowed to keep what they catch?

Van Vactor: Not at the tournament. Our tournaments are strictly catch and release and we make sure the fish are healthy when they go back into the water.

SDM: What is crappie fishing tournament season?

Van Vactor: It’s mostly in the fall and spring. We don’t do much in the dead of winter or during the hot summer months. We start in January, but in places like Florida, where the water isn’t too cold. By February, we’re moving into the Carolinas. We try to move the tournament with the fishing season. Once the water gets to around 60 degrees, the fish are active and spawning, so that’s when the season really starts.

SDM: Kayak fishing is one of the growing disciplines. Do you see anglers in kayaks?

Van Vactor: No, all our anglers are fishing from boats. We sampled the kayak market a few years ago but it didn’t really work, given our season. Kayakers aren’t eager to get out on cold water and as I said earlier, crappies are good at 60 degrees. We would have loved to have developed a circuit for C-P-R (catch, photograph, release) for crappie from kayaks but it just wasn’t working for us.

SDM: Your website notes that it’s mostly an East Coast phenomenon.

Van Vactor: Our anglers are from about 24 states, mostly East of the Mississippi. We do host tournaments in some other states, such as Texas and Missouri, but for the most part, it’s an Eastern species of fish and that’s where the anglers come from.

SDM: If people want to talk about hosting one of Crappie USA’s events, who should they contact?

Van Vactor: They can reach out to me; my contact information is on the website.

SDM: You have stated that Crappie USA has a family-heavy component. Do you have youth activities?

Van Vactor: One of the things we like to do is host fishing rodeos for children at every tournament site. We give prizes to everyone and enter everyone into our scholarship drawing. Usually, we’ll bring kids in from the local community schools but sometimes, we’ll bus them in from other areas. It’s nice to watch them hook their first fish and get excited about it. I think it’s a great thing for kids to be involved in – you get them away from the video games and you teach them they can have more fun than they can if they’re getting into trouble. Any way we can get kids on the right path, it’s good for us.

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