Inside Events: King Kat Tournament Trail
28 Feb, 2020By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Darrell Van Vactor, Operations Manager
The King Kat Tournament Trail is one of the most well-known competitive catfish angling tournaments in the U.S., with tournaments nearly all year long (with the exception of November, December and January) in various states across the country. Tournament sites are located in different markets to help organizers promote its sponsors’ products in various regions and to allow local anglers in those regions the opportunity to compete in the Super Bowl of Cat Fishing, The King Kat Classic held in October of each year.
The tournament trail is able to point to the continued growth of its Classic purse. From $25,000 in 2003, to over $50,000.00 in 2005 and breaking the $70,000.00 mark in 2009, the classic payback has brought accelerated media attention and exposure to the events. Additionally, the Classic is filmed by at least two TV crews each year, (Visual Films with Don Sweet and Southern Outdoors with Eddie Reese). The organization even has its own online store with branded merchandise.
Additionally, the event holds King Kat Kids Fishing Rodeos in conjunction with all tournaments to encourage America’s youth to actively participate in the preservation of lakes, the sport of fishing, and the pursuit of their educational goals. It also teaches important lessons about catch-and-release, and about taking care of fish in order to have live weigh-ins.
Sports Destination Management: The King Kat Tournament Trail is really well established. How old is it?
Darrell Van Vactor: We started in 2003 and we’ve been growing since then.
SDM: What is the participation like?
Van Vactor: We have an average of 110 anglers per event and we run somewhere between 20-22 tournaments per year.
Editor’s note: A full calendar of King Kat’s 2020 events can be found here.
SDM: How does King Kat decide upon tournament sites?
Van Vactor: We first look at the viability of the population of catfish in a specific body of water. Then, we contact the powers there, such as the Department of Natural Resources, and let them know we are looking at the possibility of bringing an event to that area. At that point, they might give us their guidelines for events – but they might also tell us the population is in distress which would not make it a good place to host. In that case, we might decline to continue because we don’t want to put extra pressure on their natural resource.
We also have to look at how we’re going to be perceived when we come into a community. If we bring in our guys and they catch all their big fish, the local anglers might be thinking, “Well, they’re coming in here and catching everything we’ve been fishing for all year.” Our events are strictly live release – we simply won’t weigh a dead fish – so our anglers are super-good at taking care of their fish and putting them back in the water. But you definitely need to be aware of that perception. You don’t want to hold a tournament and have people thinking you’re there to hurt their resources. Our tournaments are open to the local anglers, not just the pros and we want everyone to know that. We are very careful about what people think.
We’re also looking at all the things every tournament looks for – boat ramps, motel accommodations in the area, access to restaurants, amenities in the area. There are also some people who will travel in mobile homes, so we look for RV parks near the tournament site.
SDM: Bass fishing obviously enjoys a high profile. What is the participation like in catfish tournaments?
Van Vactor: It’s one of the two markets nationally that are showing an increase. When we look at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife report that is done every five years, we see that from the past three consecutive surveys, angling for catfish has shown an increase of over a million anglers. The panfish market is another market that is showing an increase, by the way.
SDM: What is the economic impact of a catfish tournament?
Van Vactor: For our one-day events, which run Saturday only, we’re taking into consideration the fact that all 45 two-person teams, meaning 90 anglers, will make 1.4 trips to practice in an area prior to the tournament, adding up to $35,984 when you include their meals, hotel stays and so on. When you add that to the tournament weekend as a whole, it comes to $51,850. Now, our main tournament each year is the annual Classic, which is a four-day event, and once you’ve added up the economic impact of practicing, you get $150,546.75.
SDM: What is the fishing season for catfish?
Van Vactor: It runs almost all year long. In fact, our season is underway now and it’ll go all the way up through the end of October. We only take off in July because it’s just too warm and we’ve found the catfish get too stressed by being put in the live well. We pick up back in August, but we move north where the water is a little cooler. Our last regular event of the year, in October, is in Williamsburg, Virginia.
SDM: What can you tell us about the demographics of the catfish angler market?
Van Vactor: It’s interesting. When I designed the tournament trail, I thought I’d see a lot of people who had retired as the main participants. In reality, the average age is a little younger than crappie market. It’s around 36 years old. There are a lot of younger people getting into it for different reasons. The first is that catfish are in everyone’s waters. It may be blue cat or flathead cat or something else but it’s a species that is easy to find. The second is the availability of resources. It’s easy to target what you need to be doing to catch them. And finally, it’s more economical than a lot of tournaments. You can put together a good catfish boat more economically than you can a bass boat, which might be $120,000.
SDM: How much is a catfish rig?
Van Vactor: You could buy a boat with new electronics that would suffice and would cost maybe $5,000. People might want a first-class rig for $18,000 to $20,000 – or even a top-of-the-line new boat would cost $70,000. You’ll still see a lot of people out fishing with older aluminum boats in our tournaments.
SDM: Do you think catfish anglers tend to travel with their families?
Van Vactor: Yes, we do – I see a lot of father/son teams, husband/wife teams, grandfather/grandson teams – there’s definite family involvement. Something else that is interesting is that these anglers are very self-sufficient. Some of them might travel to tournaments in their motor homes – or they might use motels. The bed-and-breakfast concept is very good for them too, and so is renting houses, such as through Airbnb, where a group will all share the costs. I have a 20- to 24-person staff when I come to the Classic, and those people are working on everything from traffic to making sure banquets are going well. I will look for two or three houses in close proximity.
The only problem as I see it is that when you rent houses, there’s nothing going into taxes. We like to support tourism because a community is supporting us. The tourism office might be working to bring the tournament and they’re counting on heads in beds. If you have people who are not staying in hotels or motels – or RV parks or campgrounds – the community isn’t getting that money. It’s not really fair to the tourism community.
SDM: We’ve heard about cheating in fishing tournaments. Do you have any of those problems?
Van Vactor: In all the years I’ve done tournaments, and I run them for Crappie USA as well as King Kat, we have only had three or four times when something has happened. I have a background in law enforcement, so we use a lot of different methods to keep people from doing that. We have teams going from ramp to ramp looking for vehicles that might have a tank inside them holding fish. We look for where these guys are putting in and when. This year, we’re going to be adding a polygrapher who will be at every tournament.
Last October, we had a guy who was fishing in one of our Crappie USA tournaments. We learned that he had put his boat in on an area that was closed for fishing, and we actually got video of him doing that. He was banned for life from all tournaments.
SDM: It doesn’t seem like the risk would be worth it.
Van Vactor: It’s not. But as long as there’s money involved, we have to be really careful. The money takes over for some people, but I am very thankful that our people, at the end of the day, are sportsmen. To them, this is a sport – something they do for fun. It’s sad that you have to take those steps, but you have to consider all the other anglers who have paid their fees to participate, and they’ve fished by the rules. We’re going to make sure we do everything we can to uphold the integrity of our tournaments.
SDM: One thing we’re seeing growing extremely well is the kayak fishing market. Do you see growth at the catfishing level as well?
Van Vactor: No, because the catfish we are targeting are in most places quite large. A lot of our fish have weighed in the 80-pound range and our largest was 103 pounds. It wasn’t really a good fit for fishing from a kayak. It’s a good fit for the bass market and probably some other markets as well, but not here. We have looked at the kayak market seriously and even did a prototype tournament in the crappie market using the catch, photo and release method, but after studying that, what we found, was that in the springtime, when the crappie are really active, the water is really cold. Most anglers don’t want to take the chance of falling in so they weren’t going to participate.
SDM: Eighty pounds! Those are some big fish. There are reality TV shows about people who go fishing for catfish that size with their hands.
Van Vactor: Well, those people are idiots. Our anglers are smarter than that.