The idea of fishing might bring to mind tranquil mornings in a cove or being wader-deep in a cold, rushing river, but as much as fishing is rooted in an appreciation of nature, it’s also big business. According to the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), recreational fishing would rank 51st on the Fortune 500 list if it were a corporation. A significant economic generator, sportfishing is an indispensable tradition across America as well as a driving force in many local economies.
Fishing is one sport that can be as inexpensive and simple as a rod and reel in a creek or as expensive as offshore dream boats that can reach the millions. For that reason, trends in sportfishing popularity can often follow economic transitions as well.
“In the last few years, we’ve seen a continual increase in saltwater flats fishing. Kayak fishing is a hot trend,” says Rob Southwick, president, Southwick Associates, a market research and economics firm specializing in the hunting, shooting, sportfishing, and outdoor recreation markets. “Especially when the economy went down, people wanted to get back to the basics, and kayaks were a way to do that.”
As the economy has rebounded, though, says Southwick, the saltwater fishing market has seen a lot of growth, and salmon fishing has also picked up as well. Bass fishing, one of America’s most popular types of sportfishing, still holds its place at the top.
For destinations that would like to highlight their fishing promise, tournaments provide an excellent showcase strategy, but with one caveat: a well-run tournament is the only way.
“Tournaments are good because they raise awareness among anglers about the recreational fishing possibilities,” says Southwick. “But you want to make sure the event is managed and promoted well so that it doesn’t get in the way of recreational potential.”
Tradition Breeds Excellence
One surefire way to create a well-run fishing tournament is to model it after one of the largest tournaments in America. You’ll find several of them in Ocean City, Maryland.
“We’ve long been known for our saltwater fishing, deep sea fishing in particular,” says Donna Abbott, director of tourism and marketing, Town of Ocean City. “Partly it’s because of our location, but also because this town started as a small fishing village. We have that tradition and have been seeing it grow in popularity.”
The White Marlin Open, billed as the “world’s largest billfish tournament,” also has a distinguished history. The event celebrates 43 years this August, and its 42nd event welcomed more than 300 boats and awarded over $3 million in prizes.
“We have several classic tournaments that grow every year,” says Abbot. “The White Marlin Open is one of them. It’s a very competitive event, and a lot of money is on the line for the biggest white marlin and other fish as well.”
The White Marlin Open has a unique setup, too, allowing anglers to go out three of the tournament’s five days, adding the element of skill and knowledge for the captains. In 2015, a woman took first prize for the first time, winning more than $1 million for a 94-pound marlin.
The Fishing Never Stops
Weather is a factor in many sports, but in fishing, it can truly make or break a fishing event, having an impact not only on the participants but also the potential catch. In these two destinations, however, fishing-friendly conditions unite with remarkable natural resources to deliver reliably excellent year-round fishing.
Lake County, California, has more than a few attributes that recommend it to the thousands of anglers and plentiful tournaments that visit it each year. First there’s Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California, a 43,000-acre lake ranked number two in North America for bass fishing by Bassmaster, which promises more fish per square acre than any other lake in the country.
“Many major tournaments take place on Clear Lake here, 30 or 40 are certified by the Department of Fish and Wildlife each year,” says Terry Knight, local journalist who specializes in outdoor recreation. “Tournaments hosted by organizations like Bassmaster and FLW draw people from all the way back on the East Coast.”
Florida conjures images of deep-sea fishing and long ocean horizons, but it’s also a home to some of America’s best year-round bass fishing. Kissimmee’s Chain of Lakes, which includes the 19,000-acre Lake Tohopekaliga, has welcomed 22 Bassmaster tournaments in the last 40 years, including the 1977 and 2006 Bassmaster Classics.
“At the end of January, the Bass Pro Shops Southern Open visited, bringing 200 boats and people from all over the country and as far away as Japan,” says Terry Segraves, a professional angler who has represented the destination of Kissimmee for 16 years. “Bass is the premier fish in the area, and Kissimmee was ranked by Bassmaster as the 16 th top fishery in the nation.”
Crappie tournaments are also cropping up in Kissimmee, and the area is seeing a resurgence in the sport as a whole.
“The sport has picked up a lot, and we’re seeing a lot of young people come in and get more active,” says Segraves. “It used to be you couldn’t get together 80 boats for a tournament, and all that’s changed. The Bass Fishing League tournament the first week of March brought in 174 boats.”
Alaska has a clear reputation for adventure, and the fishing it offers is no different. Seward, Alaska, offers some of North America’s best salmon fishing in its May to September season and world-class rockfish and halibut fishing from April to October. But the fishing world really takes notice of this small Alaska town each June when the Seward Halibut Tournament, which pays $5,000 for the heaviest catch, hits the waters. And that’s saying something: last year’s first place winner came in at 291.2 pounds.
The area is perhaps best known for salmon fishing, and anglers flock to Seward for the Silver Salmon Derby, each August.
“Imagine you’re going to a football game or concert, and you see the traffic line up. The Silver Salmon Derby does that here. It’s a 69-year-old event, one of the more famous and oldest,” says GeNeil Flaherty, events, Seward Chamber of Commerce. “Over 5,000 people come to the Derby.” Anglers go seeking largest Silver (Coho) Salmon, worth $10,000.00, as well as other tagged fish for big prize money.
If you’re looking for an angling tournament that’s even a bit more audacious, the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC) might have the event for you.
“NAIFC has been around nine years, and we’ve been getting more people involved every year,” says Jack Baker, president, NAIFC.
The species fished changes depending on location—rainbow trout in West Yellowstone and crappie in Minnesota, for example—and events typically draw 60 to 150 two-person teams.
“When looking for a host, we look for a community that likes fishing and is geared toward fishermen because our competitors can tell,” says Baker.
Central Fishing Sweet Spots
Capital City/Lake Murray Country, South Carolina, is a fishing haven with 650 miles of shoreline and three rivers, inviting anglers to pursue its healthy populations of largemouth, smallmouth, striped and hybrid bass, catfish, trout and crappie. Its many tournaments also give anglers a peek into the Lake Murray fishing experience.
“Every fall we have the Oakley Bass Tour, which is very unique,” says Miriam Atria, president and CEO, Capital City/Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board. “The largest bass on the hour wins, so you don’t necessarily have to be a professional. Everyday fishermen who love the sport can go out to Dreher Island State Park and have a chance of winning on the hour.”
Another fishing favorite, The Forest Wood Cup, which delivered a $25.7 million economic impact, was both a showcase of the sport’s talent and a community festival. “It was an event within an event within an event—outdoor show, BBQ festival, fishing demo, tournament and a youth fishing tournament,” says Atria. “Participants came from 40 states, and it promoted fishing to the youth, which keeps the future of fishing going.”
Speaking of fishing’s future, Capital City/Lake Murray Country is also home to the 2015 FLW College Fishing National Championships, the pinnacle event in a relatively new branch of the sport.
“[College fishing is] in our eighth season, and it’s definitely bigger and better than it’s ever been before,” says Kevin Hunt, director of tournament operations, college fishing, FLW. “People never realized it would get this far or this big, and it continues to gain recognition. At least every other day I get a phone call from someone trying to start a bass club. There’s still room for growth. ”
College fishing is not just making an impact on the sport. It’s having a positive effect on higher education.
“I can’t tell you how many people who say, ‘I would have finished college or gone to college if they’d had this when I was in school,’” says Hunt.
Williamson, Illinois, offers another centrally located fishing haven, with its 7,000-acre Crab Orchard Lake; 2,300-acre Lake of Egypt; and 30-acre Arrowhead Lake among others. The area’s waters offer an abundance of largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, channel catfish and other popular species, but of particular note is the extended crappie fishing season. Crappie USA is a big fan of the early March crappie spawning on Lake of Egypt, where it holds the first of its four Crappie USA Super Tournaments.
Prime Park Angling
Leesylvania State Park, a 500-acre preserve in Virginia right on the banks of the Potomac, offers some of the best bass fishing in the East, a reputation solidified by the many tournaments that call it home each year.
“The CVB was involved with two huge fishing tournaments last season at Leesylvania State Park, which is an ideal fishing tournament location, boasting an expansive marina perfect for anglers to put their boats in, along with tons of parking,” says Nicole Warner, marketing & communications specialist, Discover Prince William & Manassas. “Park officials handle all of the permitting and booking for the tournaments held on site. They’ve already booked 55 tournaments for this upcoming season and are still booking.”
In Erie, Pennsylvania, another state park is making a splash in the fishing world.
“Four million people are attracted each year to Presque Isle State Park,” says Mark Jeanneret, events director, Erie Sports Commission. “That’s more than Yellowstone.”
Presque Isle State Park hosts at least one, but often several, large fishing tournaments each year, including the Fishers of Men National Tournament Trail and The Bass Federation Mid-Atlantic Divisional Championships, both of which were held in Erie in 2015. And tournament directors agree on why they like it.
“We hear a lot from the fishing community that the Presque Isle Bay is a favorite because it’s protected,” says Jeanneret. “If the lake is too rough, they can fish the bay instead, so they almost know with certainty that they can run their event without worrying about weather.”
The Future of Fishing
Many events take things like facilities, hotels and attractions into consideration, but fishing events have to consider another angle altogether: the fish. For that reason, finding a destination with a great fishery is key to planning a successful event. Access is another important issue, one that the ASA is always working to protect.
“As an industry, we want to remove barriers for anglers to get out and enjoy nature and the experience, whether those barriers are cost or access,” says Mike Leonard, ocean resource policy director, ASA, “We want to make it as easy as possible because, if it’s too hard, they might just decide to go golfing or bowling.”